‘In the Mood For Love’: Cheating Without Having Sex

In the mood for love / In the mood for love

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they wonder whether Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s characters in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love really commit adultery and discuss the restrictions that led this film to become an instant classic.

In the #24 (tied) movie on the list, two neighbors who suspect their spouses of shared infidelity build their own lonely relationship in revenge. But why is it one of the best movies of all time? Let’s investigate.

Scott: So we’ve reached a bit of a milestone on the list. We (and, really, Sight & Sound) went 25 movies without one from beyond 1979 (let alone from 2000). That makes Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love the youngest flick we’ve seen so far. We’ll do Mulholland Drive in a few weeks, but on an ossified list, it’s pretty damned monumental to see such a recent movie find a slot.

What do you think was so powerful that voters felt compelled to put this among the (vaulted) antiques?

Landon: Well, just to put a side point in, it seems that this film more than any from the 21st century was destined for such a postion. Empire ranked it as #42 on their Best of World Cinema list the year it came out! The term “instant classic” is often overused, but it seems fitting for the reception if In the Mood for Love.

Scott: If we the people decide what a classic is, we decided instantly that In the Mood for Love was one.

Landon: I think there are a few possible reasons here

  1. The central conceit of a non-affair affair;
  2. The solid reputation (Blueberry Nights excepted) of Wong Kar-wai’s work, with this being the most critically and financially successful; and
  3. The period setting and classic-yet-arthouse aura.

One can more easily imagine this on the S&S list than Wong’s other work, like Chungking Express. It’s hard to imagine any film with a Cranberries song making it to the S&S list.

Scott: Hey, now. “Zombie” was an instant classic in its own right. Plus, it was used in a movie where zombies devour a woman while she’s playing “Zombie” on the piano. It’s called subtlety, Landon. And you just don’t get it.

Landon: Yeah, but Chungking used “Dreams,” which we can all agree is remarkably less subtle, and less apt for brain devouring

Scott: Probably.

Landon: What’s your take on In the Mood’s incredible reputation?

Scott: There’s certainly a “classic” feeling to it. It’s executed flawlessly and tells a difficult, complicated story where morals get blurred beyond recognition. In short, like most movies on the list, it’s a powerful thing.

Landon: And it doesn’t hurt that the film has some echoes of the Best Movie of All Time. Wong said about the film, “the role of Tony in the film reminds me of Jimmy Stewart’s in Vertigo. There is a dark side to this character. I think it’s very interesting that most of the audience prefers to think that this is a very innocent relationship. These are the good guys, because their spouses are the first ones to be unfaithful and they refuse to be. Nobody sees any darkness in these characters – and yet they are meeting in secret to act out fictitious scenarios of confronting their spouses and of having an affair. I think this happens because the face of Tony Leung is so sympathetic. Just imagine if it was John Malkovich playing this role…”

I personally like to imagine John Malkovich in every role on the S&S list.

Scott: He’d make an outstanding Joan of Arc.

With all that, is it safe to say that the complexity (and the skill used to juggle such complexity) is the reason this movie is so stunning?

Landon: Yeah, it’s rarely about the words they’re saying, but the looks exchanged between them. It’s not even about the possibility of sex as much as it is about romantic tension, preserving a sense of moral superiority over the spouses, a repressive and nose society, and their seeming addiction to longing itself. The characters and the film are both very quiet, which leaves nice huge gaps as lines to read between.

Scott: Because fundamentally both Mo-wan and Li-zhen are lonely people. They’re also stand-ins for anyone (i.e. all of us) who has ever been wronged, and getting to see them act out a sweet, sex-by-proxy-filled revenge is like right brain candy. That makes it entertaining. Wong appreciating the messiness of the situation makes it a classic.

Landon: And the expansive definition of “sex” here helps, too. The couple’s chaste character makes the film all the sexier in so many ways – they “make love” through eating together, through sharing short stories, through acting out confronting each others’ spouse.

Scott: Has any other director made “betraying in your heart” that hot?

Landon: Adrian Lyne has made a career out of trying, but has never come quite this close. One thing I like about this film is the sense of claustrophobia: small rooms, narrow booths, almost entirely shot in interiors. The camera frames characters through mirrors and objects, as if it’s impossible to get a full picture. You get a sense of why the characters need to be discreet. Hong Kong is packed, everyone can see everybody else. But it also creates a palpable sense of intimacy.

Remarkably, this came from the film’s shooting conditions: they had to shoot in corners and small rooms because of the impossibility of making Hong Kong into the period depicted in any ambitious way.


Scott: One of those times when necessity works in the filmmakers’ favor. I can only imagine the neighborhood gossip about the “sex movie” being shot down the block.

Landon: Haha, yeah, the film itself seems to be an act of discretion. But despite the film’s dedicated focus on the couple and its beloved reception, In the Mood for Love could have turned out a number of ways.

Scott: How so?

Landon: Wong has an extensive improvisatory shooting style, and originally the focus of this film was far more expansive. That’s why he couldn’t shoot in Beijing where he originally wanted – because the censors worried what he would do that wasn’t in the flimsy script that he had written. The film involved 15 months of shooting and there are several rumors as to what was ultimately left out: a parallel ’90s storyline featuring the characters in their later state of life, extended information about Mo-wan’s life as a journalist in Cambodia, and perhaps even footage of Mo-wan and Li-zhen actually consummating the affair. All of which would have changed the film drastically. In the end, Wong decided to distill the film down to the meat-and-bones of their ’60s asexual affair.

Scott: Yet another restriction that seemed to help hone this into something unforgettable.

It’s a gorgeous film that tells a unique and heart-squeezing story. There’s no doubt there, but I wonder – do you think they were cheating?

Landon: As in, do I think they had sex and we simply never saw it, or do I think what they did, even without sex, counts as cheating?

Scott: The latter.

Landon: I think the couple was absolutely right to be suspicious of what people around them were thinking. Their relationship was something much closer, more intimate, and unique than a friendship. It’s definitely a maneuvering of affection for one’s spouse to an affection for someone else. It’s an affair, so in a sense, yes, it’s an emotional betrayal similar to their respective spouses’ betrayal, even though Li-zhen prefers not be “be like them.”

That is not, of course, to condemn the characters’ actions. The movie is much more complicated than that. And I don’t want to see puppy-faced Tony Leung feel lonely. Your thoughts?

Scott: I like it when Tony Leung gets puppy-faced. I also believe firmly that they were cheating, and perhaps in a more profound way than their spouses. I mean, if we’re thinking of their spouses as casual cheaters who have found an easy connection – the relationship between Mo-wan and Li-zhen was far more trenchant and dangerous. They weren’t in the mood for lust.

Landon: That’s a good way to put it – focusing on the profound emotional connection than the specificity of their actions. And I praise the film for eliciting these questions. It’s hard to think of a film about cheating that doesn’t condemn a character outright, make them into a villain, or kill them off. This isn’t Fatal Attraction.

Scott: No, no, not at all. In fact, it seems obvious that these two are meant for each other. It’s just a shame that they got married before they met. And isn’t that what it’s all about? The tension between our emotional drive and the societal/human rules that take none of them into account?

Landon: Yes, and this movie illustrates context with care and nuance. If released today, it would be treated like Hong Kong’s Mad Men, with “history” spelled out in bold letters. All we need is the dynamic between this couple and their neighbors to understand why they can’t be together.

Scott: Which is a little funny, because I always felt that the neighbors were probably still gossiping about them. If you’ve ever lived in a small community, you know that no amount of sneaking can prevent the chatter.

Landon: I imagined the same thing. But the film’s narrow focus is exactly why I love the possibly that Wong made an entirely different movie in production (though I never want to see that movie). The actors created such an extensive world beyond what we see. The world that we get to peer into is only a fraction, and that world was so elaborately realized during production that the resulting fraction speaks volumes.

Scott: Right. Usually actors only get to talk about the backstories they invent for their characters. Here, they actually filmed them.

Landon: Though I do want to read Mo-wan’s martial arts novel.

Scott: I’ll wait for the movie version.

Next Time: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev

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