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Fragments of Romance: In the Mood for Love

“I keep what I can of you; split-second glimpses and snapshots and sounds.”
– The National

In the Mood for Love begins with a title card, a tidy explanation of the drama to come. “It is a restless moment,” the film informs us. “She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.”

It is an odd description of a film narrative, odder still in its inclusion before the film it describes. The words seem to describe a slight, likely inconsequential interaction, a momentary meeting of two bodies in transit. And indeed, attempting to describe the overt drama of In the Mood for Love almost necessarily results in such a dismissive summary, for the film is largely about things that almost happen, futures that might have been. In the Mood for Love is a film of lingering feelings hanging in narrow hallways, of dreams unspoken until their hope of fulfillment has long passed, of words that flash in the eyes but never pass the lips. It is precisely measured in its form, achingly romantic in its substance, and ultimately ephemeral in its passage. It is the essence of love unfulfilled.

The film’s protagonists are Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow – two young professionals moving into adjacent apartments in Hong Kong in the early ‘60s. Each are married, though their spouses are conspicuously absent – an absence we can register visually, as two retreating backs visible briefly at the start, never to return. Over time, anxiety and inference inform our lonely pair that their partners have been unfaithful, have indeed found happiness in each other’s spouses. “I wonder how it began,” Mrs. Chan asks. And so, taking on the guise of their unfaithful partners, they decide to find out together.

As with the film’s own preemptive summary, this description of narrative consequence is a poor way to articulate In the Mood for Love’s effect. For one, it ignores the film’s most prominent character: the lonely alleys and cramped apartments of Hong Kong, the physical space that defines the ambitions and inhibitions of our would-be lovers. As in the thoughtful compositions of Yasujiro Ozu or Hirokazu Kore-eda, the film’s shots are framed such as to provide the full visual context for the lives of its characters. Cameras are set so as to peer through a series of rooms, and mirrors often reveal secrets of corners unreached by the camera’s eye. Through these compositions, we see that the context of our lives is in large part also the substance of our lives – that our environments define us as much as we define them. 

The thin corridors and crowded rooms of Hong Kong are not just indifferent spaces; they mirror the ambitions of our protagonists, echoing their narrow hopes and cowed dreams of rebellion. Even the color design of the film, altered significantly by Wong Kar-wai during a retrospective remaster, feels tired and lived-in. Their world is tinted a faded greenish-yellow that speaks of long habitation, the consequence of colors fading, sun bleaching, dust settling to the point of integration into the very fabric. Youth is bright and colorful; age is a sort of mottled yellow, a shade that promises minor alterations and a certain hope of security.

We learn much about our would-be lovers from the texture of their environment. In Wong Kar-wai’s hands, an incidental trip to acquire noodles can become a lament, a requiem for a dying marriage. He understands that such moments can serve as the crystallization of our feelings – that when we fade into our environment and duties, we might actually be articulating our truest selves. Eating but not tasting a dumpling as you ponder your partner’s lies, their potential unfaithfulness. The texture on your teeth and your tongue, made foreign and unpleasant by your inability to savor its taste. The task becomes a chore, an imposition, a quiet form of self-torture as your mind races through a million thoughts, countless tiny exchanges that have gained new significance in the light of your partner’s treachery. And still this dumpling in your mouth, like cardboard and mush, its flavor as distant as the doubtless life you possessed just a few hours ago.

In this unchanging sepia world, it is easy for our uncertain protagonists to fade into the background; Chan’s dark suit melting into the shadows, Chow’s floral dresses echoing the decor as she declines yet another dinner invitation. Yet at the same time, in a world where bodies have such an intrinsic bond with their environments, there is a natural sensuality in the idea of physical intrusion. Out of loneliness emerges longing – a need expressed through idle gestures and body language, Mrs. Chan fingers’ lingering and stroking a door frame as Mr. Chow seeks a lost newspaper. His lighting of a cigarette, her stirring of a teacup – each tiny movement is pregnant with intent, with unspoken desire. The film’s title is well-chosen; every action of its leads demonstrates a pair who are desperate for intimacy, for someone who is important to them, and who sees them as important in turn. Someone who hangs on their every movement, just as in love and enthralled as the camera itself.

But that longing cannot be voiced, only inferred. Instead, they circle each other cagily, snatching stolen moments of intimacy and luxuriating in their afterglow, reaching towards but rarely picking up the phone. What they want cannot be voiced, and so they disguise it even from themselves. “Let’s try to recreate our partner’s seduction,” “let’s collaborate on this martial arts serial.” Their bond is a soap bubble hanging in the air, beautiful to admire as it lingers, always on the precipice of inexistence. Is it enough? The intimacy of corners and alleys, the luster of a blinking street lamp, the suggestive blush of a television viewed through hanging fabrics – in a world where love has been denied to its leads, In the Mood for Love consistently emphasizes the irrepressible sensuality of common coexistence.

Our would-be lovers take what little they can allow themselves. For the anxious and uncertain, life can often proceed like a performance for which you never learned the lines; in Wong Kar-wai’s hands, that performance becomes both narrative and visual substance. Through play-acting the responses they assume their partners would offer, our protagonists afford themselves room to fail in their attempts at agency, a certain cushion against the prospect of rejection. These performances are scrutinized by an audience of reflections; cameras peer through windows into dressing room mirrors, characters captured in visual fragmentation that echoes the fragmentary nature of their relationships. Life as rehearsal for a premiere that may never come.

In its prioritization of physical spaces, constant self-reflective imagery, and carefree approach to time’s passage, In the Mood for Love neatly mirrors the natural quirks of memory. Our memories care not for narrative continuity; a particular moment’s precursors might be forgotten, but the sensation of that one night you stayed at work late in a fever of personal reinvention remains clear. Charting the course of Mr. Chow’s friend journeying in and out of the hospital is irrelevant; here, such narrative ephemera is no more significant than the particular placement of a lampshade, such that it casts a distinct hue over their shared dining table. Our lives are frequently defined less by events than by spaces; the act of living is the slow marination of time, while love might be measured laterally, as time shared in a quiet room.

Perhaps that is the film’s hope. The courtship of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan does not blossom into love; she declines his offer of escape, he retreats to nurse his wounds, and time carries on. An engagement reducible to a paragraph, but through its extended treatment realized as so much more. The moments they share change both of them, and the memories linger, a collage of fragments that seem all the more vital in retrospect. Our lives are constructed of such treasured moments – should we treat them as any less sacred for not continuing, for not resulting in consummation? In this film’s stately procession of moments, Wong Kar-wai seems to understand that the things we might have done can be as important to us as what was actually realized.

Years down the line, both would-be lovers still hold a candle for the old apartment, and the intimacy shared therein. Perhaps Chow’s friend was right – that it was stupid of him to hide his love in a pocket, to whisper it only into a lonely crevice. But right or not, we cannot help who we are, or what we find precious. Even those who say “maybe next time” to each dinner invitation deserve their love stories, their treasured fragments of intimacy and longing. For those who find clarity, understanding, or beauty in the hushed hopes that unite us, regardless of whether they are fulfilled, In the Mood for Love is something precious indeed.

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

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