Musical Parallels of In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai)

Wong Kar-Wai’s 2001 film In The Mood For Love may appear to be at first about an affair between two neighbours, yet the director has made it clear that the film is far more interested in social etiquette and tendencies than such obtuse topics as cheating.  Whereas period dramas set in the 1960s often show an excess of ideas and a garish desire for tacked on obviousness when it comes to musical scoring, In The Mood For Love shows a restrain that makes it a far more accurate depiction of the era and the country.  What is also interesting is that its score isn’t simply there to signify the grounding in the era but there to show the distance within the relationship between the two main characters; Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung).

The two characters are seemingly forced together by their partners lack of presence, perhaps even callous behaviour but the music is clear in that their chance meetings are something entirely delicate, unplanned and serendipic.  Though Michael Galasso is credited with the music, the main motif is interesting if researched in that the title of main piece refers to a character seemingly absent from the film.  Yujemi’s Theme, which is the main bookend to each chapter in the film, comes initially from Shigeru Umebayashi’s score 1991 film Yujemi by Seijun Suzuki.

Its sophisticated and sweeping melodrama perfectly apt for the story of Mrs Chan and Mr Chow.  But the piece in question, which is a slow waltz for strings, is more interesting in its use rather than just its technical qualities.  It may share some aesthetic resemblances with some of the period accurate popular songs used in the restaurant scenes but Yujemi’s Theme is a beautiful pointer as to where the film is at in the progression of the two protagonist’s relationship.

Each time the piece fades its way into the sound world, the characters are often together, doing something that connects them to each other or about to meet, whether by chance or guiltily planned.  Compared to the use of the piece towards the latter end of the film, its initial appearances seem only like tasters of what is to come; the piece often fades out far before the main melody has a chance to develop.  With each meeting the fading out becomes later and later as their relationship becomes closer and closer.  This is very subtle indeed for a musical cue signifying a blossoming companionship which would no doubt use long flourishing pieces of music with montages of days out in a western romance.

The hidden latter end of the piece also plays parallel to the film’s narrative; its tragic, minor motif only becoming apparent around half way through the piece.  The situation that brought our two characters together was never going to end entirely favourably (though that’s not to say the film’s ending lacks a sense of contentment for the character) and though the film spends time in the ambiguous nature of their relationship, the music in its full has a clear sense of what is happening which is why it is only presented in sections and not in full at first.

Another interesting musical reference is the use of Nat King Cole’s Aquellos Ojos Verdes; a slow moving, tropica tinted ballad, typical of the era’s setting.  The string sections that start the song appear to be partly the inspiration for the arrangement of Yujemi’s Theme in texture and style at the very least.  This at first gives the impression that this is another part of the composed score, at least until Cole’s vocals start.  The piece is also used a number of times, often when the pair are in a restaurant or in a place where the potential for the characters to be hearing it is there.  The song is mixed at a non-diegetic level but switches between diegetic depending on whether dialogue is present.  This could seem like a simple piece of sound engineering; a wanting to avoid the problem of drowning out dialogue by soundtrack.  In The Mood For Love however is not a film where this is an issue.  Music is rarely played over the dialogue and with it being so sparse, this is an unsurprising decision.

The lyrics of this song hint that the use of the piece is similar to that of Yujemi’s Theme in that it is telling just as much about the relationship on screen as the visuals and dialogue.

Those green eyes.
of calm look,
they left in my soul,
eternal thirst of love.

Longing of caresses,
of kisses and tenderness,
of every sweetness,
that they know how to give.

Those green eyes,
calm as a sea,
in which quiet waters,
once I looked at myself.

They don’t know the sadness,
that in my soul they left,
those green eyes,
that I will never kiss.

The last verse in particular again predicts sad happenings for a love affair in the same way Yujemi’s Theme hints at what is to come in its evocative, minor melodies.  The lyrical predictions are hidden from the viewer, both Chinese and English, only vaguely apparent to those with an understanding of Spanish.  More than simply a period setter, the use of Cole’s singing adds another parallel to the narrative; the musical equivalent of the three witches in Macbeth only ambiguous in their existence and far less foreboding.

There are plenty of other musical inclusions, often to similar effect but by different recording artists including popular Chinese singers from the era as well as other Spanish language ballads by Nat King Cole.  The film’s final segment in the temple shows Galasso’s music in its fullest, playing on the themes of the initial melody and making it far more brooding and aware that the love has needed to be buried though it is interesting to note that these themes are present most obviously for the first time in the film.

Far more than other 1960s set drama, In The Mood For Love does little patronise the viewer with caricatures of the era or sugar coat the times.  The musical choices made for the film, make it rise above potential peers and give it multiple readings that are endless, beautiful and enjoyable to explore.

Adam Scovell

8 thoughts on “Musical Parallels of In The Mood For Love (Wong Kar-Wai)

      1. Ahh thank you.
        I’m trying to move the analysis of articles more into the musical side this year to help with my degree so I’m glad you liked it.

      2. I love M. I still need to see A Man Escaped though I plan on doing an article on honest film and the use of music using Bresson as one of the examples. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s