Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love is a visual splendour, a ravishing cinematic exploration of unrequited love and quiet passion, depicting sensuality through music, light, colour and space alone. A big part in the superb art direction played Christophe Doyle, the cinematographer, and William Chang Suk-ping, credited with the production and costume design, and make-up. There’s this melancholic, dream-like beauty hovering over In the Mood for Love; the way it evokes the essence of romantic love, while keeping everything wonderfully ambiguous makes the film one of its kind.
“The dress is not just a dress. It’s Maggie’s character’s mood.
It’s as if she’s wearing this mood that day.”
Wong Kar Wai
Maggie Cheung, as Mrs. Chan, glides through the winding alley ways and cramped noodle bars of 1962 Hong Kong in figure-hugging, beautifully constructed cheongsams, on the haunting, recurring refrain of Shigeru Umebayashi’s Yumeji’s Theme. These are atypical cheongsams, the traditional Chinese dresses, also known as qípáo in Mandarin Chinese, or as Mandarin gowns in English, and are different even from the more modern cheongsams developed in Shanghai in the 1920s: the collars are higher, the shoulders more defined, they are hemmed just below the knee and come in a wonderful variety of fabrics. Mrs. Chan dresses in nothing but cheongsams, but she would stand out anywhere.
Every time you see Maggie’s character, she’s wearing a different one. Director Wong Kar Wai says that it was something normal for those days for Shanghainese ladies to not wear pajamas at home or in front of people. They were always well-dressed. Furthermore, every new dress evokes a certain mood for the character.
Her wardrobe is like a style statement, echoeing the costume designer’s own philosophy: “I don’t like fashion. It’s transitory”, as he was stating in a rare interview. Poised and graceful, with her hair always meticulously styled (William Chang wanted this particular kind of Monica Vitti curl to her hair which took at least two hours to do), Maggie Cheung looks impeccable every step of the way, even when she goes to a neighbourhood take-out noodles stand. The restraint elegance of her wardrobe also reflects a sense of loneliness that transgresses the film. There are so many things in In the Mood for Love that remain unworded, but which are grasped visually. Isn’t this part of the fascination of cinema?
“She and the dress had chemistry. They brought out a kind of elegance in each other. In a way, the dress captured a part of her essence and she will always be associated with it”, the director explained the character’s relationship with her clothes.
Mrs. Chan is secretary to a shipping magnate, another element that takes the cheongsam out of its original context, as it was initially worn by socialites and upper class women, and lends it an utilitarian quality, which adds to the cutting edge modern look.
Besides contributing to the visual beauty of In the Mood for Love, it’s these dresses through which we get a sense of the passing of time throughout the film, as the sets seem to remain the same. We realise another day has gone by only when we see Maggie in a new outfit. There is also a red trench, the only coat she wears, that appears in a defining moment of the movie. It’s filled with emotional meaning. Along with the leading female character’s costumes, every decor element is part of a sublime colour scheme that adds depth and visual sensibility.
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photos: stills from the film, captured be my from this Blu-ray edition