Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of film -- one frame at a time
Director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle collaborated on a number of fantastic films -- everything from Chungking Express and Fallen Angels to the period film Ashes of Time. Their work together is marked by lush visuals, smoldering intensity, and amazing performances from the actors they place in their projects. No single film exemplifies this quite as as well as In the Mood for Love.
Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Maggie Cheung star in this period drama set during the 1960's. They move into next door apartments with their respective spouses and learn that their significant others are having an affair. Stung, they form a bond to try and understand how this could have happened -- and wind up developing feelings for each other in the process.
The narrative synopsis makes In the Mood for Love (which gets its title from the Bryan Ferry version of the song in the film) sound like it could be your typical Hollywood romantic drama -- but believe me, that couldn't be less true. What Wong and Doyle have crafted is a beautifully subtle tale filled with a sense of lingering passion and longing. It's an incredibly romantic film, but not in the way most western audiences view romance. This take on love is restrained and conservative. Those expecting a third act featuring Leung and Cheung coming together with stars in their eyes are in for a surprise.
In the Mood for Love is easily one of the most visually impressive films to emerge in the past decade. Christopher Doyle, who had already crafted a reputation for himself as one of the best cinematographers working in the industry, pulls out all the stops on this film.
Doyle has been quoted as saying "I think if you get one image per film that actually works, it's better than average." Using that criteria, I think it's safe to say that In the Mood for Love is far beyond average and an absolutely perfect choice for Framed.
In various interviews over the years, the cinematographer has discussed his approach to shooting In the Mood for Love -- stating "I've done many films where we have avoided red and that was a very conscious choice; up to In the Mood for Love, there's no red in Wong Kar-wai's films. For Chinese, red has a very special significance. It means joy. It's the color for marriages, temples ... in many ways it's the most beautiful color ... and it's a very auspicious color, with many associations in Chinese culture. That's why we have avoided in the past." He's also discussed how intimate the scene compositions are in this film -- how they highlight the crowded nature of Hong Kong and make the audience a part of the film by casting them in the role of voyeur.
We can experience that voyeuristic feeling and get a flash of red as well in this frame I've selected for this week's column. It appears at the 1:02:20 mark of In the Mood for Love on Netflix Instant Watch.
In this shot, we see Maggie speaking with Tony on the phone. The night before their phone call, she received a lecture from one of the older women in her apartment building -- telling her it's ok to have fun while she's young, but not to overdo it. Then the woman makes the discussion even more pointed by asking about Cheung's estranged husband and stresses that a husband and wife should spend more time together. Tony has now called Maggie in this frame, asking her to come to his room to help him write something. She tells him she won't be coming anytime soon, because she was chastised the night before, and refuses to tell him the details. Then she relates that they shouldn't see each other -- hanging up on him a moment later.
There's a lot to admire in this shot -- both at the surface and in the subtle details. The framing is immaculate, with Doyle capturing the actress in a quiet moment filled with hidden meaning. The viewer is once again thrust into the position of voyeur -- peering from behind a door frame. Doyle and Wong manage to get the door perfectly placed in the foreground, which is visible as a black shape that Maggie's dress seems to grow out of, or perhaps more accurately become overwhelmed by.
Red turns up as well, in the form of her floral dress pattern. It seems subverted here, though -- there doesn't seem to be any tangible joy in the shot, just a great deal of unrequited affection. This is felt most symbolically by Maggie's hand which appears tense and unsettled -- her veins noticeable and fingers practically clenched. Throughout the film, Wong Kar-wai has chosen to portray the sexual and romantic tension the couple feels by way of subtle body language, which when perfectly captured by Doyle's intimate camera angles starts to speak volumes about the emotions played out on screen. Shots of Maggie's neck, the curve of her hip, and the swell of her breast become detailed signifiers of her internal state.
Perhaps most interesting to me -- aside from the betrayingly simple gestures of Maggie's body -- is the coiled shadow of the phone cord climbing up her forearm. It feels cliche to say that old telephones have a personality of their own, but any David Lynch film, for instance, will quickly make you realize their power. The phone here is obviously a stand in for Tony, whose shadow cast across Maggie's body seems to become one with the veins pressing against her flesh. He has slowly become part of her -- whether she chooses to accept it or not -- and though it is never said, it is always understood in every instance the two share screen time. We are solemnly reminded of this scene once again when Maggie is too late to join Tony in Singapore, and calls him one evening but finds herself completely silent -- unable to say a word.
When studying this frame closer, it becomes readily apparent that nothing in this shot has been left to chance. Wong and Doyle have meticulously planned out every detail, which makes it all the more stunning because it proves both men are clearly artists with an understanding of how to evoke the maximum effect out of a single image. The shot is powerful because of these technical categories, but also on an emotional and instinctual level.
Wong and Doyle would return to the world of In the Mood for Love with a quasi-sequel entitled 2046. It's just as striking as this film in some ways, and would mark their last feature-length collaboration to date. Hopefully they'll reunite at some point in the future -- because as In the Mood for Love demonstrates, they're a formidable duo when it comes to the art of crafting compelling imagery.