Silhouettes, Shadows, & Smoke: Lighting in In the Mood for Love

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Sherlock Ziauddin

Wong Kar-wei’s In the Mood For Love depicts the story of a man (Chow) and a woman (Su) who, both suspecting that their spouses are involved in extramarital affairs, become close companions to each other in their loneliness. As the story progresses, however, their platonic friendship spills over and they begin to fall in love.

Their story unfolds in carefully controlled sequences that are almost dreamlike in nature as, together, they fabricate a fantasy world for themselves in which they pretend to be in love as their spouses are – and then continue, even when the façade of romantic affection becomes a reality. One of the most obvious visual cues in the mise-en-scène that indicate the portrayal of these moments is in the lighting. In all of these sequences, the lighting is more dramatic: it is low-key, sharp, and almost always artificial, as these scenes overwhelmingly take place under cover of night. This type of lighting is fundamental in setting the mood in these sequences; the subtle expression of emotion and the tension of physical bodies is highlighted, literally, by its use.

The first major sequence of this nature occurs before their relationship has strictly started but after they are both aware of each other. In this sequence, first Su and then Chow go out to get noodles. The entire scene appears in slow-motion, and the lighting is intensely more dramatic than perhaps any other scene in the film up to this point. It takes place at night, so the only light comes from street lamps; overwhelmingly the world is dominated by shadow. As both characters go up and down the stairs to the noodle stall, we see both their physical figures, in sharp silhouette, and their shadows, on the wall descending with them; this adds an air of intrigue and, it could be even said, mystery to the scene. In this world of shadows, without the light of day, everything is a little more uncertain; the shadows serve as a lingering presence of the characters even when they themselves are no longer visible in the frame, and that presence is tense, tangible, fleeting.

In the sequence we see first Su as she goes down and up the stairs –

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and then later Chow –

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And then, at the culmination of the sequence, we see them both on the stairs at once, meeting as Su ascends and Chow descends, and the tension of both of them at once in a space previously inhabited by just one of them is heightened still more by the lighting, and the fact that we can essentially only see the outline of their frames in silhouette – close, almost touching, like two shadows meshing together on the same expanse of wall. We become, in this fleeting moment, hyper-aware of the possibility of contact, of their silhouetted bodies touching. In the world of shadow, they are the only things moving – dark forms, graced by light.

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A second sequence occurs a few minutes later, again with them going to the noodle stand. This scene is similarly lit in artificial, sharp lighting, and similarly serves to heighten dramatic tension.

Here are two still frames of first Chow and then Su from the same sequence:

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The lighting on Su’s face is sharper and a little brighter, but the lighting on Chow is still sharp enough that his face, hand, cigarette, and collar pop most, and everything else recedes into shadow; similarly, Su’s profile is what pops most immediately in the second frame. It is also interesting to note that their profiles mirror one another.

The next sequence in their constructed reality is the most direct one thus far, by far – they dine together in a restaurant. In this scene, dominated by middle shots and close-ups, the lighting is again artificial and sharp, coming primarily from the point source of a single lamp hanging over their table at the restaurant. It beautifully highlights their faces, capturing subtle, subtle expressions of emotion, minute twitches of facial muscle, fluttering eyelashes, stuttered breath. It also works wonders for capturing Chow’s cigarette smoke.

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This sequence, like most of the other sequences of their constructed reality in the film, feels almost noir with its air of dramatically-lit, subtle intrigue. Chow’s smoking adds to this; it feels suave, sexy, backlit and tinged with the dark, rich red of the seats around them – but if this scene were lit differently the effect would be entirely different. It is the sharp lighting that creates such a powerful atmosphere of mystery, tension, and drama.

The next sequence of this kind begins with this frame:

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Everything about this shot is utterly stunning. The light on Su’s face is perhaps the most dramatic in the entire film: bright, sharp, highlighting the shadows under her cheekbones and her winged eyeliner, and also very artificially coloured, almost golden, making her lipstick look brighter and her features more defined. Chow is behind her, in a different depth of field; still, we can tell that his gaze is on her, and the resultant tension is incredible. (If there was a visual climax of the film, I would say it’s right here: this moment, more than any, captures the drama, the tension, the subtle intrigue, the possibility of hidden feeling, the hint of passion – and visually, it is incredibly beautiful.)

Later, a scene between them betrays a slightly different feeling, but still heightened by the effects of lighting. In this scene they are in the rain, having a conversation about the beginnings of their relationship. This sequence is less cinematically dramatic; singularly, there is no music playing, and they are holding a regular conversation instead of moving in slow-motion like two shadows on the verge of touching. It begins with Chow running towards Su in the rain, in an echo of an earlier scene:

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The two proceed to have perhaps the most honest conversation that takes place over the course of the entire duration of the film. Here we see their fantasy reality of romance being acknowledged directly – a break from tradition – but lighting still serves to heighten the sense of tension and emotion in the scene.

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The light is a dull colour, a soft blue or grey, and more diffuse than it has been previously. In many ways it’s a visual cue that this scene, that the events transpiring between them now, are different than they have been in the past. It is still dark enough that it could be night and there is still sharp lighting on their faces from a streetlight somewhere – but the shadows are no longer as deep, as the barriers between their pretended reality and actual reality break down.

A final scene between them shows them saying good-bye to one another for a final time – or, as we later realise, rehearsing saying good-bye.

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Here the light is once again very dramatic in its sharpness and the dramatic and physical tension it provides. The above frame is particularly poignant because of the shadows present. The single thrown by Chow is lonely and stark against the wall, and also carries narrative significance because it is alone, not accompanied by Su’s shadow – as they are parting. But what is perhaps even more poignant is the shadows of bars that are cast over the characters, because they can be read to have a metaphorical significance: bound by societal convention and scrutiny of neighbours – imprisoned by convention and expectation – Su and Chow must always be secretive and must now even say good-bye (or prepare to) in secrecy.

The illusion dissolves in the next moments of the scene as we realise that this good-bye was only a rehearsal – but the lighting remains the same. In this part of the scene it serves to heighten the emotional distress of the characters, as Su weeps in Chow’s arms. They are in a closer embrace than we have ever seen them in before, so much of the physical tension is (finally!) abated, but the emotional intensity remains. Su finally dissolves, in the first time we have seen her lose composure so openly, and Chow, in contrast, visibly struggles to remain stoic.

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In conclusion, the lighting in the sequences that catalogue the progression of Su and Chow’s relationship is cleverly used to heighten dramatic, narrative, and physical tension; it highlights undercurrents of uncertainty, hesitation, and occasionally sensuality that emotionally charge their interactions, and it allows us as viewers to better see the subtle expressivity of their faces. With this lighting, the tangibility of their interactions becomes at once more fleeting and more real; more satisfying and more infuriating: in these moments of touching or almost touching, the light throws everything into sharp contrast, into a dreamlike world of sharp light and slow, lurking shadow – a murky world in which one can easily fall in love in the shadows and under streetlamps – but also a world in which even silhouettes cast shadows, and the consequences of such actions cannot remain hidden forever.

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