For a movie about love, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love has little interest in longing glances or passionate embraces. Instead, it seems to be a movie obsessed with empty spaces. It lingers over things unsaid and empty rooms and places where someone else should be. It radiates its loneliness. In watching it, it feels as if the entire world has melted away and everyone else with it. All that’s left are a few alleyways, a few hallways, and a handful of empty rooms.

Set in 1963 Hong Kong, the 2001 film is the story of Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung), neighbors in an apartment building that only know each other from the occasional run-in in the hall until a discovery about their spouses binds them together. They seem to drift through the world in firm denial of their loneliness, but Wong refuses to let it stay hidden and unaddressed. He keeps the camera at a distance in a way that makes even the simplest acts, even just going out for noodles, seem heartbreaking.

The space between us and Mrs. Chow (Cheung) and Mr. Chan (Leung) is immense. We watch them through glass, reflected in mirrors, and between bars. We’re close enough to see the pain on their faces, but not close enough to do anything about it. Making matters deliciously worse is the unreal beauty of Wong Kar-wai’s direction and cinematography.

You can imagine him thinking, “Well, if I’m going to make them stare at an empty room, it’s going to be the most beautiful room I can come up with.” And so we get sets full of rich wallpapers, vibrant dresses, and lighting that alternates between eerie yellows and greens and seductive reds. The eye almost can’t decide where to look, there’s so much going on, and often all without a single actor in the shot.

Like many, I came to this off the heels of Chungking Express (1994), a much more frenetic and comedic exploration of love, loss, and missed chances. In the Mood for Love explores similar themes, but without the ray of hope that seems to dance over the characters in Chungking. By the end of the second story in Chungking Express, the characters’ futures are still undetermined; maybe they’ll be together, maybe they won’t, but more important is the fact that it seems possible. Anything seems possible.

But while In the Mood for Love is interested in possibilities, it’s not the sort you might assume. Instead of wondering what could happen, Su and Chow ruminate only on how they’ve arrived where they already are. They look backwards searching for meaning in an attempt to understand why their lives have turned out this way, and that changes the entire tenor of the film.

It’s fitting, then, that aside from the eerie, beautiful, and utterly melancholy “Yumeiji’s Theme” which dominates the score, one of the only other songs to be repeated throughout the film is Nat King Cole’s version of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” The original Cuban version differs from the English “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” which is surprisingly not a translation but new lyrics entirely. In English, the question is clear, “Do you love me?” But in “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” it’s not so straightforward. In Spanish, the lyrics ask “what, when, how and where” in reference to a more general sense of confusion over the relationship. Part of that confusion could be about whether the subject loves the singer, sure. But it also speaks to an unbearable and more overwhelming sense of stasis. The singer wants to move forward, to make decisions presumably about the future, but the subject of the song refuses to commit answering only, “Maybe, maybe, maybe.”

Something about this specific kind of fascination with change and the future and how love (or a lack of it) fits into it resonated with me. It’s part of what elevates In the Mood for Love to this unique artistic space. It discusses questions of heartbreak and loneliness that have existed for centuries in ways that no other film I can think of can match. It solidified Wong Kar-wai as one of cinema’s most interesting voices, one I can’t seem to get out of my head weeks and months and years after watching his films.

Here is what we'll have for you this week:

  • The Cinessential Podcast, Episode 9
  • Discussion on the film's status as "Best film of the 21st Century"
  • Scene analysis involving handbags and ties
  • Related Review of pseudo-sequel 2046
  • And more!