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Make it a Blockbuster Night: In the Mood for Love

Alas, Valentine’s Day has passed: Cupid’s quiver awaits next year’s fresh supply of arrows; the roses, once abloom in a hue of delicious rouge, have faded; the chocolates devoured; the cards stashed away…but does this mean that romance has to wait another year to merit any form of celebration? To those in any form of disagreement, you might find that Wong Kar-Wai’s (2000) aptly titled film, In the Mood for Love, provides just the right entertainment over the weekend.

Set in 1962 Hong Kong, this film is an unusual love story between 2 ordinary people. Mrs. Su Li-Zhen Chan (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and Mr. Chow Mo-won (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) meet for the first time on a day when they both happen to seek room and board for themselves and their beloved respective spouses. As the stars would have it, they become neighbors. Courteous and just plain neighborly at first, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow weave past each other, spinning their worlds around their own spouses, until they admit to themselves, one evening, that, yes, their partners are having an affair with each other in a most subtle, yet flagrant, fashion! This yields a quiet, intimate bond between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow in a form that cannot be neatly classified: at times they reach for each other, at other times they show restraint. The quiet, romantic saga unfolds until the point when Mr. Chow leaves for Singapore, not least because of his burgeoning feelings for Mrs. Chan, hurling both characters onto different life paths yet still leaving them somewhat emotionally rooted at this point in what is fast becoming a vanishing past.

There are films we watch simply for the gist – the tale, itself, has enough gravity to justify its cinematic creation. Then there are films in which our understanding of the story stretches beyond this sphere into the very art, the very love, of filmmaking – In the Mood for Love is such a film. Indeed, the success in turning what could have been an ordinary plot into this unique piece hinges on the art of its filmmaking.

Throughout the viewing, you will notice that this is a film of few words; this is not a production in which the characters choke the air, in full thespian glory, with weighty speeches and boisterous flair. The moods, the transitions in relationships, the thoughts, and the revelations are all gently teased out by carefully observing each of the characters who, themselves, are often caught in solitude. Indeed, we are reminded to be observant during a conversation between Mrs. Chan and her boss, Mr. Ho (Lai Chin), when she pointedly states: “You notice things if you pay attention”. Clearly, a picture is worth more than 1000 words.

Right from the start of the film, our attention is arrested by Mrs. Chan’s elegance and poise; surely it is no coincidence that she is the only young woman the viewer is allowed to see in complete form or that she is painted as a vision of grace and color against bland backgrounds, such as when she is seen buying food in the noodle stalls. We are charmed, seduced, drawn to find meaning in the most ordinary of actions of drinking, walking, smoking through the deliberate entrenchment of slow-motion actions in the film. “Why does she look so forlorn?”, “What is he thinking of as he smokes in his secluded corner?” – these are the sort of questions that we find ourselves pondering. This major technique is mixed with others such as scene-slicing and playbacks to illustrate anxiety and worry, such as when Mrs. Chan is seen rushing to Mr. Chow after receiving an urgent phone call, or deliberate camera-swinging for enhanced dramatic effect. One technique that is certainly noticeable is the use of counterfactual scenes at critical points of the romance: the beginning and the end. We are teased with alternative scenarios about how these critical points transpired; we are never quite told exactly what happened…Yes, a picture may be worth more than a thousand words, but what picture are you looking at exactly, eh? With a soundtrack that is mostly Cantonese and Shanghainese, the cello is the major instrument used to create gentle anticipation1. The entire mix is engaging.

This is not only a poignant love story between two people…it is also an enchantingly slow dance between the director and his willing audience. After receiving several awards, including some at the Cannes Film Festival2, it is patently clear that In the Mood for Love is designed to put you in a certain frame of mind.

1Based on information largely from “In The Mood For Love” (2000); DVD
2Based on information found at www.imdb.com

March 7, 2005
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