There’s something to be said about the color tone of the movie before I delve into the story. It’s not quite technicolor, not quite sepia, but it’s quite close to all these and somehow gives off the feeling of being “oriental” – the British Oriental/Hong Kong look. This, which is slightly exaggerated in the poster above, but nevertheless true, along with the Chinese dialogue, makes the movie feel otherwordly.
The movie is about Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, whose families we see moving in as neighbors when the film starts. The initial scenes (and indeed much of the later ones) are deployed as cutscenes, so action never flows but in fits and starts. In one fragment we see the confusion of the move, in another a polite exchange between the couple, in another a conversation between Mr. Chow and the Mrs. Chan’s landlady, and so forth. I don’t mean to give the impression that it’s confusing – not really, but it feels like we jump directly into the meat of the tale, there’s no background or backstory.
A particularly poignant moment in the initial scenes is the depiction of a card game where both the families (and their flat owners) meet in a social setting. Accompanied to the lovely music which has the same name as the movie (I’m in the Mood for Love), we see the relationships between the people in the room move around like drift currents in the sea, changing subtly when they interact through a game. Mrs. Chow seems to linger around Mr. Chan (and gets in between Mrs. Chan and her husband) when she makes her way to her table, and Mr. Chow bows slightly to Mrs. Chan as he leaves his table – the whole scene is amazingly well woven with the tenor of the music.
Another thing to note, and this is ingenuous and crafted cleverly: never in the whole movie are the couple’s counterparts shown, we only hear their voices. This lends itself to a make-believe that Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are the only two people of importance around, but of course their actions revolve around what happens between their spouses. This is readily supported again by Mrs. Chow’s and Mr. Chan’s frequent absences – they often go on long trips, traveling as part of their work.
What does happen is that their spouses start an affair. This is not immediately apparent and is revealed slowly, but as the movie progresses into the first half, it becomes depressingly obvious. What happens next is what sets the movie apart – Mr. Chow invites Mrs. Chan to dinner and asks casually about her new purse. In turn, Mrs. Chan asks him about his tie. It seems their spouses have a carbon-copy of the items mentioned. A depressing silence follows and they admit to each other that their husband and wife are having an affair. What we see next is them walking back to the flat and Mr. Chow making an outrageous advance. Instead of slapping him (or as we might think, accepting it), she shrinks away and says, “My husband would never have done that!” The next flash scene shows her trying to make a coquettish advance but failing miserably. “You don’t know your wife well!” she says, and walks away from him.
They start a casual, more platonic than not acquaintance, the purpose of which is initially a mystery, until we suddenly remember the title. And yet, this is not a classic revenge-sex story, where a neglected wife has her pump primed by a neglected husband. Much later in the movie, Mr. Chow’s comments are revelatory. “I just wanted to find out how it could have started,” he says. An odd way certainly, but one in which they drift closer.
Initially they meet on the pretense of working together on a comic, and then absurd rehearsals of how their spouses might react when confronted. For Mrs. Chan, Mr. Chow becomes a shoulder to cry on, and they soon realize that what initially was just two helpless people reaching out to each other have bloomed to become love.
There are so many scenes in this movie that I remember that it’s impossible to describe them all. The couple intersecting in a crowded corridor, in a narrow alley, in the rain, together with that oh-so-impossible music – it makes for a heady experience. Noir comes to mind, but it’s more than that, sweetly-sick romantic too.
And oh the music – from the haunting title theme to the clever and bouncy Quizás, Quizás, Quizás (which reminds me of “Baabuji Dhire Chalna, Pyaar Mein Zara Sambhalna” [Aar Paar) it fits the movie perfectly in a way I’ve seen few other soundtracks do. Awesome!
The ending is bittersweet, but not entirely unexpected. There’s the cliche “Oh it could have happened another way” moment, but it’s overshadowed by the poignancy of Mrs. Chow’s heartbroken tears in the rehearsal of their parting. Wikipedia tells me this is part two of an informal trilogy. I do hope to see the other ones some time.
One quick word of appreciation to the Cochin Film Society and to @binnyva and @fsiyavud, who gives me company for these movies. A salute to kindred souls!