Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is one of those films that I always wanted to watch but never actually got around to watching it. After seeing it featured in Sachin Kundalkar’s Gandha, I finally saw it and was left amazed by its beauty and grace. Set in Hong Kong in 1962, the film is the story of two lonely neighbors, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), whose spouses have an affair together and then they develop feelings for each other. The film has an underlying core filled with melancholy that is deeply moving.
In the Mood for Love is a film about the appearance that we show to the world, the courage that we lack to make difficult decisions, and the chances that we miss and regret. All through the film, Mrs. Chan is impeccably dressed in her cheongsams. Her neighbors are amazed that she goes to buy noodles all decked up. Mr. Chow, too, is dressed sharply throughout. He always wears suits and ties. His hair is neatly combed and gelled. Not one strand of his hair seems out of place. The outward appearance of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow serves as a mask to hide their inner turmoil. They are lonely and unfulfilled deep inside. Her husband is out on long overseas trips. His wife works long nights. They do not see their spouses for weeks and months. But they are conscious of revealing anything to the world and pretend that everything is fine in front of others.
Once they find about the infidelity of their spouses, they start role-playing the other’s spouse to understand them better. And in the process, they develop feelings for each other. However, they choose not to act on them because they want to be morally better than their spouses. It is also about the lack of courage on their part. The opening lines of the film say: “It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.” The two of them also do not have the courage to come out of the chains of their lives. Mr. Chow knows that Mrs. Chan does not have the courage to leave her husband. So, he decides to move away.
In one of their meetings, Mr. Chow talks to Mrs. Chan about he was free to do many things when he was single. After getting married, he has to do things together with his wife. They wonder about their life if they had not been married. Mrs. Chan thinks she would have been happier if she was single. Marriage has trapped them. During their night-time walks, they are often framed behind prison-like bars. One of the most evocative images associated with the film shows the reflections of the bars falling on them as if they are trapped in a prison. They are afraid to come out of these cages. They take great pains to avoid being seen together. They will enter the house at different times. At one point, they had to spend a night trapped together because their neighbors came home earlier than expected. Mr. Chow even books a separate room where they can meet without the prying eyes of their neighbors.
They are trapped in prison-like bars
In the Mood for Love is also about the chances that we let go in our lives that become our lasting regrets. Mrs. Chan rushes to meet Mr. Chan in his room but he had left by the time she arrives there. She missed her chance. Later, she secretly enters his apartment, and calls him up but is not able to speak to him once he is on the line, letting go of another chance. In the final moments of the film, Mr. Chow visits his old apartment and peeps at Mrs. Chan’s place from the window. He is told by the owner that a woman and her son stay there. Unaware that the woman is none other than Mrs. Chan, he walks by her apartment missing the chance to meet her once again. Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.
Wong Kar-wai uses vivid filmmaking styles in In the Mood for Love. The cheongsams that Mrs. Chan wears almost always merge with the background. A red cheongsam matches the red curtains. A floral cheongsam matches the floral curtains. Also, we never see the faces of the spouses of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. However, the most remarkable thing that stands out is the way the film has been shot. The perspective of the camera is that of the viewer who is looking at the proceedings from the outside. It is placed near the windows, the corridors, and the alleys. It is trying to peep in the story of the characters. We never get to see the interior of the house where they stay. Many a scene has also been shot where the characters are seen from behind or stuck in a frame.
Her cheongsams match the background
The camera is peeping in their lives from the outside
The shots from the corridors
The frame freezes to represent Mr. Chow’s wish of freezing the time
Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow learn about the affair of their spouses at a dinner date. He casually asks her about the handbag she was carrying with her earlier in the day. She replies that her husband brought it for her on a business trip abroad. Likewise, she asks him about the tie he was wearing. He says his wife buys all his ties. Mrs. Chan’s husband had got two handbags—one for his wife—and one for his lover who turns out to be Mr. Chow’s wife. Likewise, Mr. Chow’s wife got two ties—one for her husband—and one for her lover who turns out to be Mrs. Chan’s husband. Their spouses were not only having an affair but having one with their neighbors. It confirms the suspicion that Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow had in their minds along.
Early in the film, Mrs. Chan asks her husband to bring two handbags for her boss. She does not mention the reason clearly but says she is fine even if they are of the same color. Her boss at the shipping company where she works was having an affair and she helps manage his relationship with the two women. The two handbags scene also gave the premonition of the way she learns about her own husband’s affair. In another scene, Mrs. Chan notices the new tie of her boss. Her boss is impressed by her observation. She replies that you notice things if you pay attention. Moments later, her boss changes the tie, and Mrs. Chan again asks him the reason for the same. Her boss replies the new one was too showy which was a gift from his mistress. Given her noticing powers, it is not surprising that Mrs. Chan sees the tie that Mr. Chow wears. It was exactly the same as her husband’s. If one revisits the scene where the two of them see each other earlier in the day, the perturbed expressions of both of them give away what they had been thinking all along at that precise moment when they bumped into each other.
While watching In the Mood for Love, the one film that kept coming to me was the equally melancholic The Lunchbox. Directed by Ritesh Batra, the film is an epistolary romance that develops between Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan (Irrfan) when a lunchbox meant for Ila’s husband is accidentally delivered to Saajan. Compensating for the lack of love through food is a running theme in In the Mood for Love and The Lunchbox. Mrs. Chan goes to pick-up noodles almost every day from a nearby shop. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are frequently seen eating together. At one stage in the film, they order the food that their spouses would like. Mr. Chan offers her a spicy sauce that his wife would prefer. Later in the film, a friend informs Mrs. Chan that Mr. Chow is craving sesame soup. She surprises him by preparing the same. In their last meeting, before she leaves, she asks him if he wants some food that she can bring for him. Likewise in The Lunchbox, Ila and Saajan are two lonely people who develop an unlikely relationship over food and letters. Ila is in a marriage that seems to have lost its flavor and Saajan is a widower whose wife died years ago. She sends her husband’s favorite dishes to Saajan. At another stage, Saajan casually mentions that his favorite dish is eggplants. She prepares them, too, and sends them to him. Food is a metaphor for the love they crave in their lives. Even the other characters are hungry for food—or love. The orphan Aslam craves delicious food so that he does not have to eat bananas every single day. Ila’s mother feels hungry when her husband dies as if his death drained everything out of her.
Food as desire
In In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow decides to move to Singapore to have a better life for him. He asks Mrs. Chan that he has an extra ticket if she will like to come along with him. Singapore becomes Bhutan in The Lunchbox where Ila after discovering her husband’s affair wonders if she can move there. In response, Saajan writes to her what if he comes to Bhutan with her.
Both films also talk about the chances that we let go of in life. Mrs. Chan dashes to the room where Mr. Chow was staying but he had left for Singapore by the time she reaches. Later, she enters his apartment in Singapore and calls him but stays absolutely quiet on the phone. She takes the pink slippers, which were originally hers, and leaves behind a pink lipstick-stained cigarette. Somehow, she could not take the next step to be with him. Nat King Cole’s Quizás, Quizás, Quizás plays all through the film showing their indecision. Every time I ask. What, when, how, and where. You always reply. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Something similar happens between Ila and Saajan. After exchanging letters for some time, they decide to meet each other. On the day he is to meet Ila, the smell in his bathroom reminds Saajan of his grandfather. It struck him that he has become old. “Just me and the smell of an old man,” he writes to her. He goes to the restaurant and keeps watching her but could not muster the courage to talk to her in person. Later, Ila goes to his office to meet him but he had left his job and moved to Nasik. In the end, Saajan comes back and tries to find Ila. It is never shown as to what happens to them. Maybe they met and went to Bhutan. Maybe they did not.
She calls but does not speak.
He arrives but does not meet.
He arrives but does not meet.
Not only do the two films have similarities in their story, but also in some filmmaking elements. The faces of Mrs. Chan’s husband and Mr. Chow’s wife are never seen in the film. Barring a few scenes where they are seen from behind, it is only their voice that is heard in the film. There is Deshpande Aunty (Bharti Achrekar), Ila’s friendly neighbor, in The Lunchbox whose face is also never seen in the film but her presence is noted by her voice in the film. In an interview with TheAerogram, Batra also said that a lot of people tell him that his film reminds them of In the Mood for Love.
He has left for Singapore by the time she reaches his room.
He has left for Nasik by the time she reaches his office.
In the final moments of In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow travels to the stunning Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. In complete contrast to the dark bylanes of Hong Kong, it is the first time that wide expansive shots are seen in the film. Mr. Chow walks up to one of the holes in the walls and whispers a secret in it. It is a deeply poignant moment where a man buries the story of his past in the very ruins that represent the past. I was reminded of Aandhi where the estranged couple Arti (Suchitra Sen) and JK (Sanjeev Kumar) walk in the ruins of the gorgeous Martand Sun Temple in Kashmir and talk about their own ruined relationship. “Shayad un dino ki baad hogi, jab yeh imarat abhi ujdi nahi thi,” says JK where the imarat represented their relationship as they reminisce about their past. In the world of Gulzar, it becomes Tere Bina Zindagi Se KoiShikwa Toh Nahin. In the worlds of Wong Kar-wai, it becomes, “He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch.”
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