What the Radio Sees: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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12 Responses to What the Radio Sees: Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love

  1. Cara Ellison says:

    Sheila, I really enjoy your reviews. You mention the camera’s angles here, as you do in many of your reviews; it seems to be something you are consciously aware of. In fact I recall a picture of Marilyn Monroe that was taken an upward angle and you said, it would be “devastating to anyone else”. You seem to just KNOW how to interact in front of a camera, aware of its presence. So I’m curious, as an actress in school, was learning about the camera part of the curriculum? Is that something you developed on your own? Where does this awareness come from?

  2. red says:

    Cara – thanks! Well, think about it just from your own personal perspective: you probably know your best angles for snapshots taken of you. Like, “Oh, please don’t stand below me and point the camera UP at my face” or whatever – it’s similar to that. Movie stars know this stuff in their DNA. Claudette Colbert was, pretty much, ONLY filmed from one side of her face. She didn’t like the other side. If you watch her movies, you rarely see her shot in profile showing the right side of her face. Whether or not you agree with her perspective on that, it is the prerogative of a star to make demands like that. Camera men and directors knew that Ingrid Bergman shouldn’t be shot head-on – if they could help it – a 3/4 profile was the best for her – a head-on closeup somehow changed her, made her look bigger, her forehead wider – but turn the camera just slightly? MAGIC. Movie stars know their own faces the way other people in other professions know the basics of their craft.

    But in terms of what the director is up to, and noticing stuff like that (angles, shots, etc.): I have been studying movies like it’s my job (even though it hasn’t been) since I was 13 years old. I think Dog Day Afternoon was my “A ha” moment – that movies looked a certain way and felt a certain way – because a director DECIDED it was so. So I studied movies. Obsessively – and obviously still do! You get to know that stuff, when you start looking for it.

    And then of course I read books about this stuff – why certain shots work, what actors feel about certain shots, etc. Why John Ford chose the shots he did, or Kubrick, or whoever. It’s a craft. Kinda like how you can read a book and break down why it works, why it doesn’t – and what the author is attempting (and whether or not he or she succeeds). And you can do this without even really trying – because you read so much, AND you are a writer – it is your field. Your sensibility is tuned into it.

    I haven’t done that much film, but when I have, it is very helpful to know what the director is doing (how close will you be to my face, how big can I go with the emotion, what lens are you using). Or, not even helpful: an essential part of doing a good job.

    But mainly this just comes from watching movies obsessively since I was a tween, and asking myself questions: what do I like? what don’t I like, and why?

  3. red says:

    Oh, and what I said in the review about film being a visual medium: Unlike books, where a writer can DESCRIBE something, and take 2 pages to do it if he wants (and it may be awful, but still: that’s the thing with writing – you need those words) – a director has to do it in images. So HOW he or she tells the story is of the utmost importance. (This is true in writing as well, but since films deal in images, it’s a different technique).

    Like I saw The Hurt Locker – much of it is gritty and hand-held – and in this case, that technique works, because it puts you (visually) on the ground with those guys. It’s not SMOOTH.

    The form matches the content.

    But here, in In the Mood for Love, the camera moves are slow and panning, taking in everything in their path, dawdling even – This style would have been totally wrong for The Hurt Locker, because that’s not how those bomb-techs saw the world – they had to process information much quicker, or they would die. So the LOOK of the film and the FEEL of the film reflect that.

  4. Cara Ellison says:

    Thank you for the great answers. Okay, I have one more dumb question. This one is really silly but I’m curious.

    When you’re in a play or on tv/movies, and the script calls for you to whisper into someone’s ear, do you actually say something? Or do you just lean over and pretend to say something?

    The Method would be to actually say something, right? But if there are no words in the script, what do you say?

    Clearly I have too much time on my hands to be contemplating something so weird, but I’d like to know.

  5. red says:

    Sure, you could whisper something. If it’s a bad play, you could whisper to your co-actor, “I can’t wait to get the fuck out of here and grab a cocktail.” Or you could mix it up, every night, whispering something different – which would be a true test of the other actor’s mettle. Can he keep a straight face, even though you are supposed to be whispering some devastating secret to him – when in reality you are whispering, “There once was a whore from Nantucket …”

  6. red says:

    But back to the movie in question: a lot of people have linked to this out there on the web, and I’d love to hear from other people who have seen it – their thoughts, etc. It’s a well-loved movie, obviously – it was on a ton of people’s “Best of the aughts” lists, and rightly so, I think.

    Maggie Cheung is so wonderful – and I have been meaning to do a write up of her performance in Actress (or also known as Center Stage) – which is one of those performances that is emblazoned in my mind – even though I saw it 12 years ago or something like that. A magnificent piece of work from her (and from all involved) – a biopic about China’s first big silent film star – I actually have it on VHS (haven’t been able to find it on DVD).

    And Leung, as always, is amazing. I love to watch them work together. I was surprised to read that Kar-Wai really doesn’t work with a script – he keeps everything loose – so the tight highly planned shots here are even more amazing, because they ARE the story.

    My copy of the DVD has no commentary track on it – I wonder if Criterion has one out? I would love to read more about the “how tos” of this movie.

  7. nightfly says:

    Another reason occurs to me, why you wouldn’t necessarily see that many faces in this movie… the old expression, “He’s got a face made for radio.” It’s not a visual medium. If this movie is from the radio’s point of view, then we will not only see what the radio sees, we will also see what we see from a radio, and that’s a voice, a mood, and we have to fill in the gaps mentally.

    Having not seen this movie I can only guess, but your review suggests the idea of “filling in the gaps” of memories, and how evocative a snippet of a song can be, how it takes you right back into an *emotion* – not necessarily a visual picture, but a vivid return to how you were feeling. (Example: I can remember being in the car as a very young boy, miserably and loudly crying – howling, even – while my mom tried to hush me. The radio was playing “Looks Like We Made It” by Barry Manilow. I canNOT hear that song to this day without remembering how lousy I felt at that moment.)

    As an aside – don’t you love movies with wonderful soundtracks? It adds so much, while a bad score shoots every key scene in the ass.

  8. red says:

    Nightfly – I like that! Yes, the radio only gets the sounds (it’s a movie full of sound) – and seriously, this is a soundtrack to die for. So far I cannot find it on Netflix. It has lots of old standards, songs that War-Kai remembers from his childhood – his mother loved Nat King Cole, so there’s a ton of that – very romantic – but then there’s a love “theme” as well – and I cannot describe how awesome it is. A cello and a drum, I believe – melancholy, almost Eastern European sounding – full of lost love and yet also tension. It is NOT sentimental.

    Seriously: great flick. Put it on your queue!!

  9. Helena says:

    … if you’re still interested in the soundtrack, try searching for it via Spotify, where you could listen to it for free. Don’t know how that works in the States, but in the UK at least a whole double album of music is available. Happy hunting!

  10. Pingback: Snapshots | The Sheila Variations

  11. belledame says:

    i caught this on ifc about a year ago. it was a rapturous film. the visuals + music are mesmerizing. if this film also had ‘smell-o-vision’ it would be perfect. imagine being able to smell his cologne and pomade, her perfume, ah-mah’s cooking, the noodle shop, the humid city air, cigarettes, the rain, the closeness of that apartment house… it would add so much to what is already a fully enveloping piece of cinema. i almost didn’t care to read the subtitles. the attention that is paid to light, shadow, color, pattern, form. the places where the movie slips into slow motion and lets the music dance the viewer through the situation. all those trips back and forth to the noodle shop with her aloof and him trying to be friendly and us on the edge our seats watching this ‘missed opportunity.’

    and your observation about full-on facial shots is dead-on. when her eyes pop wide we’re desperate to know what she’s seeing. i found the ending to be the most heartbreaking, when they’re both visiting and that close to meeting again. a real shake-your-fist-at-the-heavens moment.

    truly one of the finest films ever made.

  12. purp says:

    do you have a review on the film ‘In the Heat of the Sun’?

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