Cinematic Poetry: In The Mood For Love

In The Mood For Love (2001) continues director Wong Kar-wai’s preoccupation with emotions unexpressed and love gone unconsummated.  Of all of Wong Kar-wai’s feature films, In The Mood For Love best represents the subtle nuance that defines his work, the languid pace, the visual artistry and a passion for pop.  Unlike Chung-King Express (1994), the film that launched Wong Kar-wai to international super stardom, In The Mood For Love is not a narrative tableaux, but strictly a visual one.

In The Mood For Love concerns itself with the lives of two married neighbors, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), whose spouses have begun an affair.  Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan turn to one another to find comfort and understanding, while always remaining platonic.  As gossip grows around them, they break off their friendship.

In summation the narrative gives the impression that not very much goes on in In The Mood For Love, but the richness of Wong Kar-wai’s visual design and structure imbue the film with subtle complications, articulating emotional sensations and experiences for which words are ill equipped.  The title In The Mood For Love is key to understanding the mode in which the film functions; it is a “mood” film.  The purpose of In The Mood For Love is not to explain the romantic complications of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s relationship with a defined moral agenda as in the films of Eric Rohmer or Antonioni, but to emote the that relationship so that it may be explored by the audience without any instruction as to how these emotions are intended to effect the viewer.

Consider Wong Kar-wai’s process of directing in which he writes a script only to rework it time and again with the actors in rehearsals, not unlike the work of John Cassavetes.  As a result of this, both Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung have become the physical manifestations of their fictional characters.  This enables them to improvise on set, and achieve an unprecedented level of naturalism in their behavior while playing the characters.  To further aid the performers ability to naturally inhabit their character’s invented world, the shooting of In The Mood For Love lasted over a year.  Only a portion of what was shot remains in the film; itself having been cut to pinpoint the pivotal moments of the evolution of the relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan.

Likewise, the cinematography of Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee (who replaced Doyle after his departure) is designed to emphasize the minute mannerisms of the characters as well as to keep an objective distance between the film’s narrative and the audience.  Slow moving pans and tracking shots in close-up help embellish the behavior of the performers, enabling almost every shot to emote the sub-textual experience of the characters.  However, a number of sequences are shot from behind windows, through doorframes and corridors.  This distance between the camera and the characters does not convey the traditional aesthetic of cinematic voyeurism, but insists on the private and repressive nature of the emotions invested in the relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan.  This device further aids the audience in remaining detached from the urgency of the narrative so that the priority of the audience is to focus upon the emotions pouring out of the narrative.

The stylistic choices Wong Kar-wai has made for In The Mood For Love is indicative of a poetic style similar to the work of Jean Cocteau.  Like Cocteau, Wong Kar-wai tells his story and communicates his particular cinematic experience through images as opposed to emphasizing the text of the player’s performance.  This tactic gives In The Mood For Love a lyricism akin to poetry.  The idea of poetry being applicable to the cinema is distinctly Cocteau’s; hence it is rarely utilized in films outside of the avant-garde or the Underground.  That Wong Kar-wai can make this device applicable to his narrative work with such fluidity is a testament to his greater understanding of cinematic possibilities.

The degree to which the term “poetry” is applicable to Wong Kar-wai’s other films is often a subject of debate.  In The Mood For Love is lucky in that it is a study in Romantic relationships, a meditation as opposed to being overly burdened with a narrative, which seems to be the case in most of Wong Kar-wai’s other films.  Returning to the comparison to Chung-King Express, In The Mood For Love is not structured around a series of like-minded motifs, but can breath of its own.  The difficulty in creating a poetic experience in film while utilizing a narrative that draws upon the motif or vignette structure is a difficult one.  These difficulties are immediately recognizable as the cause for all the pitfalls in Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Beyond The Clouds (1995).  Chung-King Express and Beyond The Clouds each have their moments of remarkable lyricism and narrative brilliance, yet cannot achieve the overall grandeur one finds in In The Mood For Love or Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975).

Wong Kar-wai’s ability to achieve the visual and emotional potency of In The Mood For Love is precisely why he has become to widely imitate as a filmmaker.  His sparring use of slow motion in long takes is at the crux of the emotional vitality achieved in Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007).  Comparing those sequences where Tony Leung looks pensively through his window into the Hong Kong night with the images of Jason Schwartzman pining for Natalie Portman and there is little difference.  In the broader context of each specific film the reason why these kinds of shots are less effective in The Darjeeling Limited is because the overall film is not concerned with conveying the emotions of its characters to its audience, it prefers to intellectualize these inarticulate emotions away in narrative driven scenes.  In this respect, In The Mood For Love is the anti-thesis to The Darjeeling Limited.  However, this comparison can only take us so far because it is not Anderson’s intention that his audience should engage his characters on an emotional level, otherwise his film would cease to be a comedy.  His intention as a director must therefore be to add a degree of legitimacy to his characters so that their plight is taken more seriously by his audience, and in turn, heighten the comedy of the film.

What The Darjeeling Limited helps us understand is the nature of adopting different cinematic techniques into the vernacular of mainstream American Filmmaking.  By doing this, it becomes easier to understand why Wong Kar-wai’s film My Blueberry Nights (2007) is so indistinct, and appears to purposefully negate the stylization of In The Mood For Love and its follow up, 2046 (2004).  The dialect of the American cinema today is not designed to readily accommodate either Wong Kar-wai’s directing style nor the style that his films adhere to.  Another issue is simply the language difference between the Chinese and the Americans.  Whether it be Cantonese or Mandarin, neither fits the English model of speaking, thus interfering with the pacing of Wong Kar-wai’s film from the outset.  In the end, My Blueberry Nights feels less like the product of Wong Kar-wai and more like the product of some American imitator.

In conclusion, it seems safe to assume that In The Mood For Love is a singular achievement in the filmography of Wong Kar-wai.  Even its follow-up and pseudo sequel 2046 eludes the nuance and “poetry” of In The Mood For Love.  Yet, one cannot single out In The Mood For Love as being a singular anomaly within a director’s filmography spanning his entire career.  Wong Kar-wai may yet produce an even more breathtaking film in a completely different style.  Lets let In The Mood For Love simply be the high water mark for a chapter in a distinguished director’s long and fruitful career.

-Robert Curry

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