More than heartbreak, more than love, more than even loneliness, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is about absence. He never shows us the whole picture and his characters never say the whole truth, or not bluntly to say the least, but the honesty of it is brutal. In crafting scenes that keep us at a distance and keep his subjects isolated, he neatly carves out the hole in Su’s life where he husband should be. He does the same for Chow. All around Su and Chow lies the evidence of their spouses’ existence. We never see their faces, but we remain painfully aware of their presence.
He approaches conversation the same way, letting Su and Chow tell each other (and the audience) everything without actually saying it at all. Conversation becomes a strange and delicate dance that doesn’t skirt the truth, but rather paints it out plainly with every step. In fact, it’s only when they confront each other with the truth this way that they finally come together and they allow another person to physically enter their worlds.
The exact moment when this occurs is when Chow invites Su to dinner and they finally admit that their spouses are having an affair.
The scene begins in typical Wong fashion, focusing on vague surroundings, hiding his actors out of sight. As Nat King Cole’s “Te Quiero Dijiste” begins to play, we’re greeted with a static shot of the wall above Su and Chow’s heads in the diner. It holds there for a moment too long, the camera hovering on nothing, and yet creating a sense of anticipation that hangs in the air along with us.
When we finally see the duo, they’re tucked away in the scene. We see Chow’s face peeking above the back of a booth, framed in a wide shot, the back of Su’s head just barely visible. From this angle, we also see the remnants of another diner’s dinner left on the table. There is no one else, just the evidence that at some point there was, echoing a motif Wong relies on throughout the film. We never see the spouses in question, but see evidence that they exist. We hear their voices in another room while the camera focuses on Su or Chow’s face. Maybe we get a glimpse of the back of their heads. They’re present without actually being present.
When the camera finally zooms in, it keeps Chow and Su separate, framing each in their own, neat closeup, and the dance begins. Chow says that he asked her out to see where she got her handbag from, explaining that his wife’s birthday is coming up and he isn’t sure what to get her. Framed this closely, it’s easy to spot Su’s subtle gestures, the slightest pause as she sips her coffee, a gentle raise of her eyebrow, immediately infusing the conversation with tension. Pushing back, Su suggests that perhaps his wife wouldn’t like having the exact same bag as her neighbor, and Chow laughs with an easy demeanor saying he hadn’t thought of that because of course, “A woman would mind.”
Su’s face tenses again here, ever so slightly. The subtle pain of the injury we don’t yet understand flickering across her face. She then answers his questions about the other colors the bag might come in by informing him that her husband bought the bag for her on a trip abroad and they aren’t on sale in Hong Kong. The conversation has a strange feeling of gravity here as Wong lets the camera linger, but we still aren’t sure exactly why.
It’s at this point that the most dramatic camera movement occurs. Su admits she has a question for Chow, too, and a fast pan to the right takes us from Su’s seat at the table to Chow’s. “What?” he asks and another fast pan zips the camera back to the left to rest on Su as she asks, “Where did you buy your tie?”
The conversation plays out in almost exactly the same way as the previous one, when Chow asks about the handbag. By shooting entirely in closeup, eliminating any sense of the outside world, and focusing so intensely on their reactions, all of this small talk weighs heavily on an audience that can’t yet understand why.
Chow explains that his wife bought his tie on a business trip abroad, and Su forces a smile. As she goes on to say that her husband has one just like it, and that he told her “It was a gift from his boss, so he wears it every day,” the camera stays trained on Chow. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t make eye contact. He simply looks down as his coffee, the weight of the world seemingly on his shoulders. And all this over a tie. Or is it?
Finally Chow looks up to say that his wife has a handbag just like hers, and the camera makes its second big movement. It’s another fast pan, but this time it comes from the empty booth on the right moving left to land on Chow. It moves from outward, inward, emphasizing that no one else is there to witness the unloading of these truths.
Wong is a master of subtlety here, because an earlier scene between Su and her boss sets up the real insult of the infidelity masterfully. She informs her boss that a woman (presumably his mistress) has left him a gift: a beautiful silk tie. He puts it on and Su quietly notes how much she likes it. When he’s surprised she noticed, she answers only that, “You notice things if you pay attention.” Seemingly at that, he changes out of the tie before heading to his birthday dinner with his wife. The subtext of all of this being that he doesn’t wish his wife to know his mistress exists.
And that’s it, right there. Su and Chow, neighbors that see each other daily, each have a spouse that proudly wears the sign of their infidelity. Worse than the affair itself, it’s the flaunting of it that acts as a slap in the face to the people they hurt, and that’s why treating their conversation of accessories over coffee with such quiet intensity was the only way Wong could film it.
The scene ends as Su sighs, “I thought I was the only one who knew.” A sign that this loneliness of suffering has ended, it’s on this note that the two are finally shown in the same frame together in slow motion as they walk away from the diner and into the night, signaling the beginning of the next phase of their relationship. They no longer need to suffer alone; they’ll feel the pain of their uncertainty and rejection together.