Sex Scenes: 'In the Mood for Love' Is A Classic Horny Movie

Consider it for your next Criterion Collection and chill.

by Rachel Rabbit White
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Aug 13 2019, 3:48pm

Some pieces of art seem almost meant to be shared as an act of flirtation. We name drop them, discuss them, and if our crush hasn’t seen them we make a date to do so together like “Oh my god you have to see In the Mood For Love…”

The film is canon in flirtation, up there with classics like the poetry of Frank O’Hara, Lana Del Rey albums, In The Realm of the Senses, or for the more theoretically inclined Barthe’s A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (or if you’re a freak, Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille) They’re the sort of works that teach us what love is, what love should be, or could be, works that make us fall in love with falling in love.

In The Mood For Love is Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 masterpiece. Set in a glamorously retro 1960s Hong Kong, the film tells the story of Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Ms. Chan (Maggie Cheung) who live next door to each other in a crowded apartment building in the Shanghainese immigrant community. Both characters are beautiful and charismatic, and are brought together by discovering that their spouses are cheating on them—it seems, with each other.

Stephen Teo in his Wong Kar-Wai describes the movie as a “melodrama about love and romance,” but unlike the usual tropes of the genre the attention here is not on the cheaters, but on the casualties of the adulterous relationship. Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan, even as they develop feelings for each other, agree that “for us to do the same thing, would mean that we are no better than they are." Instead what they do is to re-enact how they imagine that their spouses’ affair to have started. They re-enact the dialogue, with multiple takes to determine which is the most credible, and in a particularly endearing scene at a restaurant they imagine what they would have ordered, Mr. Chow ordering what Ms. Chan’s husband might have eaten, Ms. Chan suffering through the spicy dish Mr, Chow’s wife likes. The energy is chaotically bottom for bottom.

The idea that a work of fiction is capable of inducing romantic feelings in the spectator has been well known since at least Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Francesca and her brother in law fall in love by reading a chivalrous tale together. For Chow and Chan the re-enactment of the affair works as a fiction through which they discover and they map their own budding feelings. By experiencing the fiction together they manage to name and express their feelings as if in a reflection. The reticence of the characters, that comes from the tension between their feelings and their morality, allows Wong Kar-Wai to explore the relationship not through action, like in a normal melodrama, but through a careful modulation of mood.

Kar-Wai achieves this through the use of modernist techniques borrowed from Hitchock and the French New Wave: the use of saturated colors from Vertigo, the recurring musical theme as in Godard’s Contempt, the attention for expressive detail from Bresson.

It is by avoiding action, instead building a vibe, that In the Mood for Love becomes evocative. Instead of concentrating on the resolution of the love story, on whether Chow and Chan will end up together or not, the tension becomes a mirror of the tension between the viewers.

The incredible detail of Ms. Chan’s hand tensing on a staircase, is parallelled in the anxiety of the amorous viewer as they are trying to figure out how to make their move. The movie becomes not about the consequences of love, but about the attitude to take towards it. The glamour of the couple becomes our glamour: their composure, their seriousness, and devotion endow even a fleeting crush, momentarily, with that same depth seen on screen.

There is no sex scene in the film, there is no resolution of the tension, and in a way that makes it the perfect preliminary to the hook up that follows, or even better, happens before its end. The imitation becomes a way to beautify our infatuation, to elevate what would have been a boring and sweaty summer fling from the mundanity of every-day life to something that we wish could be called poetic--something we can believe in or hold onto at least until we get off, a way to make it not just seem as if we were just horny all along.