Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Starring Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, Rebecca Pan
The smallest things are beautiful in In the Mood for Love. The smoke from the cigarettes Chow (Leung) enjoys don’t billow so much as luxuriate in midair, and in a movie which largely eschews blues, the robin’s egg color of Su’s (Cheung) typewriter stands out with some strength in an office of dimmed yellows and sea greens. Then there are things which are both beautiful and important to our understanding of the plot. Su wears something like two dozen different dresses, each one a cheongsam very much the same in design as the others – high collar, short sleeves , cutting off around the knees – but very different in appearance. Many of them have a flower motif, but the type, color, and arrangement of them is never the same: many red flowers like watercolors on a light blue background, a few blue ones on cream aligned single-file toward her throat, a pale gray background with a giant orange lily above her breasts. Others are more geometric in nature, playing for stripes or repeated S patterns or checks. They make the film intelligible. Wong Kar-wai’s scenes are short, and while some of them fade out (in a slow, top to bottom darkness that reminds me of blinking), sometimes we will have only Su’s dress to rely on to show us that the day itself has changed. Chow wears very similar gray suits, and although he wears a different tie, of course, that would be much harder to track. It also wouldn’t have been fitting; Su’s dresses are, as items of great loveliness, essential to the sumptuousness of the film the way that red curtains and the frequently pouring rain are.
Chow and Su are, first of all, neighbors renting rooms in apartments which don’t belong to them. married to unfaithful spouses, both of whom seem to spend a fair bit of their time traveling. Su’s husband is a businessman who frequently takes trips to Japan; Chow’s wife disappears around the same time that Su’s husband takes what feels like a very long business outing. Whether or not it’s actually any longer than any other trip he takes is up for debate, since the editing in this film makes useless our usual sense of time. (In a perfect touch, we never see the faces of the spouses; their backs are turned or their faces are obscured by some kind of scrim, but we the viewers would not recognize them.) In a scene which seems like it’s taking place not in British Hong Kong in ’62 but in the contemporaneous Soviet Union, Chow and Su talk around one another over a table in a restaurant. Where did you get that handbag? Chow asks. I’d love to get one for my wife. You’d have to ask my husband, Su says politely. He bought it for me abroad. But I’d love to know where you got that tie. It’s a coincidence, but Chow’s wife bought it for him on a trip abroad. Having affirmed one another, they can risk a slight indiscretion in low voices: both of them have already seen their spouse with an identical handbag or tie. Her voice is as low as ever when Su says, “I thought I was the only one who knew.” It’s an exchange which typifies their relationship. They are as subtle as possible, refusing to make the same mistakes their spouses have in imprudently carrying on an affair. What makes In the Mood for Love special is that Chow and Su don’t start spending time together en route to an affair, a scene with a lovenest where Chow would slowly take off his tie and Su would set down her handbag and the two of them would go at it. They spend a lot of time together – much more time, a suspicious amount of time – but they are careful. Chow finds Su in a downpour one night and brings back an umbrella for her to use to get to their apartment building. I can’t use that, she said. Think what people would say if they saw me using your umbrella. (This sounds absurd until you remember that the original pieces of evidence are a handbag and a tie.) On another occasion, Chow and Su are in his room, working on a martial arts novel together, when the people he’s renting from come back unexpectedly. Chow calls out of work for both of them (and comes up with a ready lie for Su if her boss should ask why her husband, away on business, is calling in sick for her) and they stay in his room until the Koos leave again. What they have between them is mild and delicate, like one of those days where you go outside and the air around you is indistinguishable from your skin; turn too quickly, or feel a gust of wind, or raise the temperature half a degree, and the feeling is broken and irreparable.
Throughout the movie, signs of excess surround Chow and Su. There is, first and foremost, their spouses’ adultery. Chow has a friend at work, Ping (Siu Ping Lam), who borrows money from him to pay a gambling debt. He has a whore who he sees enough that he can pay on credit. (You can pay for those on credit? Chow asks, as close to amazed as anyone gets in this film.) Su, as a secretary, has the tacit duty of making sure that her boss’ wife and her boss’ mistress are both taken care of and scheduled appropriately. Even tiny details bestow a type of monkishness on our principals. Mrs. Suen (Pan) hosts loud, frequent, all-night mahjongg games; Su is expected, as a woman whose husband is away, to sit on in those often as not. In an early scene, one of Chow’s coworkers tries to get him to bail on work before he’s finished an article. Everyone else around them seems to be able to do what they want whenever they want, without any serious thought given to the consequences of those actions; they’ll just deal with it later. In the circle of their lives, the only ones withholding anything are Chow and Su, who could just as easily be going to hotels and engaging in whatever debauchery suited them. To them the question is largely moral; what high ground will we hold, they ask, if we were to cheat on our cheating spouses? The film slyly asks us to consider what use is the high ground if having such a vantage point only serves to make you ache with desire.
Much of what they do together is a strange roleplay, where he plays her husband and she’ll play his wife. How did it start? Maybe she brushed her hand against his coat jacket, turned, and smiled at him; Su acts this one out. Will he confess his adultery? Answering in one-word sentences, Chow plays the husband who admits he’s been cheating on his wife. (You’re going to have to slap him harder than that to get the effect you want, Chow implies.) It takes a moment to recognize that’s what they’re up to, and the meanings of the roleplaying are long and dense with possibility. Part of it is the comfort of having company once more, someone worth spending time with. Part of it is missing a husband or wife and finding a way to get someone to replace the one you have while keeping the memories of what they did. Despite what Chow thought would happen, he falls in love with Su. Su was always the more cautious one, but we find out over more time that she too has been injudicious in her emotions. It’s also the excuse, albeit one which could hardly carry water, but which would at least have the virtue of being true. They were talking about their cheating spouses. They were trying to figure out what was going on, like detectives on a case of staggering importance. But neither Chow nor Su acknowledge that performing an affair, hypothesizing vaguely about what could have happened, is no way to bring an affair to its end. They are teasing themselves, pleasuring themselves in what they can lie to themselves is a safe refuge because no one is watching them and drawing what would be an obvious conclusion.