For the second BFI Friday, we're going to look at Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love at number 24 on the BFI list. Released in 2000, In the Mood for Love is one of the most recent entries into list. Telling the story of Li-Zhen and Chow, two married people who by chance strike up a friendship together, each realising that their respective spouses are having an affair. Gradually, the pair fall inextricably in love with each other, but circumstances and a misplaced sense of duty to their partners prevent them from consummating their feelings. Much like David Lean's classic tragi-romance Brief Encounter, the film is not so concerned with whether the pair will wind up together, but rather, in the almost imperceptible process of their falling in love. Moreover, it is about the way that passion, romance and infatuation don't always announce their arrival loudly - often, as In the Mood for Love has it, they sneak up on us unawares, and when we are at our most vulnerable.
The cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Pung-Leung Kwan and Ping Bin Lee is full of warm, rich greens, yellows and reds, and, coupled with its uniformly beautiful compositions, gives the film the sense of being like a painting in motion. Complementing the visuals, the soundtrack, a mixture of Yumeji's Theme from the 1991 film Yumeji, and Aquellos Ojos Verdes sung by Nat King Cole, textures the production with romance, melancholy and quiet, understated passion. The locations are so few that as Li-Zhen and Chow become gradually more familiar with each other, we too become inescapably accustomed to their surroundings; their apartments, the courtyard and the restaurant they eat at become as much a part of their relationship, and by extension, our emotional connection with them.
The inevitability of their separation is foregrounded before Chow and Li-Zhen have even become friends, with the mise en scene constantly throwing up visual barriers between them, be they door frames, windows, or, in one beautifully composed shot, the frame itself, which blocks Chow from our view altogether. Crucially, neither Li-Zhen's husband nor Chow's wife ever directly feature in the film, and are only ever referred to as being away on business. Not only does this reinforce the narrative of adultery, but also, the alienation and loneliness that both Chow and Li-Zhen must endure. Furthermore, the scene in which they realise they are being cheated on does not involve a big reveal, or a dramatic confrontation. Rather, it is the culmination of a suspicion of infidelity confirmed by the discovery, through Chow, that the present her husband bought her when should have been away on business actually came from their small town. Later, Chow becomes an impromptu counsellor for Li-Zhen, allowing her to practise a confrontation with her husband on him. Of course, the real confrontation never comes; the catharsis that we, as witness to Li-Zhen and Chow's lives, yearn for, is withheld from us. In another scene, Chow makes a pass at Li-Zhen, outside their apartment building. She rejects his advances, but throughout the film they return to that spot, as if playing out the same moment over and over, trying to figure out some way to escape their predicament. At time it's frustratingly slow, even unsatisfying. But ultimately, In the Mood for Love is beautiful, deliberate and brutal in its emotional honesty.