Setting The Mood For Love
by Gwyn Morgan
Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love focuses on the relationship between neighbors Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan. Dealing with the realization their spouses have been cheating on them with each other, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan begin a friendship that develops into something more. However, beyond the fleeting love affair that has captured audiences around the globe, one thing in the film remains, encapsulating the pain, the love, and the loss the characters experience. In steep and dimly lit stairwells, deteriorating alleyways, and barren hotel rooms, audiences can feel the tensions of a love that cannot be and the emptiness of love lost. In this way, the setting in In The Mood For Love becomes a character with the same significance as Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan themselves.
Wong Kar-wai executes this by using the crumbling structures of the Shanghainese immigrant community around the would be couple to mirror the crumbling of both their marriages and later, their own love for each other. One of the most significant examples of this is the repeated depiction of the derelict and narrow staircase to their apartments. This pathway, covered in old flyers and lit by one lamp, emphasizes the reality of the lives they lead. Rather than a sweeping romance in a place of decadent beauty, Wong Kar-wai chooses to focus on failed attempts of finding love in a place that feels just as void of happiness as the character’s lives. Each time this narrow staircase is shown, it is a reminder of the realities of their confinement, both in their failing marriages and the disapproval of a gossiping community that prevents them from being together. This is further shown through repeated emphases on objects and settings throughout the movie such as Mrs. Chan’s office clock. Shown when the pair is having some of their most intimate conversations, all while trying to keep their feelings for each other a secret, the presence of the clock calls attention to the limited time these characters will have together. The realism Wong Kar-wai employs in this sense, by using traditionally unappealing environments to accentuate and mirror the unpleasantries of life, invokes a unique sensory experience extremely important to the film.
The same emphasis on a sensory experience can be highlighted in one of Hong Kong’s largest film movements, martial arts cinema. While the works of Wong Kar-wai are often separated from the martial arts world of Hong Kong, it is important to take into consideration how Wong’s works have been influenced by its popularity. Rather than a realism that contradicts the fantasy and exaggerated landscapes of many martial arts movies, Wong’s settings build upon them, creating a reality influenced by imagination. It is in this way the use of setting in Wong Kar-wai’s films stands out as both characteristic of his own work but, Hong Kong cinema overall. Similarly to how the setting of In The Mood For Love invokes an intense sensory experience comparable to that of the actors themselves, martial arts cinema, according to Man-Fung Yip in “In the Realm of the Senses: Sensory Realism, Speed, and Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema,” relies on an “intense engagement with the viewer’s body, with the corporeal materiality of the senses” (Yip 76).
The beginnings of the martial arts film movement in Hong Kong, primarily in the mid 1960’s, marked a period of “sensationalism” or “sensory realism” (Yip 77). According to Yip, “filmmakers tried hard to muster every shock tactic at their disposal and launched an unprecedented assault on the viewer’s senses and sensibilities” through the use of “stylized theatrical fighting and fantastic special effects” (Yip 77). Though none of these specific tactics are evident in In The Mood For Love, there is a distinct focus in Hong Kong cinema on the overall sensory experience films can create. While martial arts films pursue a bodily sensory experience based on shock value and action, the works of Wong Kar-wai pursue an emotionally rooted sensory experience through realistic and muted portrayals of setting. Though these two approaches vastly differ in execution, they remain rooted in their commitment to making audiences feel something distinct, which is a unique characteristic of Hong Kong cinema as a whole.
- Fu, Poshek, and David Desser. The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
- Yip, Man-Fung. “In the Realm of the Senses: Sensory Realism, Speed, and Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema.” Cinema Journal, vol. 53, no. 4, 14 June 2014, pp. 76–97.