My One Shot, this time, is another one of love and longing. It’s from In the Mood for Love (2000), probably the most famous and acclaimed movie of the famous director Wong-Kar Wai.
Before talking about everything else, I realized why this is not the first time nor the last time I used a shot of uncertain, unconsumed or unrequited love as a base for my One Shot. Love that is not fully consumed is something of a communication-related pain. Feelings are not, or not fully, expressed, longings are not answered. People are drawn to each other in a certain way but they do not fully melt together. When doubt, uncertainty and rejection surface, it often happens in silence. People are scared to speak their thoughts and feelings out loud, or are simply not able to express them to the other.
Because of its inherent silence, these emotions and themes work so well in the visual image, and it is in these scenes that cinema really shows its power in evoking emotions through images. Hence the synergy between those themes and my blog.
We saw the themes described above already in Lost in Translation, where the relationship between Bob and Charlotte is never fully consumed, and they clearly dance around the true expression of feelings they have for each other. And even when they do express their love, it’s in whispers we as viewers cannot grasp.
In the Mood for Love has a similar theme, though in this instance the relationship is even less consumed and ends in even more silence, the unconsumed love literally reduced to a whispered secret locked away in statue in Ankor Wat.
The movie is filled with silent stares of longing, quiet gestures of love so subtle most might miss them. The love between the characters Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is apparent and clear, but it’s just never fully there. It lingers in shades and shadows instead of full sunlight. It’s hidden from the outside world, and often even from Chow and Su themselves, who are in separate relationships and struggle with their desire to commit adultery.
In the Mood for Love is a real author’s film in that in has an identity that is undeniably linked to its creators. One of them is the famous experimental director Wong Kar-Wai, the other is the similarly famous cinematographer Christopher Doyle, an Australian who has been living and working in Hong Kong since his 18th.
Actually, there is a third name here, Mark Lee Ping Bin, a cinematographer who replaced Christopher Doyle during the production and has equal credits in the final film. The reason for Doyle’s departure was not in creative differences but in the production significantly going over schedule, forcing him to leave for other commitments. For this post, however, I will focus mainly on Doyle’s contributions as my favorite shot of the film is definitely from his hand.
Christopher Doyle had already worked on five previous films with Wong Kar-Wai, including the breakthrough success of Chunkin Express (1994), and seemed a great fit for the avant-garde experimentation Wong Kar-Wai favored in his his productions. Techniques like lowering the shutter-speed to let individual frames linger in the eyes of the viewer, or even completely freeze-framing them, were already prevalent in their collaborations and their movies were well known for their dynamic & kinetic visuals.
In the Mood for Love shares these visual flourishes, although on the whole the film feels much more serene, smooth and quiet. Perhaps Ping-Bin’s work smoothed out the more dynamic work of Doyle, but I think even Doyle himself was filming differently than in his previous works.
‘Just out of reach’
If I had to describe the cinematography of In the Mood for Love in a few sentences I would focus on its ability to convey the sense that something is ‘just out of reach’, which is of course what is happening for Chow and Su; the consumption of their love being just out of reach.
The film uses an almost candid style of filming. Often we see only parts of a scene, and the camera remains stationary even though the subjects within the frame move. A camera is placed in a narrow hallway, for example, and at the end we see a couple talking, we never approach them to clearly see their faces, and we never follow a character if he or she momentarily leaves the frame. It’s as if we’re watching through a CCTV-setup at times.
Sometimes a dialogue is directed at characters who are never visible in film (standing just off-camera, and sometimes crucial characters, at crucial moments, are only filmed from behind. Drapes cover important parts of an image, shadows obstruct our viewing angles, etcetera. As a viewer you just want to zoom in, get rid of the hubris and get a clear view of the action and emotion, get it out of the margins and into the open, which is exactly what the movie is about of course!
Besides the beautiful expression of distance and unreachability the movie also has a beautiful rhythm to it. We see it in the repetition of certain key-scenes, like the one where Su and/or Chow walk to the local noodle-shop to get their food, and cross each other in a narrow alley. We see it in camera movement, and character movement within a frame, where there is a feeling of choreography almost, not in a dance-performance way, but in a figurative way. Chow and Su dance around each other, closing in when distance grows and distancing themselves when they get to close.
In the short BBC documentary about Christopher Doyle and his work on In the Mood for Love I’ve embedded below you can see him literally acting out this movement and dancing-style of cinematography.
Heightening this sense of movement is the gorgeous soundtrack of Umebayashi Shigeru, with the central theme recurring several times throughout the movie at key moments. The music, like a waltz seems to blend in perfectly with the rhythm of the images.
Which all leads us again to my One Shot. Maybe it was more difficult than normal to select one, not because there are no beautiful shots, nor are there too many different ones to make the choice difficult (Like, say, in the Tree of Life), but because the film is so consistent in its visuals, and scenes are repeated so often, it’s difficult to distinguish one specific shot.
The scenes alongside the gritty wall at night, for example, are repeated several times throughout the film in slight variations. To me, they are probably the most iconic of the movie, but how do you select a single shot from a scene which is shown more than once?
The answer lay in the narrative meaning of the scenes, as always. Yes, the shots are repeated several times throughout the movie, but they each have their own narrative weight. And none more so than the final scene alongside the wall. It’s from this moment that I took my One Shot, and it’s this one:
In this scene Su and Chow finally decide to stop their attempts of seeing each other and break up their sort-of-platonic-affair. After dancing around each other for most of the movie up until now, they finally decide they need to let each other go. It’s the dramatic highpoint of the story and once again they walk alongside the wall where they first began flirting.
Several things stand out in this shot. First of all let’s talk about the costumes. All throughout the movie Su’s wardrobe has been meticulously coordinated with her surroundings. She always seems to blend in. But in this final goodbye, she stands out. Her dress is filled with bright green and blue colors and doesn’t match any of the colors of her environment. As far as I can tell, it’s the first time in this movie that she stands out as much as she does here. Which is a great way of visually telling us she’s at a breaking point with her caged-in environment. Nowhere is it as clear as in this scene that she doesn’t synchronize with her environment.
This feeling is of course amplified by the lightning. Shadows dominate the composition. Chow is grasping Su’s hand, but we only see it in their shadows for example. Also, the bars in the foreground heighten the mood, distance and tension of the scene. The metaphor of a prison is clearly apparent here.
All in all, this one shot gains power through its use of color, wardrobe, lightning and composition, as well as the extra depth it gains through its repeated usage (a technique I will definitely cover in an upcoming blogpost!). It’s a gorgeous shot from a heartbreakingly beautiful movie.
As a sendoff, here’s the short doc about Christopher Doyle