In the Mood for Love is an exploration of infidelity, transience of time and unrequited love. A compelling feature of the film is how the setting carries the emotions and reflects the central questions of the narrative.
Corridors and stairways are recurring settings in the film. Both of these are conduits between two places, the wait before the destination. Constantly placing the actors in these frames points to the waiting, the half-there-half-not nature of their relationships. Adrian Martin’s book Mise en Scène and Film Style argues that mise-en-scène is a way of embodying an attitude toward human beings and their relation to the world. This is visualised through the choice of framing the characters in places that signify the medial. The ‘in-between’ nature of the corridors also reflects how the film exists within the realm of questions, refusing to provide resolved answers to the examinations of faithfulness, love, chance and fate. The medial nature of the setting further communicates the way the two protagonists are stuck between their previous failed relationships and the impossibility of entering a new one. The romance in the film is laced with a sense of defeat. With the attempts to understand how their partners entered extra-marital affairs and coming to the conclusion not to go down that path, the characters don’t end up crossing over to a non-liminal space. This absence of a metaphorical crossing over is also represented by the corridors and the stairways.
When Mrs Chang and Mr Chow go to buy ramen at the end of their workdays, the desolation of eating a store-bought meal alone is communicated through the scene being shrouded in darkness and a blank resignation on their faces. Here, emotions continue to be conveyed through images and lighting. What is important to note is how even here, the passage to the store is an alleyway, a transitional space. The protagonists lead different lives all day but are brought together in that ambiguous setting in the end, something that recurs throughout the film’s duration. In opposition to a resolved ending, this film concludes with more questions than answers in the viewer’s mind. Even as we see Mr Chow whispering his secret at the Angkor Wat and leaving, he is silhouetted against a passageway. The film mirrors the openness of the ending with the mise-en-scène till the very end.
There is a lot to explore in terms of cinematography, themes, symbolism and characterisation in this film. By focusing on individual elements of mise-en-scène, we can tease out the big and small choices that make this film timeless. This also allows us to understand the ways in which different elements work together to communicate what one may only expect the plot and dialogue to do.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.