In the Mood for Love shows a different side of itself each time it is watched. It will likely show its visual side first, as the bodily movements of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung produce some of the most sensual shots in cinema. When you return to the film again, its beauty is not lost on your eyes, but your mind has already acclimated to the syrupy images produced with Hong Kong rain, rich colors and a slow tempo. Such acclimation frees your attention to wrestle with what might be shown next: the meanings of what Leung and Cheung do together. This is the film’s mysterious side. The story has cliched ingredients of a melodrama — getting a hotel room for an extra-martial rendez-vous, deep stares, and accidental touches that are sexually charged — but the film contains no physical consummation of an affair, whether done for love or revenge at being cuckolded by their spouses.
On my latest viewing, In the Mood for Love showed me its minor details, which mirror the major themes in short scenes. Wong Kar Wai’s films contain this type of stylistic repetition and V. F. Perkins would be pleased. By using minor details to reflect major themes, Wong Kar Wai is following the footsteps of directors like Hitchcock and creating a world in the film; small details, like the apartment hallway layout or the steamy humidity of the noodle vendor, are reflections of Leung and Cheung’s intertwined-but-separated relationship.
However, this world in the film is blurry. This is because the major melodramatic themes of In the Mood for Love are, under Wong Kar Wai’s direction, ambiguous at their core. Consequently, the small mirrors of these themes are unable to sharpen our focus and reveal clear reasons for what is going on. Let’s look at two examples.
Ah Ping, the average man
Ping appears in short scenes throughout the film and behaves as the story’s down-on-their-luck tramp. He is a friend of Chow, whom Ping pesters to leave work and to go drink and gamble. His longest dialogue involves him asking to borrow money from Chow, after having a series of misfortunes at the race track. Ping even reveals that he went to a brothel and spent his last two dollars, which theoretically could have been added to Chow’s loan.
Ping is a member of the film’s melodramatic chorus, but such membership is complicated in In the Mood for Love. In a film like All that Heaven Allows, the audience knows where the chorus of characters stand in relation to the taboo relationship of Hudson and Wyman; the prejudiced disapproval from the kids makes it very clear to the audience that the break of the relationship is a tragedy rooted in class prejudice. In In the Mood for Love, Ping is the stand-in for the audience that wants Chow/Leung and Chan/Cheung to be together, but Ping is coarse. Implying that he would have sex with Chan, Ping shares with Chow his trick for seeing Chan in her apartment complex. He also admonishes Chow for being unhappy, which is not the curse of a hedonistic Ping, as he is “the average man”.
Ping’s chorus-like recommendation for Chow to pursue Chan is complicated by Wong Kar Wai’s twist on the themes of taboo and love. Where does Chow stand in relation to Ping, the self-declared “average man”? This cannot be answered by what we see in the film. Wong Kar Wai not only leaves Chow’s behavior open to interpretation, he uses characters like Ping to have us vacillate between thinking that Chow is either a coward or a principled celibate.
A title card at the beginning of the film (shown below) is hinting that we will see Chow behave cowardly before the beauty of Chan. From this angle Ping is justified to urge Chow to rise to become the average man. But is Chow a coward? For stretches of the film, Chow and Chan actually accept their cuckolded fates, and through resolutions to not be like their cheating spouses. In this light, Chow has moral standing above Ping. The former is abstaining on principle, while the latter experiences the false happiness of uncontrolled gratification. Chan, Maggie Cheung’s character, is also oscillating between cowardice and self-control. With visible desperation, she tries to spend a lonely evening with Mrs. Chow, Tony Leung’s wife and the mistress of her husband. But she also battles her cheating husband by never letting her outward appearance betray emotional pain. Chan’s beauty is controlled from head to toe, and the sexual rhythms of her swaying walk is a coded message to her husband, telling him that he will never be better than her.
Charles de Gaulle visits Cambodia, 1966
Leung’s character eventually leaves Hong Kong and works for his newspaper in Singapore. From Singapore, Leung briefly returns to Hong Kong. His visit to his old apartment produces one more missed connection between him and Cheung. A title card suggests that this is the last event in the love/loveless affair of Leung and Cheung. Another title card appears, marking the film’s epilogue: Cambodia, 1966.
Chow has traveled to Cambodia alone and visits Angkor Wat. While walking the grounds of the Buddhist temple, Chow finds a wall with a hollow in it. This hollow, whether destined to be or not, is the place where Chow whispers his secrets. These secrets are inaudible to the audience, but the audience sees a moment later that the hollow has been plugged with mud. The best witness is a monk, who saw the act from the top of a wall.
Shots of Angkor Wat are beautiful images for the end of a beautiful film. What might have been missed is how the Cambodia epilogue began. Following the title card that jumps the story to Cambodia in 1966, Wong Kar Wai plays news footage of Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia in 1966. The Cambodian monarchy, headed by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, gave the French president a lavish welcome with military lines and flag-waving citizens.
Why does Wong Kar Wai begin the end of the film with a brief glimpse at Cambodian foreign relations in 1966? The footage of Charles de Gaulle is one of the smallest details in In the Mood for Love, but it might be as sharp as a splinter of glass. The happy, smiling faces of Charles de Gaulle, Prince Norodom Sihanouk and proud Cambodian citizens are haunted by what the audience knows, but they don’t: Cambodia’s delicate support of North Vietnam will collapse and Cambodia will plunge into civil war. The country’s fate is tragic, but also complicated. Like any sovereign nation, its outward declarations are decisive, similar to when Chow and Chan confidently decree who they will be in this world. But Cambodia, like the rest of the Southeast Asia in the 1960s, is a victim of the actions of others: France, China, the Soviet Union and the United States. Thus, Cambodia might be trying to put on a brave face when Charles de Gaulle visits; behind its countenance is anger at what others have done to it.