In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love ★★★★★

I remember back when this girl and I were still together, she once asked me when I fell in love with her. I told her it was like a house you pass every day on the way to work. One day, you notice a for sale sign on an empty lot. Another day you drive by and you notice they've laid the foundations. Another day, the walls are up, and another day there's a roof, a garage, and finally a family living inside. You don't know exactly when all this happened; you just looked one day and noticed it was there.

I tell you this story because it reminds me of a line from In the Mood for Love -- how Chow says that feelings can just creep up on you out of nowhere. There's no definitive moment, no point in the story where Chow suddenly arrives at the conclusion that he totally, unreservedly loves Mrs. Chan. He just thinks one day and realizes that he does -- that he has for quite some time. Just as I did. Just as all who have loved did.

It’s a simple story, this film. A man and a woman, both married, are neighbors in 1960’s Hong Kong – and when they suspect their respective spouses of having an affair with one another, they strike up a relationship of their own. Sounds like a simple set-up for a romance (the film’s minimalism is undeniable), and for that reason one might be attempted to accuse it of conventionality. Here, however, there are no monologues, no drawn-out confessions delineating how they feel, no ecstatic unions. As with all of Wong Kar-Wai’s work, love – unrequited love – is the name of the game – a love embodied of things never said and an untouchable, unspeakable pain.

This is one of the most powerful, most stirring depictions of love first for its honesty and also for its nuance. The film is only an hour and a half long, but every single second is spent lingering on some subtlety or another. The way he glances back at her as she descends the stairs. The way he looks at her only to look away as she turns to him. The way his hand twitches a sharp, ephemeral moment before reaching for hers. How they oh so subtly stand more slack in one another's presence as time goes on. How she overhears he's hankering for some sesame syrup and makes it for him only to pass the whole thing off as coincidence. The ties, the handbags, the dresses, the constant recurrence of food in a social context. The camera lingers, the dialogue wanders, and yet not a solitary second is wasted in this film. Every frame is so meticulously, marvelously crafted – like a still-life that moves.

And did I mention the colors? Obviously there are the reds with the obvious connotation of passion, but even more fascinating than that are the yellows that appear from time to time. Yellow typically represents coitus in the Chinese tradition, and while we never see sex on the screen, every image is steeped in seduction from the framing to the chromatics to Wong's impeccable taste in music.

And then there's the minimalism that pervades the entire film. The soundtrack is threadbare when compared to something like Chungking Express, but everything right down to Nat King Cole’s incomparable Cubana and the heart-rending strings played at the film's finale is just perfect. The dialogue is scant and typically skirts the issue. Only once or twice is love directly addressed, but always it is there, lingering in the shadows, huddled under some terrace or other as the rains rage beyond.

Oh, we can't forget those camera angles, either. So often we see Chow and Chan and there's a cluttered foreground. Or the camera creeps up on a corner and peeks around. Or part of the frame is obstructed. Or we're looking in a mirror. Or we're peeking through a crack somewhere in some object. Or we're in another booth at the restaurant looking in on them. Always we feel as though we're spying on Chow and Chan. Always we catch these glimpses into their lives of which we might feel a little undeserving.

You may have noticed from the past few paragraphs that I'm gushing over this film -- which I most definitely am. I find it hard to express in words just what about this film is so exquisitely romantic, and even after all this blathering, I still have a hard time pinning it down. Like love itself, it can't completely be explained. You just know it's there, and so you go with it.

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