Today we will be looking at the cinematography of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, shot by cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bing. The 2000 film tells the story of two neighbors who gradually develop feelings for each other after they discover their spouses are having an affair together. This is the first of multiple articles that will take a look at some of the shots from the film and discuss how the cinematography in these shots helps serve the film’s themes. In this first part I will be going over various shots from the opening of the film. Some spoilers will be necessary to discuss the shots so I highly recommend you watch the film before reading on if you have not seen it already.
Note: The timestamps included are the approximate starting times of the shots or scenes from the Criterion Blu-ray release.
Mrs. Chan sits down at the mahjong table (00:05:01)
This slow motion tracking shot is the first of many in the film. The slowed movement helps draw our attention to small, mundane details that end up having significance. In this shot, the camera starts waist-level on Mrs. Chan, who is holding a pack of cigarettes. We cannot see her face yet. The camera follows her over to the mahjong table where she sits down (back to the camera) besides Mr. Chan and leans in close to him. We only see Mrs. Chan’s face after she turns around to acknowledge another woman, Mrs. Chow, who enters the frame. Mrs. Chan gets up out of her seat to let Mrs. Chow by. At this time Mr. Chow gets up out of frame and squeezes by Mrs. Chan as well while smiling to acknowledge her. The camera follows Mr. Chan back out of the room the same way that Mrs. Chan entered and the shot ends.
This shot runs for over 40 seconds which is an extremely long time to dedicate to a shot of characters entering and exiting a room and sitting down and standing up. However, in the context of the film, this shot is both beautiful and expressive. The slow motion and soundtrack work in rhythm to lend the moment significance. What seems ordinary and unimportant on the surface actually hides meaning. Mrs. Chan is physically close to her husband at the beginning of the shot but is interrupted by Mrs. Chow who literally moves between them. At this point in the film Mrs. Chan and the audience do not know of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow’s affair, but the slow-mo helps draw attention to this ordinary action that takes place with the characters facing away from the camera. Likewise, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have not yet developed feelings for each other, but the moment they are physically near each other is highlighted. Unlike Mrs. Chow, Mr. Chow faces Mrs. Chan and the camera as he passes her.
The use of a long lens and restricted camera movement also contribute to the feeling of this shot. The telephoto lens and camera position give us the sense that we are watching from a distance. Shooting through the doorway adds to the observational, voyeuristic feeling. We do not enter the room with Mrs. Chan; we remain outside and only see what we can through the doorway. The film’s themes of secrecy and hidden affairs and emotions are reinforced through shots such as this one that feature limited and obstructed viewpoints. We are unable to see much of the room through the doorway. We cannot even see everyone sitting at the mahjong table or Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan’s faces. The film's restricted camera movement may have been necessitated by the locations, but it ends up mirroring the controlled emotions of the characters. The limited range of elegant movement reflects the characters' restraint, as with the constrictive, stylish qipao worn by the women.
Mrs. Chan says goodbye to Mr. Chan (00:06:03)
Mr. Chow thanks Mr. Chan (00:10:35)
These shots are examples of how the film withholds information from the audience. In the first shot, Mrs. Chan is saying goodbye to Mr. Chan before he heads off on a business trip. The bulk of their conversation (involving the infidelity of Mrs. Chan’s boss) is shown in this single take of Mrs. Chan standing outside the doorway of their apartment. We never see Mr. Chan’s face. Throughout the entire film, the faces of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow are never shown. The film keeps their faces out of our view just as their affair is kept out of sight of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow quickly begin to figure out what is going on between their spouses, but even then much of it is left to their speculation and imagination. The camera only sees the faces of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow as their emotions and relationship together are the focus of the film. Here Mrs. Chan is shown in a close-up profile with a blurred background, contributing to the sense that she and the audience do not know the whole story yet. We will see another shot with Mrs. Chan that contrasts this one about 15 minutes later in the movie.
The second shot shown above is also a shot involving a conversation with Mr. Chan. This time it is Mr. Chow standing outside the doorway to the Chan apartment. This shot is visually similar to the one of Mrs. Chan and helps link the two characters together. Both of them are uncertain of the affair involving their spouses, but they are growing suspicious along with the audience. This suspicion is heightened due to the camera staying on our protagonists. We can only judge Mr. Chan based on his voice and Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s reactions. By seeing their reactions in close-ups that do not cut away, we are drawn closer to Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow and empathize with them more. On the other hand, Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow mostly exist as disembodied voices and we do not relate with them at all. This leads us to raise questions when Mr. Chan mentions that Mrs. Chow has already paid him.
Screencaps from In the Mood for Love Criterion Blu-ray