“In the Mood for Love” is widely touted as the crowning achievement in director Wong Kar-wai’s career.

Rediscover the Magic of Wong Kar-wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’

The 22-year-old evocative masterpiece has been remastered and released on 4K Blu-ray for the first time—a perfect excuse to revisit

“In the Mood for Love” is widely touted as the crowning achievement in director Wong Kar-wai’s career.

Courtesy Jet Tone Films & Block 2 Distribution

“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.”

Whether it’s cans of pineapple, the pains of heartache, or Hong Kong’s sovereignty, everything seems to have an expiration date in the films of Wong Kar-wai. The passage of time is, in and of itself, an indelible, and terribly disquieting stream that eats at the senses and washes over all precious things, leaving behind nothing but a faint echo of our own unresolved past. Whether it’s a midnight motorbike ride, an impromptu tango dance, or a stolen glance—it’s by crystallizing these fleeting emotions and shared moments of human connection that Wong’s urban fairy tales truly become frozen in time, clinging to the mind for eternity like unshakable flashbulb memories.

An intoxicating alchemy of connections made and lost, Wong’s poetic period drama In the Mood for Love retains its rapturous spell some 22 years after it was released. Widely touted as the crowning achievement in Wong’s peerless career, it remains as close as cinema has ever gotten to distilling the all-consuming rush of romantic longing directly into celluloid. Set against the backdrop of 1960s British Hong Kong, in which the director grew up, the film charts the unconsummated yet impossibly sensual flirtation between two next-door neighbors, a journalist named Mr. Chow (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and an executive secretary named Ms. Chan (Maggie Cheung Man Yuk).

Mr. Chow and Ms. Chan are both married, not to each other mind you, and spend a lot of time alone in their cramped rooms, while their respective spouses are working night shifts or out of town on suspiciously long business trips. At first, when they brush past each other in the narrow hallways of their apartment complex, or on their way to a local noodle shop, their encounters seem formal and benign. Their romantic rapture only begins to burgeon and take shape into something tangible once their worst fears materialize, realizing that their respective spouses are having an adulterous affair with one another behind their backs. The bitter solitude and pent-up frustrations of betrayal coalesce into a relationship they swear to keep platonic. “We won’t be like them,” vows Ms. Chan during one of their nocturnal escapades.

In “In the Mood for Love,” Ms. Chan Mr. Chow’s initial interactions seem formal and benign.

Courtesy of Criterion & Janus Films

And yet, this bottled-up desire is beyond palpable every time we see these two lovelorn, middle-aged daydreamers together onscreen—engaging in playful role-playing games where they imagine how the affair began, or co-writing martial-art pulp novels in their spare time. Much like any great film, no words can truly encapsulate the distinct mood and unspoken feelings conjured up within these lush frames. In true Wong fashion, In the Mood for Love offers less of a unified narrative than a stream of intimate, evanescent moments loosely strung together by the basic concept of love and yearning. Punctuated by slashes of crimson hues and elegant compositions, Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle captures every detail like a fly on the wall, peeking through a frame of a window and hidden doorways as if the audience, too, was secretly spying on the would-be lovers. Things left unsaid—a subtle gesture, a murmured confession, a quick glance—are as devastating as any line of dialogue. You will never know how erotically charged a quiet, shared night cab ride home can be until you watch this film.

In the Mood for Love offers less of a unified narrative than a stream of intimate, evanescent moments loosely strung together by the basic concept of love and yearning.

By the dawn of the new millennium, Wong had already made waves across the globe and established himself as a pop-cultural icon akin to the Jean-Luc Godard of the MTV generation: a hip trendsetter whose inimitable style, joie de vivre, and vibrant aesthetic had become thoroughly sui generis. The world-renowned film magazine Sight & Sound saluted him as the great innovator of the ‘90s, “a poet of time who broke new ground and changed the medium irrevocably.” Quentin Tarantino introduced two of his films in the U.S. through his distribution company. In 1994, while presenting Chungking Express at UCLA, he confessed “I just started crying,” not because it was sad, but because “I’m just so happy to love a movie this much.” Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), whose work is undoubtedly influenced by Wong’s, thanked him directly during her Oscar acceptance speech. Other noteworthy admirers in the West include Xavier Dolan (Heartbeats), Paul Schrader (First Reformed) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight). Most recently, one of the biggest contenders for this year’s Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once, tipped its hat to the Hong Kong maestro by dedicating an entire segment to In the Mood for Love.

Set against the backdrop of 1960s British Hong Kong “In the Mood for Love” follows the unconsummated yet impossibly sensual flirtation between two next-door neighbors.

Courtesy Jet Tone Films & Block 2 Distribution

Are movies allowed to do this? This was my knee-jerk reaction back when I first binged my way through Wong’s body of work. The time was summer of 2020, quite a critical juncture in our lives at the height of the pandemic. At first, I was engulfed on a purely sensory level–mesmerized by all the neon signs, glowing jukeboxes, frenetic cutting, pitch-perfect soundtracks, and crisscrossing plot threads. Here was a filmmaker so brazenly uninterested in adhering to the accepted norms and artistic boundaries I’d taken as given in cinema, moving with such freedom that he almost seemed to be rewriting them on the fly. To my shock, films need not be sustained by one central narrative, or end with a neatly wrapped up, bow-tied resolution—Wong Kar-wai’s work was irrefutable proof that style is substance. But once I emerged from the paroxysm of wide-angle lensing, handheld close-ups, moody voiceovers, and wall-to-wall needle drops; it was the underlying themes at the crux of these films that stuck with me the most.

Needless to say, as a 20-something urbanite who at the time had to stay home and quarantine for unprecedented periods of time, any movie that explored existential isolation in the age of interconnectivity was going to cut deeper than ever. I was entering a world of thwarted love, wistful belonging, and alienated melancholy where strangers crossed paths in bustling cityscapes–always in close physical proximity from each other but so caught up in their own feelings that they were often worlds apart.

Here was a filmmaker so brazenly uninterested in adhering to the accepted norms and artistic boundaries I’d taken as given in cinema, moving with such freedom that he almost seemed to be rewriting them on the fly.

First-time viewers could hardly ask for a better introduction to Wong’s enchanting universe than In the Mood for Love. Not only does the film routinely top almost every “best 21st Century films” list you’ll ever come across online, but it’s a perfect microcosm of the director’s running themes, stylistic flourishes, and unmatched panache. The sumptuous new high-definition home release, releasing in the U.S. on Nov. 1 courtesy of Criterion, provides an incredible opportunity for newcomers to experience it for the first time in all its glory. Those already familiar with the film can still look forward to being swept away once again by its evocative beauty, and lose themselves in a bundle of special features, including a documentary chronicling the making of the movie, interviews with Wong, Cheung, and Leung, deleted scenes with optional commentary, plus a 2001 short film by the director.

Maggie Cheung Man Yuk (left) and Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Ms. Chan and Mr. Chow in “In the Mood for Love.”

Courtesy of Criterion & Janus Films

The heavy curtain of discourse surrounding these new restorations mostly honed in on the alleged changes in aspect ratios, sound mixing, and color grading. Almost as if foreboding the controversy, the Cantonese filmmaker wrote a note to accompany Criterion’s seven-disk box set: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. I invite the audience to join me in starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.”

For a director obsessed with the inexorable passage of time, whose characters all tend to cling to the past—paralyzed by nostalgic memories, the burden of regret, or the uncertainty of what lies ahead—that flowery metaphor feels fittingly appropriate. One of the intertitles featured in In the Mood for Love sums it up quite poignantly too: 

“That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.”

Fortunately, this timeless film is built to withstand countless rewatches, each one more ravishing than the last. Thanks to Criterion, Wong Kar-wai aficionados can be smothered by its texture, lush colors and soul-crushing tale of unrequited love once again, and for a little over 98 minutes, revisit these indelible moments as if it were the very first time.

In the Mood for Love is released on 4K UHD Blu-ray on 1 November via Criterion and is available to stream now on the Criterion Channel.

Published on November 1, 2022

Words by Guillermo De Querol

Guillermo is a freelance entertainment writer based in Madrid, Spain. His writing and festival coverage has been published across various outlets, including Little White Lies, Taste of Cinema, Film Cred, and Certified Forgotten. When he’s not watching or writing about films, he’s probably talking about them on Letterboxd or Twitter. Guillermo hopes to continue to provide valuable features at JoySauce.