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The 36 Dramatic Situations: In the Mood for Love (2000) and Adultery

In The Mood For Love
By  · Published on September 5th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us stare longingly at Maggie Cheung without being able to do something about it.

Part 28 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Adultery” with Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love.

The Synopsis

Set in 1962, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play Chow Mo-Wan and So Lai-zhen, neighbors who move next to one another in a Hong Kong apartment complex on the same day. They each have spouses who spend a great deal of time away with overtime shifts, thus they begin to get suspicious and eventually conclude that their spouses are seeing each other. Instead of confronting their spouses, they instead develop an unlikely friendship and begin to work together in a private apartment of their own. Even though they grow close and eventually admit feelings for one another, they keep their relationship strictly platonic so as not to “sink” to the level of their respective spouses.

The Situation

“Adultery” is a frequently explored dramatic situation in cinema, and is often the catalyst for thrillers and stories of vengeance (like the films of Adrian Lyne), or contemplative meditations on morality and social expectations (like the films of Eric Rohmer). Several films already discussed in this series (like Match Point) may use Adultery amongst a combination of several different dramatic situations. “Adultery” involves a “Deceived Husband or Wife” and “Two Adulterers.” What is so unique about In the Mood for Love’s use of this otherwise familiar situation is its unconventional approach to the subject matter, instead focusing on both individuals who have been deceived and the rare and unique bond they developed from the infidelity.

The Film

In the Mood for Love is a slow and quiet film. It’s concerned with details of the period and the social structure of early 1960s Hong Kong. It’s not a film engaged with high drama, which is something that characterizes most manifestations of this situation. There’s no dramatic confrontation with the cheating wife or husband, no crying and asking what could have been done to prevent this, no spying or setting up traps to catch the adulterer in the act, and no using of the situation of adultery as an excuse for the deceived to cheat as well. The film is concerned with subtle details (from the period dresses of Cheung to the quiet hallways and restaurants of this decade in Hong Kong to – especially – the delicate expressions of longing that each character feels for one another, refusing to give too much away), and it is through the accumulation of these details that the movie becomes profound in a way that perhaps no other film which uses this situation becomes. It’s the type of film that must really be watched, not merely looked at.

The “relationship” between the two lead characters is sold by the convincing performances of Leung and Cheung. Combined with the period set design and elegant (but never showy) costuming alongside Christopher Doyle’s predictably beautiful cinematography, Leung and Cheung are able to make you forget their movie star personas and really believe in the depth of a romance that never sees consummation. In the Mood for Love is so thoroughly enveloping in its deliberately-paced mood piece of a time and a place (it takes place in the 60s and never “the 60s”) that it can become something of an immersive experience; the small details in of themselves become heavier and more affecting than any major (i.e., contrived) dramatic development.

Wong Kar-Wai, ever the improvisatory filmmaker, allegedly shot some footage where the affair between Chow and So becomes real, but then decided against it later in production to tell a quite different story. We’re all the better for it, for in this decision Wong discovered that there are incredible depths to be explored (albeit quite sad ones) in a bond between the deceived rather than making themselves fellow adulterers. As a result, it makes us long as the characters long for a relationship that really could never have been.

Bonus Examples: The Graduate, Belle de Jour, American Beauty

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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