Criterion Month: The Erotically Delibrate Body in ‘In the Mood for Love’

This essay is by our guest writer, Amanda Walencewicz.

Selecting the most indelible images from In the Mood for Love is somewhat of a fool’s errand, as Nathan Rabin alludes to in his review of the film for The Dissolve: “A coffee-table book commemorating every unforgettable image in In the Mood for Love would run many thousands of pages long and include literally every frame of the film,” he writes. But I would venture that for most viewers it is the gently swiveling hips of Maggie Cheung as she walks in her qipao, with her placid face and perfect coif. Her partner in the film, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, conjures a similar image, of impeccably tailored suits, slicked-back hair, and a face that displays only the quietest renderings of emotion. From their impenetrable physical presences comes not a stilted or awkward romance, but one that is deeply seductive.

Romance would seem to stem from openness, from unburdening oneself from the superficiality of one’s surroundings, from releases of tension and admissions of attraction. In the Mood for Love, instead builds that tension and never releases it, creating an unbearable longing for the characters and the viewer, which is satisfied only through the decadent visuals of the body. It is not a cheap tease, however, that director Wong Kar-wai goes for. It is not the idea of finding great pleasure in the small concessions given out of deprivation, the glimpse of the ankle on a fully-covered woman as it were. The body is a constant presence, a surrounding in which the viewer is immersed, excessive and lingered upon. It is both a counterpoint to the restraint of the characters and a result of it – the unintended byproduct of their very conscious actions.

One of the first things the viewer will notice about the physicality of the two main characters, Mrs. Chan (Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Leung) is their posture. Slouching is not part of their bodily vocabulary, which is partially due to the formality of the period, the buttoned-up early 1960s, but also the characters themselves. Chan and Chow are immediately established, in one of the first scenes, as reserved people set against the disorder of their moving-in day. Amidst this chaos, of chatty landladies and yelling movers, Chan and Chow are quiet and accommodating, striking elegant and distant figures. As the film progresses, they are shown to exhibit these characteristics at all moments. Their movements are careful and considered, slow and without extraneous gestures. Every motion is meant, whether it is the ascension of a staircase with a thermos of noodles or the placement of an arm on a desk to hold a cigarette in the air.

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The form of their bodies, and the lines that constitute them, are always perfect. They always place themselves as though they’re in a photo editorial. Chow’s stiffness and polite bearing at his desk are contrasted with his talkative friend’s informality and outrageous stories. But his form is matched by Chan, in the way she arranges herself on a chair to rub her husband’s back at the card game, straight back, neatly poised at the edge. They rarely slump or relax, posture always rigid but in an intuitive way. They are not performing their posture, but more likely have become so accustomed to its constant performance that it seems natural. These semi-public movements, in which the characters are in public, but not necessarily aware that they are being watched, are just as choreographed as those which they know for certain are being watched. A perfect example of this is found during the night Chan spends in Chow’s room, trapped by mahjong game of Mrs. Suen and her friends. Her presence must not be made known, and her exit from the apartment is carefully arranged, preserving both Chan and Chow’s propriety.

The deliberate uprightness of their observed movements carries over, for much of the film, into scenes with just the two of them. Their conversations are often elusive, not daring to mention anything that might be controversial, like their dance around the subject of their spouses’ affair. They say only enough to make their knowledge of the affair understood, but not any further, not into specifics, not into feelings. Of course, later on in the film, as they become more comfortable with each other, they talk a bit more about it, but still not in a free, spontaneous way. They keep their literal distance from each other at first as well, only daring to get close as they act out how they think the affair might have started. When he tries to hold her hand in the cab home, an ambiguous gesture that might be acting and might not be, she pulls away. This changes to an extent as the film progresses, with Chan allowing herself to cry on Chow’s shoulder or letting him hold her hand. These moments still preserve Chan and Chow’s correctness, in that they do not go any further, and at the same time acknowledge Chow’s sentiment that, “Feelings can just creep up like that… I thought I was in control.” In form and manners, despite their internal desires, Chan and Chow always retain their initial restrained respectability.

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The expression of that internal desire, then, comes in the hyper-sexualized visualization of the body, of the figures that Chan and Chow themselves try so hard to keep beyond reproach. In their rigidity, and the deliberate way they carry themselves, Wong finds forms to be eroticized, to be surveyed and lingered upon like works of art. The eroticism he builds from these images is not salacious or fleeting, or a momentary rush from a scintillating movement that soon passes. It is, rather, deeply felt and earned, starting as an inkling, a possibility, and spreading warmly throughout the film from there, until it colors every scene and peaks. He does so by matching their deliberation with his deliberation, isolating these classically postured bodies by suspending them in time. The camerawork is always slow, slow moving, slow to cut, even full slow-motion. He provides the staging for Chan and Chow to be looked at, or rather, for the viewer to realize that their real purpose here is looking at them, at taking their time, at noticing every detail. It is an instruction to the viewer to become patient, to forget about plot and structure and just watch, watch to appreciate how pretty they are, watch to see what emotions are discernable on their faces, watch to wonder what they’re thinking inside.

All of this can only be accomplished through slowness. Through slow-motion Wong can visualize the body in such a heightened way, showing how each part of a movement can be sensualized. As Chan walks up the stairs with her thermos of noodles, we see the motion roll across her body, from knee to thigh to hip to waist. In her form-fitting qipao, this motion is rendered almost explicitly in lines, as the fabric flutters at her knees and wrinkles across her body. Chow is also seen in slow-motion, as he too goes up and down the stairs of the noodle shop or walks in the apartment. But his sexuality is more present in other shots, like the static shots that show him holding a cigarette aloft, the smoke curling above him in an extension of himself. Or those with chiaroscuro lighting in a close-up of his face, highlighting strong and high cheekbones. The repetition of these shots adds to the sense of their idleness, giving the viewer even more time to consider their figures, and luring them into Wong’s sensual world through the hypnotism of this circularity.

Slowness and repetition, then, saturate the film in these images. They entirely dominate In the Mood for Love, and given their eroticized nature, they give the film a sense of decadence, of excess and pleasure. This, in turn, leads to the great contradiction in the imagery of the film, in how the rigid formality of the characters’ posture and movement unexpectedly becomes indulgent. The tension in how the characters carry themselves is felt by the viewer, but they are given the respite of pleasure that Chan and Chow are not, through Wong’s use of slowness as a medium for transforming the neutral into the highly erotic. His ability to do this allows the viewer to feel the passion that Chan and Chow feel for each other, which otherwise would be impossible to visualize, given their morally upstanding nature. The barriers that they have so assiduously crafted have been rendered irrelevant by Wong’s dreamy, infatuated camera. He works against them, creating an inverse of the intended effect of their actions. What is meant to be cooling is instead made hot, turned into a controlled buildup that simmers but never boils. The interior is projected onto the exterior, all through a refocusing of perception, an alteration of time. The only way to get into the heads of these characters, it would seem, is to focus intensely on their bodies.

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