The Pulchritude of Passion: Wong Kar-Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’ and Luca Guadagnino’s ‘I Am Love’ Showcase Beauty in Tragedy

There’s no question about it: I am a very visual person.  As this blog will certainly attest to, it’s perhaps no surprise that the films I gravitate towards are ones that not only strike the viewer emotionally, but also aesthetically.  In this edition of #FilmStrips, we’ll be looking at two films that do just that — and memorably so: Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (2009).  Through the use of strong audio-visual cues – intertitles, vibrant images that seem to spill off the screen, and sweeping music — all set against the lush backdrops of Hong Kong and Milan, In the Mood for Love and I Am Love both provide a breathtaking view at love’s potent power.

In the Mood for Love [Mood] follows the story of two neighbors, Chow Mo Wan (or Mr. Chow himself, Tony Leung) and Su Li-Zhen (here referred to as Mrs. Chen, played by Maggie Cheung), whose respective spouses have become involved with one another.  After crossing paths several times, the two start an unusual bond.  At first, the basis of their friendship surrounds them meeting so they can “re-enact” their spouses’ affair, in the desperate hope that they would find out how it began.  Gradually, their relationship starts to run on a deeper level; they start spending more time together, collaborating on Chow’s martial arts serial and continuing their pretend affair.  Eventually, it no longer feels like a “rehearsal” and they start to develop feelings for one another; in the act of trying to understand their spouses’ infidelity, they unknowingly doing the same. 

I Am Love [Love] goes off into a forbidden love affair of its own, though one with ultimately very serious consequences.  Starring (and produced by) chameleonic actress Tilda Swinton, Guadagnino’s film follows Swinton as Emma, a Russian ex-pat living in Milan as the matriarch of the prominent Recchi family.  The Recchis are overseers of a longstanding textile-production dynasty, and the film starts at a very important turn in their fortune: for one thing, patriarch Edouardo Senior announces his retirement, handing over the company to his son and eldest grandson (Recchis Tancredi and Edouardo Junior, respectively).  Secondly, the younger Edouardo, or Edo, not only introduces a new woman with whom he is smitten and intends to marry, but a new man, as well: Antonio Biscaglia (Edouardo Gabbriellini), a modest chef with whom he partners on a restaurant venture.  However, it is the discovery of a recent affair between her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rorwacher) with another woman — not to mention Emma’s own mounting affection to Antonio, which sets the rest of the story into motion.

There are certainly notable contrasts between each of the two films: where Mood is almost entirely set in claustrophobic spaces, Love revels in juxtaposing its characters against spacious, scenic locales — particularly, that of grand architecture and nature.  Where Mood centers around the tension developed between its two main characters from the restraint and constricts of the 1960s, Love is all about the fulfillment of unbridled and unabashed desires at the turn of the New Millennium, no matter how forbidden.  Yet, despite these differences, each film takes similar cues which center on a singular, universal truth: the throes of passion and its consequences.

Both Kar-Wai and Guadagnino jump in, head-first, into their respective stories and the emotional arcs each one takes simply through the presentation of each of their respective films.  In a way, each film reflects the temporal sensibilities of the other — Mood, a film set in 1960s-era Hong Kong, is presented with a simple red-and-white intertitle, evoking a more contemporary feel.  Meanwhile, Love‘s opening title card harkens back to quite a different time than the Millenium-era Milanese milieu (try saying THAT five times fast) it immerses us in.  Wong Kar-Wai’s use of quotations in the intertitles which follow Mood‘s initial introduction helps us settle into the film’s time and place, delving us deeper into the emotional landscape of the characters.  This device is typical of in the films of Kar-Wai — most particularly, in the informal trilogy of films set in 1960s Hong Kong, of which Mood is a part (the other two of which include Days of Being Wild [1990] and 2046 [2006]). Guadagnino’s own use of titles does the opposite, merely serving as a device for the audience to — quite literally — orient themselves in the landscape in which the story is set.

It is interesting that Kar-Wai should choose to use words as the device in this instance, as it is words themselves which are scarcely used in the interactions between his two characters, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chen.  The two characters meet as Mr. Chow and his wife move into the same apartment building at the same time Mrs. Chen and her husband do.  They exchange niceties and occasionally, as neighbors are often wont to do, and encounter one another: up and down the steps on the way to the noodle stands, in alleyways and of course, in the halls of the apartment complex.  For a while, it is as if they are but two ships passing one another in the night; this all changes, however, when the two discover that their respective spouses are cheating on them with one another.  

Because of the societal restrictions Ms. Chen and Mr. Chow face, it comes as no surprise as to why its mise en scene are all so flamboyantly flaunted.  Everything — from the sets, costumes, to even the food — is carefully constructed and framed, to an almost fetishistic degree.  This offsets quite nicely against the depiction of the two characters, both of whom spend much of the film interacting silently, with dialogue peppered throughout.  Their encounters are whittled down to a glance, a gesture, a touch — whilst everything else around them does most of the talking.

As described by The Nerdwriter‘s Evan Puschak: “Every shot [in Mood] exists in a ‘frame within a frame.’  Visually, the private moments between the two would-be lovers, as they spend more time with one another, are expressed in the film with the camera’s gaze “peeking” through and against various types of barriers — gates, curtains, mirrors, and corridors.  Despite its insular appearance, this secret world we’re watching is inhabited “not by two, but four people,” Puschak argues, and this constant awareness of the lives of the two other people involved in the unwitting love-quadrangle is further heightened through these physical barriers.     We never see their spouses’ faces, but we do see them, framed by people (yes, people), doorways, and mirrors — the latter ultimately a device used to foreshadow and literally reflect on the doomed outcome of Chan and Chow’s own affair.

The motif of hidden secrets and Audience-as-Voyeur are certainly seen in Love, as well.  The voyeurism starts early, with the camera zooming in on family photographs during the elder Edouardo’s dinner party, giving viewers the impression of a seemingly happy and comfortable family life.  However, it is primarily through Elisabetta that we begin to see more examples of private moments unwittingly witnessed:  at first, slowly, with Betta and her then-boyfriend behind closed doors; then later, with Emma stumbling upon a stowaway letter from Betta to Edo, wherein she confesses her love for another woman.  This discovery of her daughter’s passions ultimately leads to the unfurling of her own.

If strong visual cues are used to let the audience in, it’s the music that keeps them staying.  Both films’ inclusion of music are completely intentional, carefully selected by their respective creative teams in order to lead and heighten their narratives.  Those familiar with Kar-wai’s oeuvre certainly know the importance of music in his films.  In Mood, themes of nostalgia and memory are heavily evident.  From the moment Shigeru Umebayashi’s “Yumeji’s Theme” (from the film Yumeji) starts, we are in for an emotional cinematic ride, Wong Kar wai-style.  

In “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas,” Nat King Cole sings: “Siempre que te pregunto/ Que cuándo, cómo y dónde/ Tu siempre me respondes/ Quizás, quizás, quizás” — which, in English, translates to: “You won’t admit you love me/ And so how am I ever to know?/ You only tell me/ Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.”  Here, the music echoes and embodies the unspoken passions and desires never fully expressed by the characters themselves.  It feels as if it were written especially for the film itself; yet another characteristic familiar to discerning Kar-wai viewers. 

This is very much the case in Love, if in a different way.  The film uses composer John Adams’ music (particularly, selections from his operas Nixon in China [1987] and Death of Klinghoffer [1991], as well as Shaker Loops [1978] and Century Rolls [1996]) throughout.  An early moment in the film utilizes his composition “Lollapalooza,” wherein Emma sees Antonio whilst on a trip to Sanremo and proceeds to give chase.  Reminiscent of something out of a Hitchcock film, the piece stops and starts just as she does, literally underscoring Emma’s every move, as she inches her way closer to Antonio’s figure.   The scene has an almost dreamlike quality and is executed almost entirely without dialogue.  With their distinctive visual styles and storytelling techniques, both In the Mood for Love and I Am Love have earned their respective places among the pantheon of tragic romance, each serving as a pars pro toto: a perfect part of a beautiful whole.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s