When directors try to capture three dimensions – that is, life – in what is essentially a two-dimensional medium, interesting things happen. This particular constraint of the film media produces an opportunity to create a richness of feeling that takes on its own narrative qualities. It discloses much more than the actual plot, a phenomenological attitude which allows the world of the story to express itself, even as it serves to bring the narrative forward.
I first watched In the Mood for Love at an art house film theatre in Santa Monica one August. I watched it with a dear friend. To this day we remember that peculiar feeling with which we left the theatre, partly electrified, and partly seduced by the rumba rhythm of the film. We talked about the art direction, the music, the sound…but not the love story. Even now after a half a dozen viewings, I still don’t remember how it ends.
For the film is full of texture, and this is what captivated me. Mid-grey suits suitable for tropical weather; peeling paint in doorways, alleys, walls; restaurant wallpaper; brocaded lampshades; the folds of a sofa; the movement of a window shade. Oft-cited by other critics is Maggie Cheung’s 20+ cheongsams, which suggest romance and sex, but more importantly the constraint of her propriety. I particularly enjoy the mix of “high-style” (the mid-century modern clocks, the cheongsams, the purses) with the street style – the city’s grit, harsh lights, density, constant smoking, steam from restaurants. It seems to suggest that love and beauty can emerge from tumult. The art direction and cinematography (William Chang/Christopher Doyle) move together so well that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. But beyond the feeling which these textures invoke is a meta-narrative. Ms. Cheung’s cheongsams reflect her moods, her change of feeling, her realization, her descent into knowledge and heartbreak. In the restaurant, a detailed discussion between the two cuckolded spouses about purses and ties is actually a conversation about their spouses’ infidelity. It is satisfying to watch these textures be independent of the story and then support it at critical moments.
In this film, I have a particular obsession with the scenes shot in the noodle house, which convey a great deal in its narrow point of view: you can smell the dumplings, the sweat, her imagined perfume, as well as feel the heat and her frustration. In the office scenes, you can especially smell Tony Leung’s gorgeous and slick black hair, which I imagine smells of pomade and aftershave, and his colleagues’ numerous cigarettes. Here, texture and smell – both of which we imagine – take on a three-dimensional quality. What the filmmakers produce is not a just a milieu, but a complete universe which is much more real than what it is in fact. By real, I mean an imagined experience which is sincere in its convictions and unsparing in its detail. I have temporarily cast the narrative aside to let my consciousness into a world of signification.