Hidden Glances and Restrained Longing, Part Two: 2 Scenes from "In the Mood for Love"

In the Realm of the Lenses

Today we will continue 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 second 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 second part I will be going over more shots from the first third 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.

Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan visit the noodle stall separately, Part One (00:14:48)

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Early on in the film, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are left to live alone for brief periods as their spouses are away. This means eating on their own, and they both often decide to visit a nearby noodle stall rather than cook at home. These visits to the noodle stall are introduced in a mostly slow-motion sequence. As discussed in the previous article, the use of slow motion in the film places emphasis on the mundane. It highlights the loneliness of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan being dressed up and going out for food by themselves, or standing alone as they wait for their food. Shooting with a telephoto lens helps to further isolate the characters from their environment even when there are other people in the frame.

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The slow motion, high/low camera angles, and long lens make the steps leading down to the noodle stall seem long and arduous both on the way in and on the climb out. For example, in the shot pictured above (00:15:39), each individual step of Mrs. Chan’s is prolonged and contributes to the sense of her slow progression up the stairs. The journey to the noodle stall becomes a tiring trek when going alone.

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The middle of the sequence contains a tracking shot that starts behind a wall on the right and moves left to reveal Mrs. Chan climbing the steps out of the noodle stall. The camera continues to track left for a bit to follow her as she reaches street level and soon exits frame left. The camera comes to a stop and holds on the lamp outside the steps to the noodle stall. Moments later Mr. Chow enters frame left and the camera tracks right to follow him as he descends the steps to the noodle stall. The camera continues to move right and ends behind the same wall as at the start. This simple back and forth movement underlines Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s shared repetition of the task of going to the noodle stall. Because the shot is unbroken, it also highlights the barely missed connection between the characters. They both visit the noodle stall on this night but miss each other by seconds.

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The sequence ends on a couple of contrasting normal motion shots that show Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow’s visit to the noodle stall on a different night (their outfits have changed). We again see Mrs. Chan from behind as she climbs the steps out. However, this time the camera is much closer to her. The camera position along with the normal motion make the hike seem much quicker. The camera tilts up and we see Mr. Chow descending the steps. He says hello to Mrs. Chan as he passes.

In terms of plot and action, this sequence barely features any even though it lasts almost two and a half minutes. It could be summed up as “Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow buys some food and Mr. Chow says hello to Mrs. Chan.” However, the film is much more concerned with atmosphere and mood than plot, and uses motion speed, camera movement, and lens choices to lead us to feel what the characters are feeling. The sequence is used to express the loneliness of the two protagonists and show how a brief, simple greeting during a chance encounter can break the repetition and solitude of their lives. By luck they miss seeing each other one night, and by coincidence they run into each other another night.

A similar sequence occurs in the film about 10 minutes after this one. The next article will discuss that sequence and its similarities and differences.

Mrs. Chan questions Mrs. Chow (00:20:57)

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This shot contrasts with an earlier shot in the film that featured Mrs. Chan saying goodbye to Mr. Chan (discussed in the previous article). That shot was a close-up profile of Mrs. Chan outside of a doorway as she spoke with Mr. Chan. This shot is a frontal close-up of Mrs. Chan outside of a doorway as she speaks with Mrs. Chow. At the time of the previous shot, Mrs. Chan was more unaware of Mr. Chan and Mrs. Chow’s affair. The profile shot and blurred background helped underline the fact that Mrs. Chan and the audience did not know everything that was going on. Now Mrs. Chan is suspicious. She heard voices coming from Mrs. Chow’s apartment and goes over under the pretense of wondering if some other neighbors are there. The change to a direct, frontal close-up coincides with the change in awareness for Mrs. Chan and the audience. We can tell from Mrs. Chan’s reactions that she does not believe Mrs. Chow’s answers and excuses, and we do not believe Mrs. Chow either. As in the shot of Mr. Chow thanking Mr. Chan discussed in the previous article, here the long take on Mrs. Chan leads us to empathize with her and her reactions and to feel detached from the disembodied voice of Mrs. Chow.

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The conversation ends with a cut to a medium close-up profile of Mrs. Chan left in the hallway as Mrs. Chow closes the door in her face (00:21:35). Mrs. Chan’s questioning comes to an abrupt end, the light from the apartment disappears from her face, and her smile drops. The sudden change in angle emphasizes Mrs. Chow shutting out Mrs. Chan and Mrs. Chan’s subsequent loss in power. Mrs. Chow looks and feels smaller in the frame as Mrs. Chan’s action basically confirms her suspicions.

Screencaps from In the Mood for Love Criterion Blu-ray

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