In The Mood For Love (2000) – Subjective space and time

This essay explores how the characters in In the Mood for Love (Kar-Wai Wong, 2000) progress in the context of the time and space Wong has created.   The essay will specifically examine how both main characters’ significant yet subtle character progression is demonstrated in the mise-en-scene and editing of In the Mood for Love rather than the limiting narrative conventions of the genre.

In the Mood for Love is recognised as an art house film and adheres to many of the archetypal tropes of the genre. Many of these conventions have a direct impact on the characters progression through the traditional story telling method of narrative.  Bordell (207) states that prototypical characters within an art film tend to lack clear-cut traits, motives and goals.  This summation of prototypical art film characters can be most poignantly associated with the character of Mrs. Chan.  Throughout In the Mood for LoveMrs. Chan does not express a desire or motive through narration and there is significant ambiguity around her personal qualities.  Her moral views on fidelity are ambiguous as throughout the film she facilitates the affair of Mr. Ho and his mistresses by organising trysts, gifts and telling falsehoods about Mr. Ho’s whereabouts. In this sense, she demonstrates no clear-cut attitude towards fidelity.  

The impact of this narrative convention on our ability to witness characters progression is extensive, as it forces mise-en-en-scene into the centre stage of understanding who these characters are and where they are going.   Brunette (94) has credited Wong with saying the great challenge in this film was the actors had to express themselves through their bodies, gestures and glances rather than through the dialogue.  This encourages the audience to understand the characters and their progression through what is seen, rather than what is heard through diegetic sound.

In the Mood for Loveis set in Hong Kong in 1962, in a heavily populated suburb full of people who have emigrated from Shanghai. The use of mise-en-scene to create an atmosphere of crowdedness is primarily achieved by the camera almost always shooting through some kind of hindrance, be it a doorway, a curtain, venetian blinds, a diaphanous lampshade, or one of the many mirrors that are found throughout the film (Brunette, 92).  Brunette reports that Wong has used this technique to include the audience in the scene as if they are also a resident of this crowded location (92).  The use of props, particularly multiple textures in a background, further exaggerate the stifled busy environment.  This is illustrated early on when Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are moving at the same time.  The simultaneous events, narrow staircases, multiple people in the same space getting in each other’s way and causing confusion gives the audience an immediate sense of the limitations of space. The exceptional use of off screen space further illustrates the environment in which nothing is private, with the camera often showing a long, cluttered but empty hallway or an empty room while we can overhear the conversation being had in the next room.  The spouses of our protagonists are only ever seen in this off screen space, either showing the back of their head, a conversation being had through a doorway with them out of frame or a telephone conversation in which they are both absent and present.  

It is the claustrophobic and highly restrictive space that Wong has created which impacts our characters’ ability to overtly progress.  The use of space is also representative of claustrophobic desire (Yu, 146).  Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s concern for what the other residents of the apartment building think impacts their actions on multiple occasions, causing one of them to wait in the rain rather than return to the building at the same time, or be seen with the other’s umbrella.  The social context demands fulfilment of social obligations and for these characters to develop a friendship beyond the simple pleasantries of neighbours is unacceptable.  Despite the constraints of this social context, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s friendship does progress, to a point where they develop feelings for each other.  Brunette (98) states “one of the paradoxical effects of this constantly present constricting social field is to place more cinematic emphasis on them as a couple, in opposition to the social field”.  It is through this that we can see the progression of their relationship.  This is evident in the scene where there is an unexpected return of both sets of families to Mr. Koo’s apartment to play mah-jong while Mrs. Chan is in Mr. Chow’s room. This causes Mrs. Chan to stay in Mr. Chan’s room the entire night and much of the following day rather than let everyone see that she was visiting him while he was home alone.  In the first instance of this scene it is filmed from the wardrobe and the frame is obstructed by the dark piece of clothing, which covers the top of the frame and at times part of Mr. Chow’s face. Their body language is awkward with Mrs. Chan appearing nervous and anxious about their situation, furtively looking at the door and prompting Mr. Chow to speak in hush tones. The following morning, the obstruction is gone and they are in full frame, their body language more relaxed and the nervousness dissipated, they are more relaxed in each others company.  The scene cuts to later in the day and Mrs. Chan is lying in the bed under a blanket, a panning shot from above sweeps the room and we see evidence of the time they’ve shared, the leftover dinner, breakfast and pages of Mr. Chow’s writing.  The subtle changes in these scenes illuminate the progression of the characters’ relationship within the restricted space of social convention. 

The scene in which Mrs. Chan is going to visit Mr. Chow in the hotel room is an example of the use of editing to portray a characters feelings and an illustration of Mrs. Chan’s character progression.  The use of jump cuts as she makes her way to Mr. Chow’s room are representative of the psychological torment she is facing in going to see Mr. Chow (Brunette, 95).  Brunette also suggests that the jump scenes cause disorientation for the audience and could represent the disruption and anguish her feelings for Mr. Chow are causing her (95).  The absence of non-diegetic sound leaving only the sound of her hurried heels, illustrating the frantic motion of her arrival to Mr. Chan’s room may be representative of her frenzied desire.  She pauses mid-way through the scene at the top of the stairs and seems to hesitate, taking a deep breath indicating a churning of emotions. This scene is a significant illustration of the development of Mrs. Chan’s feelings towards Mr. Chan and the effect they are having on her.  It is another visual expression of her characters progression, in particular, the idea that she is conflicted by her feelings and desire to see Mr. Chow and the appropriateness of their relationship, yet she chooses to visit him nonetheless.

Bordell discusses how art cinema developed a range of mise-en-scene cues for expressing character mood such as static postures, covert glances, emotion-filled landscapes, aimless walks and associated objects (208).  It is within the subjectivity of these mise-en-scene representations of time and space that we again witness the character progression of our main protagonists. The most notable use of these mise-en-scene clues to express character mood and consequently character progression are the scenes in which Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow eat dinner, first their solitary walks to get noodles and subsequently restaurant meals together.

The scene in which they individually walk to get noodles is a continuous repetition of separate instances in time, the only real clue to the passing of time is the change in Mrs. Chan’s cheongsam.  As Mrs. Chan walks up the steps, towards the street lamp, the camera then pans to Mr. Chow going in the opposite direction, visually linking them and rhyming their devastating isolation (Brunette, 94). The characters mood is enhanced by the rhythm of a melancholic waltz, leading to the scene embodying a ritual that has been transmuted by time.  It is due to the very nature of the repetitiveness of these scenes that we are able to see subtle changes in the characters mood expressed through a change in posture, a backwards glance towards the other and a slight smile. The food itself is symbolic of the characters in this particular time and space. The gathering of dinner, which is correlated with emotion, is being done in isolation and with little comfort.  Chow states that the routine of meals is a sign of listlessness and forlornness with Mrs. Chan turning down repeated invitations to dine with her landlady and insists on eating noodles in isolation (646).   Subsequently, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow begin eating their dinner together at a restaurant, with increased comfort.  During these restaurant scenes an upbeat Italian love song plays in the background, conjuring a subjective, yet pervasive, mood of melancholy (Chow, 646).  It is while having coffee at a restaurant, they confirm each other’s suspicion that their spouses are having an affair (Chow, 645).  Chow elaborates that at this point Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan actively turn what has been so far a series of chance events into a conscious exploration (645).

In conclusion, it is not through the traditional story telling methods that the audience witness character progression in In the Mood for Lovebut rather through careful analysis of mise-en-scene, editing, sound and other filmic qualities.  Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan achieve subtle yet significant character development throughout the film to the degree in which they develop strong feelings for one another and the impact those feelings have.   The social context and time in which Wong placed these characters provides a backdrop that continues to limit the characters’ progression. However, it is because of this chosen backdrop that subtle changes take on a greater significance.

Works Cited

In the Mood for Love. Dir. Kar-Wai Wong.  Prod. Ye-cheng Chang. Writ. Kar-Wai Wong. Perf.  Tony Ciu Wa Leung, Maggie Cheung. 2000. DVD.

Brunette, Peter.  Wong Kar-Wai. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005.  86-101. Print.

Bordell, David. “Art-Cinema Narration”. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. 205-213. Ebook. 

Chow, Rey. “Sentimental Returns: On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai”. New Literary History 33 (2002): 639-654. Print.

Yue, Audrey. “In the Mood for Love:Intersections of Hong Kong Modernity”.  Chinese Films in    Focus II. Ed. Chris Berry.  London: BFI, 2008. 144-152. Ebook.

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