How Wong Kar-wai put me in the mood (movie review)

Before you start humming the opening notes to “Careless Whisper”, let me be clear that’s not the mood I’m talking about. I’ve recently taken to watching films by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai and I have to say, I’m kicking myself in the head right now, wondering what took me so long to finally begin exploring his collection. I haven’t seen them all yet, but what I’ve seen so far, I’m extremely pleased by, and at the top of the list would be “In the Mood For Love” a story of unrequited love in 1960s Hong Kong.

Written and directed by Wong back in 2000, “Mood” centers on Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen a.k.a. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) who, after discovering that their spouses are cheating on them with each other, find solace in one another’s company while keeping in mind the two-wrongs-don’t-make-a-right aphorism.

Its story may seem simple, but the movie went on to win numerous awards and has also found itself in several lists of “best films” all over the world. Months after first seeing it, I’m still geeking out about it (as many fans of the film probably did), and I’ve put together a list of five things that turned it into the cinematic gem it is today.

(Warning: here be spoilers. If you haven’t seen “Mood” yet, I’d suggest you turn around and hightail it out of here. An even better idea would be to bookmark this page, go see the movie, and then come back.)

“I’m going to leave now before you spoil everything.”


1. The let’s-keep-the-cheaters-in-the-shadows move
Throughout the film, not once do you see the faces of Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan. Their backs are turned to the camera. They’re blocked from view even when they’re the only characters in the scene. When Mr. Chow is speaking with Mr. Chan, the camera is trained on the former while the latter stays out of the picture. Same goes with the wives.

What makes this technique so friggin’ genius is by not putting faces on them, the audience is kept from developing feelings, negative or otherwise, towards them. They’re characters too, after all, not phantoms that deserve only vague, verbal references. It allowed Wong to keep them in the movie without taking the focus away from Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen, enhancing the leads’ presence and emotion instead.

An unknowing Mo-wan chatting with the adulterous Mr. Chan


2. The life-sucks-but-at-least-we-have-each-other music
A big part of what gave “Mood” its great, uh, mood, is the music. Wong used a lot of great tracks in the movie, but the sad, lilting notes of Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji’s Theme” carries pretty much throughout “Mood” movie and for good reason: it’s a somber score that matches exactly everything that’s going on. In short, this pièce de résistance was the ideal love song for two people who couldn’t be together.

For good measure, Wong threw in other songs to emphasize the morosely beautiful atmosphere of the film, like Michael Galasso’s “Angkor Wat Theme“, “ITMFL”, and “Casanova/Flute”. But he also found clever ways to be more direct in using music to narrate parts of the story. In the scene where Mo-wan and Su Li-zhen discover their spouses’ affair, Wong hit us with Nat King Cole’s “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” (green eyes, jealousy, get it?). And when Mr. Chow calls Mrs. Chan to ask if she will join him in Singapore and she doesn’t answer, Wong gave us a cheeky hint at her reply by playing Nat King Cole’s “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás“.

3. The mellow-drama-instead-of-melodrama style (which is also in just about every one of his movies)

Anyone who knows Wong Kar-wai’s work knows he loves simplicity, and therein lies the beauty in his films. Subtlety, or thematic ambiguity as critics like to call it, is something that resonates in all of his work: he understands you don’t need an overcomplicated plot, big explosions, or shouting matches to tell a story. There’s a lot to be said about actors who excel at understated acting, and even more of the director who knows how to bring it out of his players (or pull it back).

“Mood” has a lot of quiet moments. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are often alone in their thoughts, eat noodles alone, take long walks alone, yet these moments say a lot. You don’t need to see them flip tables or yell themselves hoarse to know they’re upset. No big gestures here because you see it in the little things.

Looking hot in a cheong-san wasn’t the only thing Maggie Cheung was good at.


4. The did-they-or-didn’t-they game
While Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan did promise their friendship wouldn’t lead to the same extracurriculars their spouses are happily engaging into, they admitted (or at least Mo-wan did out loud) to the inevitable: developing feelings for each other. The lengthy glances, the “innocent” touching, those long nights together all add up to one hot affair. But that’s if this were a typical romantic movie, which it’s not, so that left plenty of room for viewers to speculate whether or not they took their friendship to the next level.

Supposedly, Wong originally designed “Mood” as a mainstream romantic movie, complete with witty back-and-forth dialogue and a whole lotta lovin’. But he and the actors agreed in the end that a subtle approach would be best, which meant toning down everything. A smart idea if you ask me, because this kept the couple’s true relationship shrouded in mystery (and who doesn’t love a good mystery?) and left it up to the audience to decide if they actually went there.


5. The let’s-keep-them-guessing technique
Nothing drives viewers in a frenzy more than having the characters keep a secret from them, and Wong accomplished this in the final scene. According to Mr. Chow, when people back in the day had a secret they can’t reveal, they’d whisper it into a hole in a tree and stuff it with mud. When he had to do it himself as a way to deal with his lost love (his approach involving a hole in the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia),Wong had him either shielding his mouth with his hand or shot him from behind, so no chance of reading lips even if I spoke Cantonese (I don’t, by the way).

The fact that Wong decided not to reveal what Mo-wan told the wall hooked me by letting me make up my own version of the secret. Is it that they did consummate their love? Is the young boy living with the now-husbandless Mrs. Chan actually their love child? Or was it something as simple as “whenever I eat noodles, I remember her”? No one really knows, and that’s the beauty of it.

“No one can know about this. Deal? Cool.”


“Mood” proved that love stories don’t need to be overly sappy to show emotion, and that keeping things simple often brings to light more than you can possibly imagine. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you put it on your “movies to watch” list. It took a while before I finally got around to seeing it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Overall rating: ★★★✭

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