There were a couple of shots in Shutter Island (I am thinking of one in particular in Ben Kingsley’s office) that made me ache for directors who know what to do with the camera. It was so specific, so emotionally charged – attention-getting, yes, but in service to the story. A beautiful sweep from one face to the other. Typical Scorsese (with, naturally, a little help from cinematographer Robert Richardson)- I feel like I could pick his camera shots out of a lineup. The camera moves are highly editorial, but not in the jagged-jumpcuts-handheld tradition which has overtaken every movie, whether it is appropriate or not. An elegantly moving camera is something I prize, and it is only when you see a shot like the one in Kingsley’s office in Shutter Island when you realize that it is practically a lost art.
Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is a master-class in how to move the camera. Every shot is full of interest and mystery, the frame crammed with details that threaten to overwhelm the viewer. You can’t look at it closely enough. It DEMANDS attention, but not in a way that seems bossy or clever: it demands attention because it is an element in telling the story. Film is a visual medium. How things are framed, looked at, seen are (or should be) an important part of the story-teller’s tools.
The two characters in In the Mood for Love (Mrs. Chan, played by Maggie Cheung and Mr. Chow, played by Tony Leung) are not openly emotional or expressive as human beings. Their feelings are buried, and it is a film of great longing and yearning. The camera, moving slowly, deliberately, sweeping from one side to the other, reflects that. So, too, does the sense that you get that the camera is peeking at the two characters. It peeks over the backs of booths at a restaurant, peers down dark narrow hallways to the glimpses you get in the room at the end, it peeks through mirrors, and grates, and in every single shot there is some sort of interference.
When they ride in a cab, they are seen through the outside window, so the reflections of neon swoop up over their faces. Even in simple shots (Mrs. Chan at work, doing her regular duties), she is seen through the glass of the office, or seen only in part, around a corner. A head-on clear shot is very rare in In the Mood for Love, so when you see one you know it means something. It is not just a film-maker using it to be efficient. It is saying: “This is different from all the other shots. Pay attention.”
Shots double back on themselves, and repeat, sometimes in reverse. The dark stairway of the apartment building is seen with people going up, going down, and sometimes we get shots of empty spaces: hallways with doorbells, long corridors, with no people in the shot – and for me this helped create the sense that the two main characters, married, are surrounded by a cramped world of gossip and people listening behind closed doors. Even empty spaces are potent traps. Nowhere is safe. Sometimes Wong Kar-Wai will use the same setting, but in different times and moods, so that you cannot believe you are looking at the same window frame, the same kitchen, the same stairwell.
It is rare that the camera is static in In the Mood for Love, but it doesn’t have the frenetic “let me just keep cutting back and forth to try to create the story in the editing room” feeling that so many films now have. He already HAS the story. The word “mood” is in the title. That’s key. This is certainly a mood piece, and the gorgeous top-notch soundtrack is essential to the film’s impact. But so, too, is that slowly moving nosy camera, stalking the characters through alleys, peeking at them from behind corners, never seeing them wholly, just their parts, fragments.
Part of the fragmentary approach also means that we don’t see them entirely, and much of the angles are at mid-riff level, so what we get is shot after shot after shot of people’s middles: when they stand up, their heads leave the frame, and we watch their torsos interact. It’s strangely gorgeous. It worked on me in multiple ways.
One was: In the Mood for Love is about the music (the soundtrack is superb. as I mentioned), and it takes place in the 1960s, so the radio was paramount. There are multiple shots of radios, in every space, every setting, and it’s rare that there is not music in the background. This may be me going out on a limb, but one thought that occurred to me was that the entire film was from the RADIO’S point of view. We saw what the radio saw. If it was placed in the living room, and people were talking down the hall in the kitchen, then the camera was placed in the dark living room and we peeked down into the lighted room in the distance. When people stood up, the camera didn’t move, because the RADIO doesn’t move. We are at the radio’s level, which is around the waist-line. The radio is omnipresent in the film (although subtle, it works ON you, rather than presenting itself blatantly), so I wondered if the entire thing was seen from within that box of music in every space. I haven’t read reviews of In the Mood for Love, or critical analysis pieces, so I may totally be stating the obvious here, and people may think, “Duh, of COURSE the film is from the point of view of the radio – that’s the whole point!” – and if so, then Yay! I feel very smart!
The other thought I had was about love itself. The movie is about love. Yearning and longing. Unrequited feelings, and being unable to act upon them. When you love intensely, and then you lose that love, often when you look back upon that person, you do not remember them “whole”. You remember how they smelled. Or you remember what their mouth was like. Their wrists. You remember that dress she wore that day. Or how he crossed his legs. They come to you in fragments. That is how memory works. Emotions often come to us through the senses, not through narrative, and so In the Mood for Love sees its main characters as their parts, without (somehow) seeming like all the camera is doing is objectifying their bodies. The camera lingers and pans and passes back and forth, the “eye” capturing the perfection of Cheung’s curves, or the brooding handsomeness of Leung’s face, and the overall effect is that we are seeing them as they saw one another. Epitomes of beauty. Of what they most desire. This is a difficult feat to pull off. Camera moves like that can end up de-personalizing the human beings in the frame. In the Mood for Love is top-heavy with unexpressed emotion, and the camera shows that. The characters ache. We ache with them.
Along with that, when you are in love, what is more powerful than the telephone? Wanting your love to call, waiting for the call, receiving the call, aching for the call … Phones are filmed with that kind of resonance here, and they dominate. They never just look like themselves. A simple practical object. They look like stand-ins for something else, emotion, love, hopes. The worst possible object to have in your vicinity when you are madly in love with someone is a phone that is VEHEMENTLY not ringing.
There is a distancing narrative device at the start and finish of the film, with white words on a black page, as though the entire thing has just been a story. As indeed it is. There are no “I”s in this narrative. Only “she” and “he”. This, to me, also dovetails with the experience one has in looking back on a great lost love. It helps to try to distance yourself from the fresh pain of it, to look at it as a story, like any other, and not a defining event of loss which shaped you forever. The words on the page say that “he”, when looking back on the past, saw the events as “blurred and indistinct”, the comforting oblivion of time passing. Not healing all wounds, but softening the edges, putting them in the past, not the present. In the Mood for Love, throughout, sees the characters with “something in the way”, at all times, even if it is just another passerby, or a house-plant – because memory often acts in this manner, and this film is one of the most nostalgic films of all time. Nostalgia is tough. If you lay it on too thick, your audience will gag on the syrup. But if you are honest with it, and come at it from a place of pain and understanding, it can be a slam-dunk. In the Mood for Love has almost no sentiment in it (or I should say “sentimentality”), and the emotion is held back, agonizingly, leaving space for us, the viewers out in the dark, to feel FOR them.
Collage of screengrabs below the jump, illustrating some of the things described here, although if you haven’t seen the film, you really must. It is a work of art.
Look for the repeats of certain images. Look for the dreamy use of color (totally specific – nothing in the frame is an accident). Look for the radio’s POV, seeing people’s waists, heads cut off. Look for mirrors, fracturing the images. Look for the fragments, the shadows in the foreground, and the way objects are filmed in a talismanic way, investing them with all kinds of significance. Look for all the interference. We rarely see them clearly. We want to peek through curtains, pull back the drapes, crawl out from under the bed at one point, to get a full look at what is going on. It is a perfect example of content dictating form. Or at least informing form. There is emotion here, but it is not intellectual. It is felt, viscerally, from the wonderful performances of the Bogart and Bacall of China, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, but also from how that camera follows them around, incessantly, sneakily, aching to get the full picture.