In the Mood for Love is a film by Wong Kar-Wai that was released in 2000. It is a story of extraordinary love obstructed by faith, and societal views. I will argue that the theme of desolation intertwined with a bittersweet tale of unrequited love has been effectively expressed through the use of the four elements of the film stylistic system (misc en scene, cinematography, sound, editing). This will be done by analyzing the opening sequence in detail, followed by an analysis on each component of the stylistic system.
Set in the early 1960s Hong Kong, Chow Mo-Wan and Su Lizhen are neighbors whom realize that their spouses are having a love affair. As the days go by, they find solace in each other through simple meals, and secret meet-ups. Chow and Su couldn’t find the courage to confront their spouses on how their affair began. They seek answers through re-enactments of what could have happened; in the process evoking more pain than reprieve. Over time, they begin to develop feelings for each other, but Su’s faithfulness towards her husband stops her from committing to the relationship. To escape from this unrequited love, Chow leaves for Singapore to seek a new career.
The film begins with a short synopsis of the opening sequence; describing it as an ‘awkward moment’ for both Chow and Su as they meet for the first time. The words “Hong Kong, 1962” establishes the story’s location and era as it fades in from the black. In the first shot, diegetic sound of Chinese opera is playing in the background as the camera pans across a wall adorned with black and white photos of a young and pretty lady. The shot maintains a partial view of the wall and a middle-aged lady (Mrs Suen), which offers the viewer a sense of mystery, as the rest of the house remains obscured. Three-point lighting is consistently used to mimic ‘natural lighting’ . A simple straight cut takes the audience into the room that Su intends to rent. The camera is placed outside the room’s window as Su opens it to inspect its view. The window conveys a sense of voyeurism as audiences are invited to “peep” into a room decorated with flowery motifs – signifying the traditional values that Chinese women embrace in the early 1960s. Mrs Suen enters the room, and both women walk away from the window while engaged in a conversation. A straight cut into the next scene reveals a below the waist medium shot of Su and Mrs Suen. Both women are dressed in cheongsams, and high-heeled shoes – the common identity which both women share as middle-class citizens. As Su walks towards the hallway, a medium close up shot captures her distinct facial features as she turns her head while in conversation with Mrs Suen. As both women walks towards the door, a straight cut brings the audience into the next scene. The scene starts with a medium shot of Chow as he walks up a dimly-lit staircase. Low key lighting is used here to signify the emptiness in his life. Dressed in a nicely-cut grey suit with neatly-styled hair, Chow portrays a well-educated working class gentleman. In the next scene, the camera zooms out from a bright ceiling light, providing a contrasting mood. The high key lighting suggests a sense of hope as Chow is about to meet the woman whom he will eventually fall in love with. As the lens comes to rest with a medium close up shot of Chow, Su can be seen appearing from his back as she leaves Mrs Suen’s apartment. Chow turns around and meets Su for the first time. Their eyes match momentarily before Su turns away to walk down the staircase. Chow is disappointed to find out that the room has been rented to Su, but finds out that the adjacent apartment is available. The scene ends with Chow pressing the door bell as it fades out into black. The opening sequence suggests that a unique relationship will develop between Chow and Su, yet providing cues to the audience that Su’s traditional values may present a significant barrier.
In this film, Misc en scene is effectively used to draw the audiences into the reclusive and repressed world of the protagonists. The intricately-designed cheongsams embodies the cultural changes that took place in Hong Kong from the 1950s to 1960s, as emigrants from China flood in to escape from the Communist Revolution. They brought with them the Cheongsam; which can be described as a “metaphoric misc en scene” for the “hope” that Hong Kong represented. The designs of the cheongsams also symbolise Su’s emotional journey from emptiness to subtle bliss (while seeking solace in Chow), as it changes from plain, traditional flowery motifs to modern, flamboyant patterns. The film maintained a consistent monotonous color palette, except for the occasional splashes of red in the forms of curtains, and Su’s outfit to symbolize the sexual tensions between the protagonists. A significant aspect of the misc en scene is the strong elements of film noir present throughout the film.
In his analysis of In the Mood for Love, Gary Bettinson wrote:
Noir iconography invades the misc en scene: ringing telephones and doorbells remain dis-comfortingly unanswered; cigarettes are obsessively smoked and function as ubiquitous markers of anxiety; and at night a perpetual rainfall pounds the lamp-lined streets of Hong Kong (175).