What is true love?
If true love exists it would have to be timeless, wouldn’t it?
Of course it would. As many say when they meet the one, “time stood still.” Now as film is one of the very few artistic mediums based within time itself, a medium which can slow down and speed up, stop and go, jump into the future and come back into the past, Love would only be a suitable theme to cover in it.
Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (ITMFL) quintessentially exemplifies how love and film are a match made in heaven. Wong Kar-Wai and WIlliam Chang’s editing techniques from slow motion, to repetition, and to jump cuts, directly correlates time with love, and how relationships can be defined by time.
Most explicitly Wong Kar Wai and William Chang divides relationships into two categories married andnot married. While married there is always too much time, while not married (yet simply in love), there is never enough time.
Yet, when individuals cheat on their spouses, they forget what they are, married or not, in love or not. Marriage does not presume love, nor does love always lead to marriage. Wong Kar Wai explores this inconsistency throughout ITMFL, but his and Chang’s editing allows the audience to join in the journey.
The beginning of ITMFL primarily follows the two couples Mr. Chow and his wife, and Ms. Chan and her husband. Their spouses remain anonymous throughout the film, for they are to remain just that, spouses.
If the film revealed their faces, the audience would understand them as characters, analyze their actions, and sympathize with them. Although, not only would this deviate our focus away from Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan it would also establish the relationships between Mr. Chow and his wife and Ms. Chan and her husband as unique individual relationships. Yet the audience just needs to identify them as marriagesand nothing more.
One clear image juxtaposed to marriage is a clock. The clocks within ITMFL are first placed within work environments. Thus the clock in many ways correlates to the burden one must undergo such as one does within an occupation. You ever find yourself looking at your watch waiting for it to reach that next coffee break, that next meal, the end of the day? As time hangs in our minds throughout our 9 to 5, so do clocks hang above the workplace throughout ITMFL.
Yet, every time the film cuts to a clock, marriage is the always the topic at hand. For example the first time the camera cuts to a close up of a clock, Ms. Chan tells her husband over the phone, she will come home late. Yet, she says so while she intends to return home early in order to discover her husband in the act of cheating, which Ms. Chan does.
The second close up of a clock is when Mr. Chow receives a letter from his wife mentioning she is currently in Japan. Coincidentally Ms. Chan’s husband is in Japan at the same time. As soon as Mr. Chow crumples up the letter, the camera cuts to the clock again, where both Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan admit their presumption that their spouses are together cheating on them.
As Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan’s spouses cheat on them each, the burden of marriage they individually underwent becomes futile. Perhaps, as they question their marriage they may question all the time spent, and more importantly all the time they will have to spend with their spouse if they remain married. Thus with each moment of doubt, the film appropriately cuts to the clock, time itself, the burden of marriage.
Yet, ITMFL juxtaposes marriage with love NOT defined by marriage, or better termed as “free love.”
This may be too bold to say, but it would seem Wong Kar-Wai views free-love as an uplifting force which can make one embrace and even transcend time. Subsequently as ITMFL has clocks define, structure, schedule, and perhaps control the lives of it’s characters, as marriage might, ITMFL embraces time for all it’s worth through music.
There are eight instances in ITMFL where the image morphs to slow motion in order to embrace the slow three quarter music. Yet these slow motion sequences are best defined as waltzes. For as Shigeru Umebayashi’s lovely Yumeji’s Theme, a literal waltz, plays throughout each and the two, Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan move so slow, that what are the simplest of motions; walking, sitting, eating, etc, all evolve into elegant dance moves on a stage.
With each waltz Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan’s free-love relationship grows both physically and emotionally until the eighth when they finally are in love.
The first occurs right after both Ms. Chan and Mr. Chow’s spouses return from their trips “coincidentally” at the very same time. All the residents of the entire apartment floor play Mah-Jong together including Mr. ad Mrs. Chan and Mr. and Mrs. Chow.
Yet, as Ms. Chan enters to stand in beside her anonymous husband, the anonymous Ms. Chow follows, enters and squeezes in between the two to make her way to Mr. Chow.
However, Mr. Chow simultaneously leaves the room, and distances himself from his anonymous wife. Although as he passes by Ms. Chan and both share a glance. No other glance or look is seen or focused on. Amongst what must be dozens of shared moments and looks in such a boisterous room, this single look is all that matters, for it is not just a look, but an embrace of dance partners.
The second and third sequences build upon the first for now the entire environment dances as well. As Ms. Chan waits for her noodles, the packer shifts from one side of the frame to another as the lightbulb in the background sways from left to right as well. The environment is practically a living metronome.
The fourth waltz is a critically important one, for Mr. Chan and Ms. Chow go off to a hotel and sleep with each other for the first time, but out of revenge against their spouses. Even though the audience never sees them sleep with each other, let alone kiss, this scene is the most explicit evidence of any relationship between Mr. Chan and Ms. Chow,
Ms. Chan simply moves into the background out of focus, and unbuttons the top button of her dress. The film cuts to them driving back to their home completely bypassing what happened in the room.
Yet, the fourth waltz defines a a severe shift in their relationship. It is the last straw of resistance against the infidelity of their spouses. For each of the first four waltzes succeed Mr. Chow or Ms. Chan discovering a piece of evidence which prove their theory of their spouse’s affair. Yet, fourth is as clear proof of any of retaliation, ironically though it is proof of their own infidelity, or perhaps their own love.
Ms. Chan says shortly after the fourth waltz, she and Mr. Chow, “We won’t be like them.” What she says is we won’t cheat like our spouses; we won’t possibly become that which we hate. However, she says this for after the first real night of physical romance she has begun to fall in love with Mr. Chow, and subsequently doubts her intolerance of her husband’s infidelity, and begins to empathize with her husband.
She then is actually wondering when you fall in love through cheating, is that love any less valuable then that in marriage?
Although this question is most apparent throughout the remainder of the film as the two actually pretend at times to be their spouses. These “rehearsals” are pivotal times in the story. As they mock their spouses who are in love by pretending to be them, they in fact fall in love themselves.
Cleverly edited, as the two rehearse the same event again and again, each sequence is edited in the exact same way. These sequences are not in slow motion or explicitly looking away at another metaphorical image such as a clock, for they are neither about a married or free loving couple, and we the audience remain in suspense, trying to understand which one they are.
Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan in the first rehearsal mock the first time their spouses hit on each other. First Mr. Chow hits on Ms. Chan, next Ms. Chan hits on Mr. Chow. As they try with each rehearsal to recreate the dynamic their spouses share, Ms. Chan is never satisfied with their performance, as Mr. Chow easily accepts either performance.
In the second rehearsal Mr. Chow plays Ms. Chan’s husband as she plays herself and confronts her husband about having a mistress in order to bolster her confidence.
Although as we the audience do not see Mr. Chow’s face at first we infer he is actually her husband, that he is as real as she is.
So as the first time her reaction to his admittance of infidelity is too weak, the editor reveals that the weak reaction is actually to Mr. Chow.
Yet the second time Ms. Chan can’t help but be taken aback by her husband’s admittance, while Mr. Chow can’t help but care for her.
Ms. Chan’s first attempt is debunked as a fool’s effort, for she tries to pretend Mr. Chow is her husband. She compensates for fake circumstances with easy but simplistic performance. Although by repeating the rehearsal exactly as before, but now with admittance of Mr. Chow’s identity, the performance takes on more reality than expected.
However, our knowledge of Mr. Chow’s identity is to not be exactly understood as Ms. Chan’s knowledge. She understands Mr. Chow is always Mr. Chow. Yet, through editing we understand Ms. Chan’s feelings that much better. When Mr. Chow is revealed after Ms. Chan’s first lacking performance, only to be followed by the overwhelming surge of reality for Ms. Chan, we the audience sub-consciously correlate the reality she feels with reality of the relationship between the two of them.
Wong Kar Wai and William Chang could have revealed Mr. Chow at the outset of the scene, but we the audience would not be able to understand Ms. Chan’s feelings as viscerally. We would not correlate Mr. Chow’s presence with the reality that sets into Ms. Chan’s performance, and subsequently how present Mr. Chow is in Ms. Chan’s heart.
Although the reality of free-love extends further when they have their final rehearsal. Ms. Chan and Mr. Chow only do it one time, but that one time is so powerful for both the audience and the characters are as shocked as each other.
After Mr. Chow admits his love for Ms. Chan says he must leave to Singapore, but asks if she can help him “prepare.” As the preceding rehearsals had at least one person pretends to be the spouse, we expect the same of this one. We expect that one character will be genuinely tested as the other the actor. Seeing as this is Mr. Chow’s preparation we expect him to be real and Ms. Chan, the spouse.
Although Mr. Chow suddenly rehearses a break up, but whose break up? Mr. Chow with her Ms. Chan, the actual Ms. Chan, NOT HIS WIFE. After he says goodbye the camera pans up and follows the chill of Mr. Chow’s touch up Ms. Chan’s arm. Yet the film cuts to black. We realize now, not only is he in love with Ms. Chan, but Ms. Chan is in love with Mr. Chow.
Over black Mr. Chow now calms Ms. Chan’s cries. Until now when there is only sound, does the audience and Ms. Chan understand : it never mattered whether this was a rehearsal or not. To her Mr. Chow was real and his love was real. So his words of breaking up and leaving are just as real and painful to her, as they would be to Ms. Chow.
We the audience expect Ms. Chan to play Mr. Chow’s wife. We expect Mr. Chow to be the one to break down like Ms. Chan did in the previous rehearsal. We expect there to be one last time to rehearse as each other rehearsal session had multiple tries or takes. Yet, instead after the first try the film cuts black as though it were the end of the movie. With so much expectation built up the audience inevitably is shocked just like Ms. Chan, shocked as to how in love she is.
While marriage is confining and burdening, it is at least articulable. Throughout In the Mood for Love, the one thing that is clear is who is married to who. One only needs to see a ring or hear the words husband or wife. However, love is not articulable. Similar to music it is felt. That inarticulateness influences the anonymity of the spouses, the depravity of any visible physical relationship in the film, and the suspense and shock of Ms. Chan’s and Mr. Chow’s love for each other. Time is the only articulable feature of the film for the only scale which love can be explicitly articulated is time, for one can only say when one is and one isn’t in love. You either are or you aren’t, it is that simple. It is because of masterful editing, the manipulation of time in film, can we the audience understand the identity of Ms. Chan and Mr. Chow’s relationship, and follow it’s progression. Because of great editing, could time and love be so intimately interwoven.