In the Mood for Love

Hong Kong/France 2000

Reviewed by Amy Taubin


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Hong Kong, 1962. Shipping-office secretary Mrs Chan rents a room for herself and her husband in landlady Mrs Suen's house. On the day she moves in, journalist Chow Mo-Wan and his wife begin lodging in an adjoining flat owned by Mr Koo. Suspecting their spouses of having an affair, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan go out for a coffee and talk about their partners' infidelity.

After meeting in a local restaurant, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan take a taxi ride home: Mr Chow is dropped off in the pouring rain some way before the house. The next day, he's ill; Mrs Chan makes some sweet syrup for him. Later, Mrs Chan visits Mr Chow in his room and discusses martial-arts comics with him (he plans to write one himself). Mrs Chan stays overnight to avoid being seen leaving his room by Mrs Suen and her tenants who are playing a parlour game outside.

Mr Chow gets a place of his own. Visiting him, Mrs Chan pretends he's her husband and asks him if he has a mistress. After Mrs Suen tells her she's spending too much time with Mr Chow, Mrs Chan declines his invitation to come over. Later, Mr Chow asks Mrs Chan to join him in Singapore where he has a new job. When they meet again, Mrs Chan gets him to promise not to call her.

Singapore, 1963. In his new flat, Mr Chow notices a lipstick stain on a cigarette stub. Mrs Chan is seen some time earlier in the room.

Hong Kong, 1966. Mrs Chan and her young son visit Mrs Suen, who's about to move to the US. Later, Mr Chow returns to his old lodgings and asks about Mr Koo, long gone. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia to cover the visit of General de Gaulle, Mr Chow visits a ruined temple, the Angkor Wat, where he whispers a secret into a hole in the wall.


A year or so before Wong Kar-Wai began shooting In the Mood for Love, he answered a poll in the Village Voice about favourite film endings. Wong listed two: John Ford's The Searchers (1956) and Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclipse (1962). About the second he wrote: "A sequence of empty shots at the end of the film revisits many of the locations seen earlier. Suddenly, one realises this film is not about Monica Vitti or Alain Delon, but about the place they live in." Wong must already have been thinking about In the Mood for Love, in which two of the most charismatic actors in the world - Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung - are nearly upstaged by the wallpaper. But the place - Hong Kong in the early 60s as recreated in 1999, basically in Bangkok - is not so much the star of the film as the indispensable ground of its being.

Like all of Wong's films with the exception perhaps of Ashes of Time, In the Mood for Love has an exceptionally vivid sense of place. But here, what we might also call the landscape or the environment operates differently than in the three films Wong made in the mid 90s - Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together. In those hyperkinetic works, the camera seems to be on a collision course with something that we know is the real world. Hong Kong or Buenos Aires is transformed into a uniquely filmic space in a way that only heightens their immediacy. Despite their eliptical, somewhat non-linear narratives, these are films cast in the present tense.

In the Mood for Love, on the other hand, is a memory piece. And unlike Wong's early film Days of Being Wild, which is also set in the early 60s, its subject is not the past, but rather the memory of the past and the rendering of that memory in film. An intertitle, placed between the main body of the film (the narrative of the extra-marital affair between Mr Chow and Mrs Chan) and the epilogue (in which Mr Chow, having lost track of Mrs Chan's whereabouts, visits Phnom Penh) reads: "That era is over, and everything that belongs to that era no longer exists." In other words, there is no going back to the place that Hong Kong was before the anti-colonial demonstrations of 1966 and no way the particular experience Mr Chow and Mrs Chan had with each other in that place at that time could ever happen again. Not just because the people are older and perhaps less vulnerable, but because the times themselves have changed.

Thus what we see on the screen is less the depiction of an extra-marital affair than of its remains as they are re-envisioned and fetishised in the mind's eye. The images are simultaneously more intimate and more distanced than in Wong's other films. The shots are brief and they often disappear from the screen before we can quite grasp the meaning of what we've seen. The connection between shots or between sequences of shots is eliptical in the extreme.

As always in Wong's films, movement is eroticised. But here, there's no rush, no dizzying climax to the movement. Instead, there is a more striking use of slow-motion images and of shots in which we see actors from behind as they move away from the camera's eye. In one emblematic shot, the camera hovers behind Maggie Cheung as she climbs the stairs to her apartment, her swaying hips sheathed in one of her many flowered cheongsams, her rice bucket dangling from her hand. The shot is repeated at least three times, each repetition accompanied by the same slow dissonant mazurka on the soundtrack. The music, the slo-mo, and the incongruity of the elegant dress and the clumsy rice bucket make the moment seem like a dream.

The elusive, erotically charged, dreamlike quality of the film as a whole is heightened by the way shots are framed so that we always seem to be looking through doors or windows or down corridors to see the action, such as it is. This layering of the image is expressive of the kind of layering which goes on within the characters. Drawn together when they discover their spouses are having an affair, Mr Chow and Mrs Chan disavow their own attraction to each other by playing a kind of game of acting out what they imagine Mr Chow's wife and Mrs Chan's husband do when they are together.

The film, thus, is not only a treatise on memory but also on the art of acting. What happens to Mr Chow and Mrs Chan is what happens to great actors when they have the experience of being simultaneously their real-life selves and the characters they're playing. And Cheung and Leung give the most subtle performances of their careers here. But this mixing of fantasy with a heightened sense of corporeality is also what happens in any great love affair, which, recollected after the fact, leaves one wondering where the person one was then has gone.

At the end of the film, the fragile hot-house world that nurtured the affair has disappeared, and we are returned to ourselves and the real world of crumbling empires with a newsreel clip of de Gaulle visiting Cambodia, and then with the visit to the ruins of Angkor Wat, which will outlive all - not only the story of Mr Chow and Mrs Chan's love and loss but its memory as embodied in this exquisite, fragile film. In the Mood for Love ends with a title that speaks to its fetishistic quality: "The past is something he could see but not touch." It's not what's present in the image that makes us desire to see this film again and again, but rather, the absence that haunts it.


Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai
Wong Kar-Wai
Incorporating quotations from the writings of
Liu Yi-Chang
Directors of Photography
Christopher Doyle
Mark Lee
[Li Pingbin]
Supervising Editor/ Production Designer
William Chang
[Chang Suk-Ping]
Michael Galasso
©Block 2 Pictures Inc.
Production Companies
Block 2 Pictures/Paradis Films present a Jet Tone Films production
Executive Producer
Chan Ye-Chen
Associate Producer
Jacky Pang
[Pang Yee-Wah]
Production Supervisor
Wong Lai-Tak
Production Co-ordinator
Thai Crew:
William Lim Heong
Production Managers
Law Kam-Chuen
Choi Suk-Yin
Thai Crew:
Parichart Khumrod
Assistant Directors
Siu Wai-Keung
Kong Yeuk-Sing
Yu Haw-Yan
Additional Photography
Kwan Pun-Leung
Yu Lik-Wai
Lai Yiu-Fai
Chan Kwong-Hung
Wong Chi-Ming
Chan Kei-Hap
Visual Consultant
Calmen Lui
[Lui Lai-Wah]
Art Directors
Man Lim-Chung
Alfred Yau
[Yau Wai-Ming]
Kwan Kei-Noh
Hair Design
Wong Kwok-Hung
Luk Ha-Fong
Spanish Songs Sung by
Nat King Cole
"Yumeji Theme"
Sound Recordists
Kuo Li-Chi
Tang Shiang-Chu
Liang Chih-Da
Maggie Cheung
[Cheung Man-Yuk]
Mrs Chan, née Su Lizhen
Tony Leung
[Leung Chiu-Wai]
Chow Mo-Wan
Rebecca Pan
Mrs Suen
Lui Chun
Mr Ho
Siu Ping-Lam
Ah Ping
Chin Chi-Ang
The Amah
Chan Man-Lui
Koo Kam-Wah
Yu Hsien
Chow Po-Chun
Metro Tartan Distributors
tbc feet
tbc minutes
In Colour
Chinese theatrical title
Huayang Nianhua
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011