Now This is How You Make a Melodrama: ‘In the Mood for Love’

It’s become part of movie lore to know that Wong Kar-wai always works on his movies until he is completely satisfied. This means more often than not that audiences in places like, say the Cannes Film Festival, risk the chance of not knowing how his movies will end because he might not have the second reel ready on time. Alright, this has only occurred twice before — and audiences obviously were unaware that their movie was on its way to them as they sat and enjoyed the first half. The point is how this sense of extreme drama is precisely what has not made Wong such a master of the artform.

Wong realized early during his career that there is infinite beauty to be found in restraint, and most of his movies have been characterized by a sense of dramatic lack. Take the way in which his doomed lovers achingly enter a cycle of destruction in the ironically titled Happy Together, or how he created a sense of connection in the crowded, impersonal spaces of Chungking Express. Wong’s movies are exemplary because they make the most out of so little.

The central affair from In the Mood for Love might not have the violent urgency of something like Romeo and Juliet, but unlike more intense love stories, the quiet doom of this one makes it linger in your mind years after watching the movie. Set in early ’60s Hong Kong, the film follows journalist Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) as he begins a friendly relationship with his neighbor Su Li-zhen (a truly luminous Maggie Cheung), the thing uniting them being their discovery that their wife and husband respectively are having an affair.

What at first is an innocent work relationship slowly gives way to something that slightly resembles revenge (just think how Hollywood has treated similar plots), as Chow and Su realize they could avenge themselves by acting like their spouses. Soon though they, and we, realize that we might be in the presence of true love, the kind that has inspired art since it began, and the kind of love that life has taught us is the greatest kind of all: unrequited.

In the Mood for Love isn’t a melodrama in a classic sense, as much as it’s an exercise in demonstrating the many faces of love. Wong never probes into the lives of these people, and he never tries to question their motives. Instead, he simply observes. He lets his camera follow them without intruding or judging them. There are several moments when we see Chow and Su eating on their own. While audience members might wonder they aren’t eating together, the camera simply remains there. We don’t get any contrasting shots of the other eating or complementing whatever the other lacks. This movie doesn’t try to do our thinking for us.

Part of In the Mood for Love‘s success is owed to the stunning cinematography by Christopher Doyle and Pin Bing Lee, who frame their subjects perfectly so that we can get enough information about what the lack of dialogue and traditionally dramatic music aren’t telling us. Wong’s use of offbeat music also creates a dissonance between what we’re watching and listening to, and what we think we’re supposed to be feeling. Why is Nat King Cole singing in his rudimentary Spanish when we should be listening to a crescendo of crying violins?

Many filmmakers have expressed their undying love for the masterful storytelling of In the Mood for Love — Sofia Coppola being the most notorious of all, even thanking Wong upon winning an Oscar in 2004 — and you can see why they would feel they owe him when it comes to mastering cinematic techniques without recurring to cheap tricks. The movie ends with a secret and we wish we could’ve learned just how, exactly, did the director make love look so detached but feel so intense?

In the Mood for Love is probably among the most beautiful movies ever shot, and this Blu-ray edition highlights its beauty like never before. The transfer, supervised by one of the DPs, makes the film look brand new, each of its fractured moments seeming worthy of being framed and displayed in galleries. Extras in this edition include a commentary with the director, a short film and archive interviews from the Toronto International Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival (the latter of which also includes a filmmaking lesson from the director). Other features include essays about the film’s music and the location and its meaning to Wong. This is one of the best HD upgrades of recent years, and the quality of the movie alone should make it an intriguing purchase.

RATING 9 / 10