Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 film, In the Mood for Love is truly a masterpiece. Merely by appearance alone the film is beautiful. The scenery is magnificently depicted in artistic tones with lush colour and captivating shots. Beyond the mere artistic gorgeousness there is a sort of lyrical quality to the film. The film draws the viewer in and demands them to not only pay attention but, also, to feel. It does this building on a seemingly simple plot.
On paper In the Mood for Love is simply about to couples who happen to move into adjunct rooms in 1960s Hong Kong. Slowly, the wife of one couple (Mrs. Chan played by Maggie Cheung) and the husband of the other (Mr. Chow played by Tony Leung) realise that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. That is, Mrs. Chan’s husband and Mr. Chow’s wife are having an affair with each other. After Su and Chow admit to each other that their spouses are cheating on them, they go about trying to understand how the affair started. Thus Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan construct a relationship in which they attempt to understand their spouses and practice confrontations. They promise to each other that they “won’t be like” their spouses and, yet, they live constantly in fear of the watchful eyes of their gossiping neighbours. A real masterstroke in the filming is that the setting is so self-contained, there are only a few places which the camera comes to again and again. Furthermore, there are few scenes that are not internally framed by objects, giving the viewer a feeling of constantly watching as the characters feel they are constantly being watched.
Another masterstroke of the film is that the viewer never sees the cheating spouses at most they see the back of their heads. Most films about adultery focus on the adulterers, but in In the Mood for Love the viewer doesn’t even see a kiss. The power and the impact of the cheating spouses is felt but never seen. As the film critic Roger Ebert put it, “Their spouses may sin in Singapore, Tokyo or a downtown love hotel, but they will never sin on the screen of this movie, because their adultery is boring and commonplace.” This is the true brilliance of In the Mood for Love it is such a rare film. Over the course of the film the two main characters do fall in love but they never act on it because to act would be to betray their spouses and to damage their social standing, their values, and, most deeply, their constructed fantasies.
Perhaps, that is the message of the film, a fully human and universal message. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have constructed elaborate fantasies to avoid the pain of their spouses’ infidelity, but those self-same fantasies threaten to crush them and let the pain come rushing in. Indeed, in some of the most brilliant scenes in all cinema that pain becomes palpable. At the core of their fantasies lies a deep and dark perversity that seems to be shared by everyone. It is commonplace for people to live in fantasy and avoid pain and yet, often, these fantasies are deeply perverse. If Leung and Cheung were not such supreme actors, this darkness would overcome the film. However, it does not. Indeed, In the Mood for Love, despite being such a painfully raw and emotionally engaging film, is completely unsentimental. It is a film about love and betrayal, but also about missed chances, loneliness, and fantasy. It is a deeply particular but profoundly universal film. Perhaps if the film had been made by someone other than Wong Kar-Wai, it would be absurd and melodramatic, but he has crafted a deeply heart-breaking film.
Roger Ebert’s review: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/in-the-mood-for-love-2001
Peter Walker’s review in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/dec/19/in-the-mood-for-love
The Nerdwriter’s video about the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01E5otZCpqw