One of the most commonly heard clichés about acting is that so-and-so could command attention just reading the phone book. Sometimes it’s a grocery list instead. Doesn’t matter how banal the text may be, is the idea—this actor can somehow make it interesting, just by virtue of his/her sheer magnetism. What we sorely need, though, and to the best of my knowledge lack, is an equivalent expression for directors. Maybe something along the lines of “could make a quick jaunt for takeout noodles seem world-shattering.” Surely we can all agree that there’s nothing inherently evocative about the idea of someone walking down a flight of stairs, buying dinner from a street vendor, and then heading back home, even if she’s impossibly gorgeous and happens to pass an impossibly handsome neighbor en route. It would take a cine-magician to transform such an ordinary errand into one of the most indelible interludes in recent memory.
Yet that’s precisely what Wong Kar-wai accomplishes in In the Mood for Love, his most achingly sensual exploration of thwarted desire. A hardcore romantic who hides behind ever-present hipster shades, Wong opened himself up like never before by returning to the scene of his ’60s childhood, telling the tale of a man (Tony Leung) and woman (Maggie Cheung) who gradually realize that their respective spouses are having an affair, then struggle mightily not to embark upon an affair of their own even as they genuinely fall in love. As you can imagine, that premise leads to emotional fireworks aplenty, but Wong creates an atmosphere of potent longing right from the start, before Leung and Cheung have exchanged more than a few neighborly pleasantries. This fleeting conjunction, for example, takes place about 15 minutes in, well before any plot elements have been revealed, and somehow conjures deep melancholy from thin air.
Granted, Wong leans extremely hard, both here and in multiple other spots throughout the movie, on “Yumeji’s Theme,” a piece originally composed by Shigeru Umebayashi for Seijun Suzuki’s 1991 film Yumeji. You could close your eyes and know you’re meant to feel somebody’s pain from the sad violin alone. (TV viewers in the U.K. have felt the pain of not owning a Mercedes Benz E-Class.) The key to the theme’s effectiveness in this context, though, is the simple, repetitive nature of the plucked notes that provide its rhythm, which make the keening melody seem like a lament about being imprisoned in maddening routine. I’ve never seen Yumeji, so I don’t know how the piece was originally used or what might have caught Wong’s attention; the only other filmmaker I can think of offhand who’s appropriated the score from a completely unrelated movie is Quentin Tarantino, who does it all the time. In both cases, there’s the sense of an emotion they wanted to convey that happened to be perfectly encapsulated by some pre-existing piece of music—a piece that their fetishistic nature wouldn’t settle for an inferior attempt to recreate.
(Actually, I just thought of another, forthcoming example of score appropriation: The Artist, a silent-movie pastiche, for some reason borrows Bernard Herrmann’s iconic Vertigo love theme. In that instance the anachronism seemed grating to me. No doubt you’ll remind me of other examples I’ve forgotten.)
Visually, Wong further suggests imprisonment by shooting the sequence in slow motion, albeit just barely. I’m not somebody who can calculate frame rates in my head, but I’d say this is only maybe 10-15 percent slower than real time—just enough to create a feeling of moving through molasses. Interestingly, this effect isn’t used (yet) the way you might expect: to elongate a moment of connection between Cheung and Leung. In this first ships-that-pass interlude, they never appear in the frame together in slo-mo; the camera actually makes a point of stopping to deliberately miss the instant they’re in close proximity, holding on the wall beneath a lonely streetlamp as Cheung exits to the left, then picking up Leung entering from the right. Just to emphasize it further, Wong subsequently depicts a completely different chance meeting on the stairs (they’re both wearing different clothes), at standard speed and with “Yumeji’s Theme” quickly fading out. For now, we’re meant to luxuriate in their isolation, and aren’t even afforded the minor consolation of mirror-image cross-cutting—we see only Cheung buy the noodles, see only Leung actually eating them.
Not that there aren’t plenty of mirrored images elsewhere. The first shot tracks Cheung from left to right, then downward as she starts to descend the stairs—at which point there’s a sudden jump cut, and now the camera’s moving from right to left as well as drifting downwards. Wong and whichever of the film’s three credited cinematographers shot this sequence (most likely Christopher Doyle) construct it entirely as a series of horizontal and vertical lines that abruptly reverse direction, using the gently swaying overhead lamps above the food-prep area as a visual pivot point when the camera stops moving and then jumps 180 degrees in one cut: We see one lamp swinging to Cheung’s right as she mops her brow, to her left an instant later as she pays and collects her thermos (or whatever the Chinese call that container). Her ascent back home is prefigured first by rising steam and then by an upward tilt from the vendor’s table. The entire sequence is so precisely calibrated that it almost feels oppressive, which is the whole idea. And all the while, we can still hear those same few plucked notes, over and over and over.
As you know if you’ve seen the film, Wong’s also doing some foreshadowing here: The sequence repeats about 10 minutes further on, with Cheung and Leung acknowledging each other as they pass on the stairs (the quick reprise at the end of this sequence suggests that it happens all the time) and then getting trapped together by a sudden rainstorm that suggestively erupts when the camera is holding on that blank wall between them. The plot kicks in two minutes later. But I suspect context isn’t really necessary here. You could show this scene as a three-minute stand-alone short film and people would still get the general idea, so beautifully expressive is its confluence of rhapsodic music, lush imagery, and plane geometry. And yet all we’re seeing is a lady in a cheongsam (“She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?” asks one of the women from whom she and her husband rent a room) and a dude in a suit getting some takeout. Though I must admit I’d happily watch Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung read each other the phone book.