A Critical Look at Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, but Mostly Just the Soundtrack

After fifteen arduous months, acclaimed filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s emotional masterpiece In The Mood for Love was finally completed. The film was met with international success after its release in 2000 due to the universality of its ethereal aesthetic beauty and stunning emotional realism. Themes in the film such as miscommunication, nostalgia, and secrets are manifested on a more metaphysical level both inside and outside the world of the film through Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping Bin’s cinematography and, more interestingly, Wong’s brilliantly curated soundtrack.

Wong looks at his film as a period piece that looks back accurately and personally at 1960s Hong Kong after the large waves of emigration from the mainland, specifically Shanghai (Béar). He draws from his own personal experiences by creating a familiar cast of isolated, gossipy Shanghainese neighbors and the vibrant cheongsam dresses his mother would often wear (Béar). He depicts Hong Kong in the ’60s as a crossroads of cultures, drawing in musical inspiration from the Philippines and the Americas (Béar). Hong Kong had a radio culture, which featured international pop hits that created an environment both enticing and isolating for the characters and viewers alike (Béar). In In The Mood for Love, few songs are in the characters’ spoken language of Cantonese. While Wong explains this as a product of the internationalism of Hong Kong at the time, it is hard to believe that he did not handpick the songs used to convey the emotional states of the characters and the miscommunications and secrets they faced throughout the story.

As a favorite amongst art house crowds around the world, Wong’s films undoubtedly have a sense of universality to them. Besides the ever-relatable emotionality and sensuality of his films, he also manages to connect this broad audience by using songs sung in quite a few languages (English, Mandarin, Spanish). The songs he curates do not dwell in the background, but instead become the center stage of the film, creating the feeling that one is watching a series of emotionally striking music videos with familiar characters. The music punctuates In the Mood for Love by further creating miscommunication and secrets not only amongst the characters, but also amongst an often clueless audience.

Nat King Cole’s music plays a large part in the film, having quite a few different songs from his Spanish album appear multiple times. None of the characters seem to understand the lyrics, nor do they seem to notice the songs at all as they are played both diegetically and non-diegetically. The lyrics also go over the heads of non-Spanish speaking viewers who, unfortunately, will not understand the genius of Wong’s selection of songs. More interestingly, Nat King Cole himself did not speak Spanish, so the lack of understanding the true depth of his words existed on multiple levels both in the world of the film and outside (Cole). It is imperative to understand implications of all these music-related elements to fully understand the world of the characters and Wong’s filmmaking as a whole.

The audience is first introduced to Nat King Cole’s songs when the two protagonists meet in the diner for the first time to mutually discover that their spouses are cheating on them. This is perhaps the most pivotal moment of the film, shifting the interest from the sinking relationships of the pairs of spouses to the prospective relationship of Li-zhen and Mo-wan. The first shot is of the radio, which faintly plays “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” throughout the majority of their conversation. Wong complements their banter by having all the shots filmed from the side instead of 180-degree, over-the-shoulder tactic that is traditionally used in filmmaking. Because of this, the viewer never sees the face of the character that isn’t speaking, which both limits and intensifies the comprehension of the dynamic between the two. He adds quick pans between the two from one side of the table to the other for a moment when it gets intense, adding a sense of excitement and anticipation to the conversation between the two. Wong also makes it a point to show their most uncomfortable, fidgety moments: Mo-wan struggling to light his cigarette, Li-zhen looking down and stirring her drink. The music breaks for an unusual amount of time as the two come to terms with their grim yet unavoidable situation. It isn’t until we see the dramatic and familiar slow motion shot of Mo-wan’s rising cigarette smoke over Li-zhen’s dejected “I thought that I was the only one who knew” that the music makes a return. It is yet another Nat King Cole song, at first played diegetically and then non-diegetically as the two walk away to the soon-to-be iconic spot near the wall with the bars.

The two songs in this scene are not just popular radio hits, but also heavily loaded love ballads. The first song in this scene is “Aquellos Ojos Verdes,” meaning “those green eyes.” Many of the lyrics are quite generic love song lyrics about longing, the feeling of calm when being with a lover, and the sweetness a lover can provide. The last verse, however, makes the songs placement in the film a little more interesting. The lyrics are as follows:

No saben las tristezas / They don’t know the sadness,
 que en mi alma han dejado / that they left in my soul.
 Aquellos ojos verdes / Those green eyes,
que yo nunca besare / that I will never kiss.”

Having seen the film before, this quite obviously foreshadows the inevitable fate of the couple. Additionally, it plays every time the two meet alone in the dinner and always ends as soon as their relationship begins to escalate beyond the husband-and-wife role play in which the two often engage. The second time we hear it, it plays throughout a scene of two separate encounters (as conveyed by Li-zhen’s change of cheongsam) and stops right before Mo-wan responds to Li-zhen’s question as to why he called her with “I just wanted to hear your voice.” Even though she quickly dismisses this as part of their playing, Mo-wan’s face seems to indicate otherwise. Once again, “Aquellos Ojos Verdes” is used to punctuate a time of togetherness and the unbreakable wall of keeping up appearances that separates the two from true romantic fulfillment.

The only time the song seems to break out of this particular diner-situated mold is when the two meet by the bars and Mo-wan reveals that he may be renting a room to concentrate on writing his serials with her and escape the fear of their gossiping neighbors’ words. She essentially rejects him by telling him he should not waste the money, he can write them without her. He watches begins to follow her as it cuts to him walking down the landmark red-tinted hallway and into his room. The song is used for less than a minute and plays a rather confusing role in the scene, but it is interesting to note that it is entirely nondiagetic at this point. If this is the anthem of their blossoming secret love, this seems to be the definitive point of realization of a blooming love for Mo-wan and Nat’s song is once again used to emphasize the woman’s lips “that I will never kiss.” While it does not play its traditional role of heightening the romantic tension between the two, it does heighten the relationship between Mo-wan and the viewer by conveying feelings that the picture alone cannot fully describe. Additionally, anyone who has watched the film more than once knows that the hallway becomes an important part of the relationship, emphasizing the constantly present importance of secrets and keeping up appearances.

Wong chooses to tack on “Te Quiero Dijiste” by Nat King Cole as the song that is more explicitly connected to the first diner experience by making it nondiagetic and having it become the main point of attention in the scene through its loud volume and barely changing visuals. The two walk into the distance in slow motion as a glowing blue car partially obstructs the view of the distant road as Nat’s song elevates the mood even more intensely. Once again, “Te Quiero Dijiste” reads like a typical love song in which he describes his lover as a doll and proclaims his love to her and all her qualities. Once again, there comes a part in the song that is of special interest to the viewer:

Dime si me quieres / Tell me if you love me
Como yo te adoro / The way I love you
Si de me te acuerdas / If you remember me
Como yo de ti / How I remember you
A veces eschucho un eco divino / Sometimes I hear a divine calling
Que envuelto en la brisa / Enveloped in the breeze
Parace decir ‘si te quiero mucho’ / That seems to say ‘yes, I love you so much
Tanto como entonces siempre hasta morir. / As much as before, until I die.’”

Once again, the song has a rather interesting connection to the film upon close examination. The last part — specifically the line about a divine calling in the wind — seems to strongly allude to the last scene of Mo-wan at Angor Wat. This is undoubtedly the most spiritual part of the film, creating a rather transcendental experience through the use of the long, beautiful shots of the temple and the haunting Angor Wat Theme (composed by Michael Galasso). This enchanting cathartic release gives the film a more Buddhist sentiment as a whole and connects the personal life with the spiritual life. We see the wind blowing the dust around the hole in which chooses to finally disclose all of his secrets and — hopefully — set himself free from the bounds of unrequited and lost love. Contrasting this scene with the concept of Li-zhen’s potential call of love as a “divine calling” creates a sense of spirituality throughout the film, not just at the very end. The lines relating on loving each other equally and remembering each other the same way also come into play here as the audience is left to wonder whether or not the two still are truly in love and how they plan on reconciling with their emotions.

Finally, Wong uses Nat King Cole’s “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” — perhaps the most important of the three songs — three times toward the end of the film. The first time is when Mo-wan calls Li-zhen to ask if she’ll go to Singapore with him if he finds an extra ticket. We do not hear her response — it just quickly cuts to a slow pan of Mo-wan looking deeply into the mirror and then walking out of his room and down the hallway in slow motion. While the entire song is ever relevant to the two lovers’ situation, a few select lyrics stand out amongst the rest:

Siempre que te pregunto / Everytime I ask
Que, cuándo, cómo, y dónde, / What, when, how, and where
Tú siempre me respondes / You always reply
Quizás, quizás, quizás / ‘Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.’
Y así pasan los días / And that’s how the days go by
Y yo, desesperando / And I, growing desperate
Y tú, tú contestando / And you, you answering
Quizás, quizás, quizás / ‘Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.’”

Perhaps she could have gone to Singapore with him and escaped the emotional barring they are stuck behind, or perhaps she will choose to stay and let the situation stagnate. The two never give one another a straight answer, nor do they ever admit their love is mutual — it is always just a “perhaps.”

The second time we hear the song is when Li-zhen finds herself in Mo-wan’s room, works up the courage to call him, and then cannot find words once he picks up the phone. The insertion of the song adds an entirely different layer of emotional tension and heartbreak to the scene, implying that the love was and always will be a “perhaps,” despite their best efforts and intentions. They know they can be together, but they instead choose to continue partaking in their masochistic waltz.

Finally, the song is last used when Mo-wan comes to the old apartment in hopes of finding Li-zhen. We watch his heart break when he realizes that she has moved and the music amplifies as he stares at the door that was once hers. The scene that immediately follows shows Li-zhen and her child in the apartment, becoming the climax of the sad perhaps that could have been their love. Wong has this scene strongly parallel the prior one of Li-zhen smoking a cigarette in his apartment without telling him that she came to see him. Both scenes feature one looking for the other, but not completely going through with their search. Li-zhen doesn’t speak when he picks up the phone and Mo-wan doesn’t bother knocking on her door when he’s in front of it. This close physical proximity yet far emotional distance is highlighted brilliantly by Nat’s “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas.”

Although the film is centered on the concepts of isolation, loneliness, and secrets, it is still fascinating that Wong would choose Spanish songs to punctuate such important moments in the film. This goes beyond the idea of Hong Kong as simply a radio culture and creates another dimension of secrets and isolation in the film, and that is secrets kept from the characters themselves and — more interestingly — some of the viewers. As a Spanish speaker, I was able to understand the lyrical importance and the emphasis created on certain parts of the film without further research. However, this component of the film is completely lost on those who are not familiar with the language. Why would Wong choose to isolate some of the viewers from fully experiencing the film if not to emulate the characters’ experiences as Cantonese speakers in a Mandarin-centric Hong Kong? This was a bold move on Wong’s part, but one that amplifies the meaning of the film beyond what’s on screen and into the world and mind of each individual viewer. This selective understanding also lends itself to the emotional world of the film, as the characters are not able to fully understand their own emotions.

Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love is an intriguing study of how the world of a film can be brought to life outside the screen. By using several different languages in the ever-important soundtrack, he ensures that almost every viewer faces some sort of isolation through lack of understanding. This is a brilliant device as it replicates the situation of the main characters, whether the viewer chooses to look into it or not. By not understanding the secret world of whichever language a song is in, the viewer loses a piece of understanding of the film as a whole, and by not understanding one another, Li-zhen and Mo-wan lose each other to the pressure of keeping their secrets to themselves. Depending on the understanding or ignorance of the different languages in the film, the songs can serve to either stand alone as implications of the time period or open up an entirely new emotional world. Without the film’s powerful soundtrack, the film would lack the extreme depth of the true implications of such a powerful cultural and emotional isolation.

Béar, Liza. “Wong Kar-wai by Liza Béar.” BOMB Magazine. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Cole, Carole. “The World of Nat King Cole.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 18 May 2006. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.