Arts and Culture

In the Mood for Love: Frames within Frames

Everyone lives within their own reality, their own frame. Sometimes that frame becomes a fantasy. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is an exploration of what happens when that frame, that fantasy is perverse. The film takes place in an overcrowded 1960’s Hong Kong. It tells the story of Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan who rent rooms in neighboring apartments. The two often find themselves alone, working late, and eating by themselves. They are followed so closely that the audience never sees their spouses’ faces. Through an impromptu dinner the two discover that their spouses are having an affair. Given the title of the film one would expect them to embark on an affair of their own and they do—kind of. 

After their dinner there is a scene where Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan are walking in an alleyway. Mr. Chau grabs her hand and asks, “Shall we stay out tonight?” to which she responds, “My husband would never say that.” Ouch. In the guise of understanding the affair the two attempt to seduce their own spouse as the other’s spouse as if given another chance to redeem themselves, to prove that they are worth it to their adulterous counterparts. Throughout the film the audience is aware that there are four people involved in every situation: The real Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan and the phantom of their spouses. They coach each other on what their spouses would say and do. Mrs. Chan orders Mr. Chau a steak that her husband would like and he orders her a spicy dish his wife would enjoy. They rehearse a conversation where Mrs. Chan confronts her husband about his affair. Often, the audience will be a few minutes into the scene interpreting this confrontation as real until the reality of the fantasy slaps us in the face. 

In a way the two are becoming each other’s spouses which leaves them in control of their own betrayal. They never consummate their love, for it would force them to face the reality that they are no longer an object of love. Even when Mr. Chau admits his love for Mrs. Chan they don’t act on it. Instead, they doom themselves to missed connections. Maybe they are trapped by the insufficiency they feel towards their spouse, or maybe they can only love the imagined versions of each other. Either way it is the fantasy that drives this affair. 

Almost every shot of this film is doubly framed, meaning there is always a foreground obstruction creating the feeling that the audience is observing this affair while also echoing the constant threat of surveillance and gossip in a 1960’s Hong Kong, of which Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan are victims. Because of this constant vigilance and gossip most of the action in this movie consists of gestures, postures, glances and touches. The camera documents them walking in slow motion and thinking alone, their faces betraying none of the emotions roiling beneath the surface. Instead those repressed emotions explode through the brilliant colors, the wardrobe, the Japanese and Chinese pop songs and the Spanish ballads sung by Nat King Cole. 

The film is a quiet, beautiful and agonizing examination of what happens when the perverse fantasy one constructs for themselves keeps them from the pain it was meant to avoid.