Lots of spoilers!
In the Mood for Love departs from a traditional look at infidelity as drama. While most works focus on the unfaithful individuals, here we see how Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) deal with their spouses’ poor attempts to conceal an affair with one another. As the film’s main characters rely on each other for comfort, they struggle emotionally when this close relationship leads to unpredictable feelings. The film was originally titled Secrets when Wong Kar-wai began working on it. Later, he also considered the name Those Good Old Days. (This is what the film is listed as on Amazon Prime Video as of the writing of this article.) Both alternate titles emphasize main themes, but lack cohesion for the title of a wenyi film, the Chinese term for melodramas focusing on the ethics of family situations or romance.
What remains most compelling about In the Mood for Love is its unique exposition of missed opportunities. Sometimes our regrets define our lives just as much as our experiences. Mrs. Chan says as much: “I might have been happy,” had she never married. She is refined and reserved, choosing to dress up even when stepping out briefly for take-out noodles. She is more prone to small outbursts of emotional expression, like when she cries on Chow’s shoulder. Ultimately, she shows a great need for control and doesn’t let her feelings overtake her decisions. Mr. Chow, however, has a looser life philosophy which becomes evident when he is asked what he might have done had he never married. A journalist by trade, he admits his dream was to write martial arts stories. However, he also says life is too short to dwell on mistakes, and that he feels he can rely on change. He uses this opportunity to invite Mrs. Chan to help him write, as they both have a shared interest. This becomes the foundation of an initially platonic relationship that allows them to examine the situation between their spouses and each other.
This exploration of feelings is portrayed through tête-bêche, which means “head to tail” and is a stamping technique with a pair of stamps, one upside down. This inverted reflection carries across the mirrored relationships of Chan and Chow, their moving in on the same day, and the many modernized yet nostalgic references to a sixties Hong Kong caught in the reverie of unfulfilled desire. A number of camera techniques including close-ups, framing in mirrors and doorways, and slow motion illustrate an intense emotional turmoil on an individual level. This becomes important since the main characters often show restraint with others. This form of storytelling also emphasizes the loneliness of each main character. Even when Chan and Chow do express most of their pain, they do it in a form of roleplay, creating a scene together of their spouses’ first encounter, first date, and other times they met. They also roleplay Mrs. Chan confronting her husband about his mistress. This scene shows just how convoluted the roleplay becomes with their actual lives, since initially Mr. Chow is only seen from behind. We never see the faces of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow, we only see them from behind and hear them speak. When we see Mrs. Chan confronting Mr. Chan in their home, it seems evident what is happening until it is revealed Mr. Chow is with her instead. These depictions of the spouses as distant, unidentified, and hidden by doorways illuminate the isolation of both characters.
The slow-motion scenes also foreshadow where the relationship will lead. Each one depicts the characters in passing or represents their solitude even when in the company of one another. The contemplative strings score of “Yumeji’s Theme” evokes a melancholy sentiment that pervades even while these two establish a strong bond. They never fully connect in a way that completely eradicates their loneliness or longing. They are destined to always be passing each other in their lives, no matter how long they stop to seek comfort. This result is the product of many societal restraints imposed upon the couple during the sixties in Hong Kong. Mrs. Chan illuminates this concept by stating, “when you are single you are responsible only for yourself.” This gives us a glimpse into the disparity between limitations for a man and woman in this time period. Mrs. Chan has more expectations of providing a calm and happy home than Mr. Chow, as well as legal confinements of the era. She is also the only one to receive a reprimand for going out so much by her elder landlady. Placing social conventions over personal desires is something Mrs. Chan likely has great experience with, unlike Mr. Chow who has more freedom in seeking what he desires.
Mr. Chow leaves to pursue a journalism job in Singapore once he realizes Mrs. Chan will not leave her husband. We see Mrs. Chan crying in the alley about his departure, and just like when she cried before, Mr. Chow reassures her by letting her know “this is only a rehearsal.” Their roleplay extends to their feelings for each other, allowing them to distance themselves from their emotions long enough to do what social limits demand. This constant blurring of real and pretend means that Mrs. Chan’s statement, “we will not be like them,” is just as likely to be a hard boundary or something that momentarily lapsed. The movie never gives any true relief to the question of whether their feelings were physically consummated in the hotel where Mr. Chow decides to stay. Honestly, upon my first viewing when the film was released, I assumed they never acted upon how they felt. But as we see when the movie jumps ahead by nine years, Mrs. Chan is renting her old living space and has a son who appears to be roughly nine years of age. Nothing more can be determined about the father of her son without further context, however. In this scene, we also see Mr. Chow narrowly passing Mrs. Chan. He attempts to visit his old landlord and leaves without knocking to see who currently lives next door. We also know that Mrs. Chan took half-steps to reach out to him and even visited his room in Singapore. We see her struggling over his approach to bring her with him, when he asked if she would go to Singapore if there were another ticket. But ultimately, she removed her slippers which she had previously forgotten in his room, perhaps sending him the ultimate sign that she was cutting all ties.
Many questions linger as the film mimics the feeling of unfulfillment its characters experience. We begin the story focusing on Mrs. Chan, but we end it from the viewpoint of Mr. Chow. Mrs. Chan, due to the many restraints in her life, moves back to the apartment. She encases her daily routine in memories of a time when she might have been contented, but her reserved nature meant she could never follow. Mr. Chow, unencumbered by many of those burdens, is someone who looks to the past in reverence but not constraint. He chooses to look forward in his own way. He tells his friend in Singapore that in the old days when someone had a secret they didn’t want to share, “They went up a mountain, found a tree, carved a hole in it, and whispered the secret into the hole. Then they covered it with mud and left the secret there forever.” We see Chow do this in Cambodia when he speaks into a hole in a pillar at a Buddhist temple. This final scene where we see the hole covered with mud and we look up at Mr. Chow walking toward the camera gives a sense of hope and looking to the future for his character. This is in spite of a decade of hoping for what might have been with the woman he loved, and it ties in to the ending of Days of Being Wild, which was initially a more direct prequel to an earlier version of this screenplay.
It’s hard to believe In the Mood for Love is nearly twenty years old, given how authentically it paints itself in the bold hues of the sixties. Evoking emotions bigger than the film itself, it’s a timeless story in a modernized telling. Nothing about this work is unrelatable, from the machinery of another era to the archaic, crumbling alleyways that required filming in Bangkok to replicate. Despite all they did to deny their feelings, this focus on history and nostalgia lends a weight to their relationship that extends beyond individual drives and motives. What happens between them is ancient and primal, much more profound than any one romance. Love is a grander force than any one society. Love follows no strict conventions, but people do.