Hidden Glances and Restrained Longing, Part Four: 3 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 fourth 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 fourth part I will be going over various shots from the final two-thirds 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 meet at a restaurant, Part Two (00:33:13)

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In this scene, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan revisit the restaurant they met at earlier in the film (that scene was discussed in the previous article). In the previous scene, their conversation was mostly made up of hints and suggestions as they talked around their spouses’ affair. The framing of the shots matched their conversation, keeping a distance from the two and mostly showing only one character in the frame at a time. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan eventually opened up to each other and realized they had both come to the same conclusion about their spouses. Now in this scene they are each acting as the other’s spouse as if they were eating out together. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are closer and more open with each other and this change in their relationship is reflected in the cinematography. The scene still makes use of close-up profile shots that only show one character, but now there are many more shots that show the characters together. For example, the above frame (00:33:56) provides a clear view of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan sitting in the restaurant booth together. In the previous restaurant scene, the only shot displaying the two at the booth together was obstructed. We only saw the back of Mrs. Chan’s head and the top portion of Mr. Chow’s face. As the two protagonists are slowly beginning to let down their guard and expose themselves, we are shown a closer, cleaner shot of the pair.

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We also see some of their conversation in over the shoulder shots on Mrs. Chan (00:35:21) and Mr. Chow (00:35:31). This framing allows us to have a closer shot of one of the characters while reminding us of the presence of the other. The previous restaurant scene did not include over the shoulder shots such as these. The only close-ups in the previous scene were singles from a profile angle. Now that Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are a bit more relaxed around each other, we see their faces more clearly as the scene makes use of frontal angles that also include the head of the other character. This framing emphasizes their relation and connection rather than distance and separation.

Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow meet in the hotel room (00:55:53)

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This sequence lasting almost two minutes consists of slow motion tracking shots of Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow spending time together in the hotel room that Mr. Chow has rented. Mr. Chow has rented the room so the two of them can have a place to be alone and ostensibly work together. The sequence continues the use of techniques seen earlier in the film, including back and forth sideways tracking, long lenses, slow motion, and obstructed viewpoints.

The back and forth tracking movement of the camera gives the sequence the rhythm of passing time. The sequence is a montage of shots showing the growing relationship between Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, and the repeated camera movement helps illustrate the progression.

Making use of long lenses and a distant camera, the sequence offers the audience the impression of observing private moments. The hotel room is Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s own separate space away from the outside world where they can be together without being watched by their neighbors. Shots like the one at the top of this section (00:56:03) help convey this atmosphere and the significance of the space.

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Including foreground objects in the frame to obstruct the camera’s view also contributes to the covert and clandestine feeling. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan not only have a secret they are keeping from their neighbors, but they are also slowly developing feelings inside for each other. This is enhanced by the slow motion that gives emphasis to the meaningful looks and glances they give each other.

Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow in their apartments (01:14:21)

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Back and forth tracking movement is once again put to use in this scene. This shot actually consists of a few shots edited together. The camera starts off on Mrs. Chan sitting in her apartment and then tracks left. The camera moves behind the apartment wall and the movement continues with another shot that tracks left from behind the apartment wall to show Mr. Chow sitting in his apartment. The camera then moves back to the right to return to Mrs. Chan.

The consistency of speed in the camera tracking helps make the shots feel continuous which connects the two characters in their loneliness. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are also mirrored and framed at opposite ends of the frame. They both face away from each other towards the short side of their respective frames, boxed in by the narrow walls of their apartments. This enclosure underlines the emotions they hold and keep suppressed within themselves. Having the camera seemingly go through the apartment wall and spend time on the black space between the two characters reminds the audience of the separation and barrier between Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. They both have feelings for each other but cannot act on them. They are separated here not only by the physical barrier of the apartment wall but also the social barriers of their marriages, neighbors’ opinions, and desire to not be like their spouses. Through camera movement and composition, the film visually expresses the inner thoughts and feelings of the protagonists.

Screencaps from In the Mood for Love Criterion Blu-ray

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