In The Mood For Love is Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s award-winning film from 2000 about the relationship that develops between two people whose spouses are having an affair with each other. The film stars Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Wong regular Tony Leung Chiu-wai. Leung won the award for Best Actor at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, where the film itself also took home the Technical Grand Prize.
The year is 1962 and the location is the Shanghainese area of Hong Kong. In an apartment building where people frequently rent out their extra rooms, two couples have just moved in next to each other. Mr. Chow and his wife, as well as Mrs. Chan and her husband. Both are poised, beautiful, well-dressed and lonely. It’s soon revealed that the two discover their spouses are carrying on an affair together. In fact, we never see their spouses, as they’re really not important to the story, beyond how their actions have affected both couples.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan at first simply go about their days at work, and then spend their evenings alone, frequently going to the neighborhood noodle shop for dinner. The two see each other only in passing at first, but eventually begin spending time together, as the only two people they feel can really understand their situation. They confide solely in each other, as their dignity and the social stigma that would come of their situation necessitate hiding it from the outside world. At first they simply want to know how this could happen, and the two begin role-playing the other’s spouse in an attempt to understand how they could have met and let this relationship develop. But over time their own relationship turns into something more, and they fear becoming like their spouses.
Wong Kar-Wai’s films are often populated by lonely people. Whether it’s because of their occupation or their personality, they inhabit settings of solitude where his camera voyeurs them in intimate but quiet moments. Their emotions are just as often conveyed by their silence and still demeanor as they are by actions or conversations. He seems to want you to connect to the characters visually first.
And the visuals for In The Mood For Love draw you in from the beginning. The leads are both a bit reserved in personality, but even in the quiet of their day-to-day life we learn the most important thing about them: they feel lonely and betrayed. They’re both married to spouses who are never there, and in that absence they are left to lead lives of pained resignation. They long and yearn, they dream of both resolution with their spouses and new love with each other. But continually, they don’t act on it, and even the fact that they can confide in each other somehow only makes the pain grow.
There’s a maturity to this film over some of the director’s previous work. It’s a technical maturity with a quiet but focused story and beautifully understated performances from the leads. And the camerawork is some of his most lush to date. But the maturity also extends to the characters. Some of his prior films dealt with younger or single people, where it felt like flirting or trysts were the film’s currency.
Here we have two people who are both a little older, have been married, and understand that love is more complicated and their actions more far-reaching than perhaps they would have understand at a younger station in life. Their attraction for each other is heartbreaking because they’ve decided to strive for it to go unfulfilled, regardless of their current pain.