The cinematography of ‘In the Mood For Love’

It takes a lot to make a movie: a story, actors, a soundtrack and photography/cinematography. The latter seems often forgotten in reviews and in the general sense. It is as if we were going to the movies to see beautiful things, but actors and stories take precedence in our evaluations. Consciously or not, we tend to rate a very entertaining movie higher than a very beautiful one.

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With “In the Mood for Love/花樣年華“, director Wong Kar-Wai (王家衛) did not lack any of the ingredients to make a great movie, and next to the magnificent Maggie Cheung and an award-ready Tony Leung, he aligned Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bing for photography. It is said the former was replaced by the latter during production. Together, they have produced some of the most beautiful cinematography in recent history.

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In traditional photography, one has a relatively large range of format options: orientation, portrait or landscape, crooked picture, upside-down, etc. Their movie-making counterparts are however limited by the movie screens formats: that creative component offered to photographers is severed for cinematographers and is one flat and common option for all: horizontal and widescreen.

Wong Kar-Wai manages to play with this limitation using 2 distinct techniques. First, and I think the most noticeable graphical characteristic of the movie, is the permanent sense of verticality. In the example screen capture above, and the 2 stills below, notice how the frame is divided into action space (in focus), and the rest (out of focus), with vertical lines. Out of focus areas are empty of story-telling interest, nothing ever happens there: not a car passing, not an onlooker, and yet the space appears essential. The telephone, the walls, the window grid and the corridor, each play a part in the visual presence of each scene, and each section is delimited by vertical visual cues: here a door frame, there the grid of –presumably – a portal or a fence. It isolates the protagonists and guides our eyes to them, again and again.

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Second: in many scenes, the foreground is voluntarily obstructed with random objects (sometimes persons) and the focus is on the action in the background. The foreground becomes completely blurred, and is cleverly used to distort the frame format and directs the attention where it is wanted. Another telephone (!) and another door frame are part of this focus shifting. Once again, we are induced towards the action, which most means towards the couple.

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Actors are all therefore but put aside by doors and telephones. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) is a one-of-a-kind character, defined by her own codes of elegance, discretion and a very Asian/Chinese false shyness. In a word: she is highly aesthetic. One can think if a less talented actress would be able to hold so much focus throughout the whole movie. Ms. Cheung’s interpretation of Mrs. Chan gives even more opportunity to Wong Kar-Wai to expose graphically his story. He sometimes hides her, impresses her on us, just so our eyes can seek her out better. It is as if we are manipulated not only to look at her, but to seek her out in every scene.

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Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) is also seriously put to work for the movie general aesthetics. A sartorially inclined (with perhaps the exception of some funky neckwear) newspaper editor, he stands right in his shoes and in the frame, moving slowly. He is also contributing to the verticality of the movie: straight, clean haircut, ruler-straight ties, sharp decision-maker. But he retains this sort of mystery: what is he thinking — reminiscent of the picture selective blurness.

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In the mood for love is one of ‘my’ classics, those movies inspiring awe, along with Stanley Kubrick’s movies; for instance The Shining (noticed the corridor in the above still?) – also a director with an impressive record of fantastic and mesmerizing cinematography. Sometimes I wonder if directors are still able to produce such graphicality in their pictures: after all, if we the audience tend to prioritize the story, why would they not do the same?

Lastly, if you have enjoyed the story-telling features of In the mood for love, I invite you to get your hands and eyes on a copy of Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima mon amour , a difficult tale of love, with text by Marguerite Duras and her unique prose.

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