In the Mood for Love (2002): Wong Kar-Wai’s Masterpiece, One of the Decade’s Best Films

Wong Kar-wai has made many beautiful, mesmerizing, and lyrical films, but if I have to choose one favorite, it would be In the Mood for Love, which, over the years, has become a cult movie.

In the Mood for Love premiered in competition at the 2000 Cannes Film Fest, where Tony Leung Chiu-wai won the Best Actor kudo, and (Christopher Doyle, Lee Ping-bing, William Chang) the jury’s technical award.

Wong’s most commercially popular film in the U.S., In the Mood for Love was chosen as the 2002 best foreign film by the National Society of Film Critics (of which I am a member).

Wong has said that was influenced by Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” while making this film, and that the Tony Leung character is modeled on Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie.

The whole film is soaked with lyrical melancholy that characterizes Hitchcock’s 1958 film (co-starring Kim Novak, at her most hauntingly beautiful).

It’s hard to recall another film that portrays unrequited love with such delicacy, subtlety, and richness in both mood, tone, and subtext.

The film’s elaborate visual structure and style defy, and go way beyond, words. Indeed, the strongest sequences of “In the Mood for Love” are silent, when the expression of emotion relies on the exchange of looks and gestures.

The film is set in Honk Kong, in 1962, which the music conveys beautifully. There are three songs sung in Spanish by Nat King Cole (“Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” “Te Guiero Dijiste,” “Quizas Quizas Quizas”), and the whole score is gorgeous.

Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung), a journalist, rents a room in an apartment of a building on the same day as Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), a secretary from a shipping company. They are next-door neighbors, and each has a hard-working spouse who often leaves them alone on overtime shift. Initially, despite the presence of a friendly Shanghainese landlady, and mahjong-playing neighbors, Chow and So are mostly alone and isolated. They begin to socialize and gradually a tentative, fragile bond starts to evolve.

Chow and Mrs. Chan confirm their suspicions that their spouses are cheating on them with each other. Chow persuades her to re-enact what they imagine might have happened between their partners, and the line between role-playing and acting out real romance begins to blur.

Chow invites her to help him write a martial arts serial for the papers. As their relationship draws closer, people begin to notice. Meanwhile Chow and Mrs. Chan are convinced that they are no more than friends and will not end up like their spouses. Chow leaves Hong Kong for a job in Singapore. He asks Mrs. Chan to leave with him but she refuses.

The next year, she goes to Singapore and Chow, who is working for a local newspaper. However, she’s unable to speak when he picks up. Later, Chow realizes she has visited his apartment after seeing a lipstick-stained cigarette butt on his ashtray.

Three years later, Mrs. Chan re-visits her old landlady with a young son and requests to rent the entire apartment. When Chow returns for a visit, he finds out his old landlord has emigrated to the Philippines. The new tenant informs him that a woman and her son are living next door. Chow leaves without realizing who’s the woman next door.

The film ends at Siem Reap, Cambodia, where Chow is visiting the Angkor Wat. He whispers a secret into a hole in a wall before covering it with mud so that the secret will be there forever.

In the exquisite cinematography of Chris Doyle, every object and item–handbag, ties, slippers, thermoses of noodles, rotary telephones, handkerchiefs—matters and is dwelled on, often in delirious slow motion. The claustrophobia of their living conditions is shot with elegant, intricate framing, and the minimal movement of characters accentuates a lyrical, dreamlike mood.

Throughout, Wong displays his famous perfectionism and his meticulous attention to detail. Just note Maggie Cheung’s dresses, with their high neck and short sleeves, which come in different colors and fabrics. Or Leung’s slicked back hair, his crisp white dress shirts, colorful ties, polished black shoes.

The movie illustrates vividly the universal need for meaningful human connection, but it does not neglect in showing the pains and obstacles involved due to prohibitive social circumstances and forbidding norms.