In The Mood For Love
Oftentimes, the most impactful endings in film history have been those that don't comprise a couple intoxicated on love, their hands entwined, strolling blissfully into a perfect sunset. While many occasions call for a romantic comedy slicked with Hollywood gloss and fabricated serendipity to give us a mental break from the stresses of the outside world - an antidote I indulge in on a regular basis - there's some kind of magnetic pull conjured up by stories that revolve around star-crossed lovers. Having penned a preview for Brief Encounter screenings in a November issue of Le Cool Dublin, I discovered the extent to which this beloved film, centred on two unsatisfied, married individuals in pre-WW2 Britain that embark on an emotional love affair, claimed the top tier of countless lists detailing the greatest romantic films of all time as written by industry insiders and cinema aficionados. The black and white masterpiece is as filled with poignant musical themes and romantic purity as any connoisseur of 1940s filmmaking could dream of: the fact that it would secure an unparalleled ranking above more recent plots in movie history wherein the central love story is consummated - complete with a 'happily ever after' closing scene - made for a thought-provoking revelation.
In a century wherein numerous filmmakers seem to consider a 21st-century magnum opus to be one that pushes the boundaries of cinematic 'art' as far as love and sex are concerned, is the appearance of beautifully-crafted, non-graphic romantic films holding greater power over audiences than ever before? It goes without saying that creators and producers in this field have the entitlement of producing works that delve as deeply and overtly into these subject matters as they desire - that right should never have to be surrendered in this day and age. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in a new era where, finally, no topic is off-limits for public discussion, the perennial film favourites of romantic cinema enthusiasts inside and outside of the sector contain story-lines that are relatively non-explicit in nature; ones that fixate moreso on the emotional bonds forged organically (and often unexpectedly) by the ill-fated, enamoured characters in question.
Following hotly on the heels of Brief Encounter's top-ranking status is In The Mood For Love, a showpiece of Hong Kong cinema released in 2000 that held audiences captive from its Cannes Film Festival debut onwards. Those unfamiliar with the film (and adamant not to receive any spoilers) should click "here" to fully grasp why it holds such a special place in the heart of any romantic movie cognoscente. Set in 1960s Hong Kong - portrayed through a vibrant, detailed lens by director Wong Kar-wai - it follows the lives of Chow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen, also known as Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), both married with respective spouses that work long shifts away from home, who become neighbours after renting a room in adjacent apartments on the same day. Their paths peppered by multiple chance encounters, they gingerly begin to form a friendship which is solidified upon realising that their partners are having an affair with each other As their platonic relationship continues to blossom - finding solace in their mutual struggle with cheating spouses they are unable to confront - so too do their feelings for one another, implied in the most subtle of gestures that make one feel as if they've gained an insight into these underlying romantic tensions long before the lead characters have admitted it, even to themselves:
Dramatic devices are prevalent throughout In The Mood For Love, from the recurring motif of Chow and Su's unaccompanied trips to the noodle stand for dinner - a first symbol of their mutual loneliness despite living in apartments filled with other residents - to the pathetic fallacy of a relentless rain-shower one evening, where emotions come to a head and Chow admits he dreads the thought of Su's husband coming home, believing the only way he can cope is to pursue his career in a different city. It would hard to isolate just one favourite scene - each setting is infused with vibrant imagery and remarkable attention-to-detail, which rewards greater enjoyment upon repeated watching - but there is something enthralling (and tragic, in equal measures) in the moments where Chow and Su re-enact how they imagine their spouses first began their affair, going as far as to order their favourite dishes while dining one night together and vocally imagining their partners' dialogue in the process. Another memorable scene is found towards the latter stages of the film, wherein Chow and Su act out a farewell scenario in the rain upon his request to 'be prepared' for when their spouses arrive home and they have to stop meeting one another. She may never outrightly state she has fallen in love with him, but she doesn't need to: her emotional turmoil at the thought of them parting ways forever - sobbing in his arms, as he tries to remind her gently that 'it's just a rehearsal' - speaks louder than words ever could.
No vintage fashion enthusiast could sit through the film's entirety without falling in love with Su's impeccable wardrobe. For every scene that boasts colourful interiors - think mint-green office blinds and 60s-reminiscent wallpapers - she has an even more captivating ensemble, always put together with dainty costume earrings, eclectic prints and high-necked dresses evocative of Asian 1960s fashion.
In The Mood For Love's closing scene, of Chow whispering his secret into the hole of a crumbling wall and covering it with mud after a series of almost-meetings with Su after his move to Singapore, is the perfect ending to one of the most wonderfully heart-rending love stories I - alongside innumerable cinema-lovers across the globe - have ever had the pleasure of coming across. Its cinematic direction ensures that every aspect of the film is in-sync: take, for example, the lingering camera shots that focus on Chow and Su from behind metal fences, at the edge of street corners and peeping out from bedroom furniture. This brings home the fact that in socially-conservative 1960s Hong Kong, friendship between a man and a woman married to separate partners would be quite frowned upon - the camera angles add to the sense that we are stealing secretive glances at a platonic relationship shrouded in mystery and, for the most part, hidden away from public knowledge for as long as it possibly can be. While we may spend a fleeting moment wishing that these doomed lovers could ultimately have reunited, nothing could ever replace that bittersweet, poignant emotion that arrives after viewing a masterfully-created romantic tragedy - a feeling that weighs on one's mind long after the final credits, written in red and white Mandarin characters, have rolled.