In The Mood For Love: Frames Within Frames
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In The Mood For Love: Frames Within Frames

October 20, 2019


When I write these film analyses, I usually start by watching the film with a notepad, writing down all the things I think are interesting. When I started watching Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’, the first thing I wrote was: meaning that every single shot feature characters not only framed by the rectangle of the film itself but by smaller internal shapes as well. Now this is a visual technique that film makers have used for decades my favourite example is the great last shot in John Ford’s masterpiece, “The Searchers.” But seldom is it used so ubiquitously. As the film went on, I had to cross out 5 from my little note and change it to 6, 7, 9. It wasn’t until minute 12 that I saw the first shot without some foreground obstruction. This shot, which crucially doesn’t feature either of the two main characters… …but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. ‘In the Mood for Love’ is the story of two married couples who happen to rent rooms in the adjacent homes of older couples in 1960’s Hong Kong. the film focuses on the husband of one couple, Mr. Chau and the wife of the other, Mrs. Chan as they both gradually discover that their spouses are cheating on them with each other and then, how those two innocent victims of infidelity come together to deal with the pain of that the film manages to be unsentimental with its subject matter while couching the events in sumptuous, painterly cinematography. The narrative skips and jumps forward through time at an erratic speed as one might recall the story in memory and the viewer is often left entirely confused as to how much time has passed between scenes. This prompts a strong engagement with the film, a need to pay attention but it also reflects how the film was made. There was little more than an outline when Wong Kar-Wai and his crew began filming a process that took a long 15 months in which the script and the individual scenes were written on the fly by the director and the actors together, which is surprising because watching the film you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of somebody with complete control. Visually and emotionally, ‘In the Mood for Love’ is fully consistent. The film is so self-contained that it only features a handful of locations each filmed from the same angle so that you experience a kind of circular effect of returning again and again to the same things This technique, far from feeling sluggish or repetitive instead isolates against fixed backgrounds, the things that actually are changing in the film – the inner lives of the two leads. And for the most part, these inner lives are explored wordlessly. The real action of this movie is in postures, glances and touches and by restricting the language, Wong Kar-wai echoes the restriction of action that plagues Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan in 1960’s Hong Kong where they are under constant threat of gossip, a kind of surveillance from their landlords and the community at large. This is one reason why everything is doubly framed. By placing objects in the foreground the director enhances the feeling that the characters have, of being observed, not to mention our own feelings of being observers. Observed and observing, seen and being seen, what we desire from others, what others desire from us – these are major themes of ‘In the Mood for Love’. I think the most extraordinary element of this film is what’s introduced just after the two main characters admit to each other: that their spouses are cheating. Instead of confronting the situation head on, their primary goal becomes to understand exactly how it happened. So we get this incredible scene where they re-enact the seduction of their spouses in which each attempt to embody the spouse of the other while being coached by the other on what they think the spouse really would, or wouldn’t do. This makes for a really complex, but also kind of perverse interplay. Though the film aggressively focuses on only Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan to the point of never even showing the faces of their spouses, we’re always aware that four people, not two, are involved here. But it’s not four real people, it’s two people and two phantoms. Think of what’s being asked of Chau and Chan in the seduction scene. In the guise of understanding what happened, each victim attempts to seduce their own spouse in the form of the other’s spouse. A task that has to be doomed from the start because the fact of the affair itself means that neither Chau nor Chan can any longer illicit that kind of desire that they’re trying to recreate You could describe this course of action as masochistic, and Wong Kar-wai lets us feel this by not making it obvious when Mr. Chau or Mrs. Chan are being themselves or being each other’s spouses. Often we’re a minute into the scene and interpreting it one way, before the reality or perhaps the unreality of the moment hits us, like a gut punch. But because each player is constantly coaching the other, they’re able to construct a fantasy in which they control their own betrayal. And by never consummating their own budding love for each other, Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan can infinitely delay the moment in which they have to see things as they really are. They can stay in their fantasy. It’s a tragic and twisted state of affairs, and Wong Kar-wai has said that if Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung weren’t such beautiful actors the darkness at the centre of their characters and their fantasy would be obvious. Of course, they can’t keep it up forever, and in the scene where Mr. Chau finally admits his love for Mrs. Chan most of the fantasy comes crumbling down. As he says they are like their spouses, which means that the thing they’ve been refusing to see, their own lack that they’ve ceased to be an object of love for their loved one rushes into consciousness, like a wave. And yet still, they don’t act on it. They can only let the brutal truth in so much. In order to survive, in order to move forward, Mr. Chau and Mrs. Chan doom themselves to missed connections. This is why at the end, the film jumps forward to see them just missing each other twice. Just missing each other, the mere possibility of a connection, not the connection itself is what sustains them now. Everybody lives within fantasy, within frames. Sometimes the frames are made by us, sometimes they’re made by others. Sometimes we need to believe that those made by us are made by others. But whatever the case, there’s no way out of the frame. When fantasies rupture or crack or breakdown completely, that’s trauma, like living temporarily in a storm. Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ is a gorgeous, quiet and painful exploration of what happens when the fantasy you create for yourself is a perverse one, when it only serves to keep you from the pain that it was created to avoid. And, the reason the film is so heartbreaking is because this kind of perversity is really quite common to all of us. Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching I hope you enjoyed it, God, I love this movie. If you think that The Nerdwriter is something that you’re not seeing anywhere else on YouTube and you want to help support it, help me keep putting the time and effort it takes to make videos like this you can pledge to my Patreon page, that would be awesome, you guys have been amazing and every little thing helps, so you can click here right now to do that, as little as $1. Thanks again and don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t already to get all these videos and stay tuned for some really cool stuff coming up, some cool collaborations coming up, and here, are some more videos.

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  1. Loved the sentences at the end, The fantasies we all have and the frames made by us and others, starting this untill the goodbye! Intelligent and real.

  2. Day after day when I get to see your work…I am falling for u, Nerdwriter!!! God, ur voice…the way you think…Your worldview…everything is making me drive crazy for you…. <3

  3. The first time I watched this I was such an idiot I didn’t put the pieces together that their spouses were cheating with each other. Really ruined my first experience, so many things I missed because of that little misunderstanding in dialogue.

  4. Does anybody here know the name of the short story that inspired this movie? In imdb it says that a Japanese short story concerning two characters who often walk by each other in a stairwell, but do not converse. In that story the characters end up committing suicide. I tried googling but cant find it.

  5. It is really sad that nowadays there are so little young people in HongKong would like to try the classic HongKong movies.Our own culture is being forgotten by our youth. Only HongKong people could sense that there are so many metaphor about the political environment in HongKong which means that HongKong was retured to China from England but the HongKonger don't feel like a Chinese at all afte the isolation. And we could feel the loneliness from this series of movies. Sorry for my poor English

  6. “Everybody lives within fantasy within frames, sometimes the frames are made by us sometimes by others, sometimes we need to believe that those made by others are made by us. whatever the case there is no way out of the frame” couldn’t agree more.

  7. The commentary was literary visceral poetry in my honest opinion having been very familiar with the making of this movie (via DVD special features menu).
    Awesome piece.

  8. Omg please do a video analysis on The Hand directed by Wong Kar Wai as well! It’s 1/3 stories in the anthology film Eros (2004) 💕

  9. Such a perceptive write-up. I acknowledged this movie to be a rare gem when I first watched it. Now I have some additional and very deep reasons for regarding it as such!

  10. I don't think '"perverse" is the right term, since its such a subtle and slow burning film of two people relationship, perverse automatically relates to a negative connotation, and this is more "longing" and "desire" but not so up front that it becomes inappropriate, but I understand where you're coming from

  11. If you are from Wong's hometownHong Kong or you know what has being going on. This film will add a whole different layer of meaning. Same as his other films like 2046

  12. I thought they do sleep together in the directors cut tho? Hence the little boy being theirs, and Mr. Chow whispers the secret at the end, etc.

  13. One of my most favorite movies of all times. I have watched it at least 10 times. Thank you for the interpretation of reenactement scences.

  14. I know this analysis is years old, but I still wanna post this comment on the most relevant video about this masterpiece of a movie:

    This movie effected me very deeply emotionally because it displayed my greatest fear: settling. Not settling down… just settling.

    I watched my parents do it, I watched my friends do it, I watched my relatives do it. They settled into marriages in which they're unhappy; they're abused, or cheated on, or just miserable, and my greatest fear is that I'll settle for a miserable love life just so that I can have any love life at all, and that I might realize that i DID settle far too late.

    I might feel real love after already being married to someone I'm indifferent to.

    And that's what happened to these characters. She's being cheated on, and she stays with her husband.

    It's doomed.

    It shattered me.

    I can't watch this movie more than once or twice in my life because it terrifies me.

  15. Excellent analysis! I think there are only few films that require so much maturity to watch. And that is so full of symbolism and details. You can watch it 10 times, each time with the focus on some other thing, like her cheongsams, the colour scheme, the slow-mo, the music, the rain, the food, the rooms etc.. What do you make of the omnipresent clocks?

  16. I wanted to add more, magical it may seems earlier when the words haunted me, now they speak and its all because of you. Essays will be the mouth for me, thanks.

  17. I've watched this movie several times.. but I couldn't understand why it struck me.. your review made it crystal clear.. We are all born to suffer

  18. This is one of my favourite films, the cinematography is stunning. You should check out 'Ashes of Time.' as well.

  19. Thanks! An achingly beautiful movie. I don't want to watch it again because I'm afraid it won't live up to my memories.

  20. Such a good movie, love your video <3 I remember aching for them, the way they chose to live their relationship as a protest to their own spouses is criminal and awfully sad, yet so pure, honoring what they thought was right.

  21. In 2003 when I was at art school in Istanbul, this film was shown us for cinematography. This film I don't know why, still effected me a lot. A lot that changed me. My relationship effected, my education as well. May be that was just a push maybe it was not related to this film…

    This film is something else for me. So, special thank you to review this piece. It really helped me to solve its effects.

  22. Don’t remember this film much except Maggie Cheung’s Wardrobe and her beautiful figure. As for restrained society, Chinese is better now. The real conservative and confining one is South Korea. I don’t know how people can breathe under so much expectation and limitation (social economically).

  23. This movie was painfully breathtaking and every scene accompanied with that background score was both beautiful and heartbreaking.

  24. Ce film est nul, il met en scène des personnages complètement
    imaginaires et irréels dont les comportements ne correspondent
    pas à la réalité humaine; c'est une construction intello-intellectuelle
    imaginée par un individu qui se croit intelligent mais qui est en fait
    incapable d'utiliser un langage simple, vrai, naturel.

  25. Clocks, counters, rain, smoking cigarettes, cigarette smoke (without cigarette), leaning, stairways, streetlight, frames, mirrors, stoicism, loneliness, silence, slow motion, nostalgia and unconsummated everything…Wong Kar Wai.

  26. I really enjoyed this essay, and it even inspired me to watch this movie sooner than I intended. It is amazing piece of art, with its slow pace, mood, and the theme of desire, longing and unfulfilled dreams it resonates so much. I want to thank you for your effort on this one, good work.

  27. Please have a look at the new Indian Tamil Movie ("96"). This movie has a similar effect and one freezes in time. The movie has a hangover and every revisit brings new set of questions with a lot of nerve-stopping scences in the movie. This I call an immotional Master Piece. I think NERDWRITER can give a new dimension with his voice and perception. Here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3-lyX9O6kY ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I6KBcn3gvw0 ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=622tpLBfntI . ; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDo24-Tqlbs

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