I inaugurate today a new section of this blog – with a new category “At the movies“. It takes a lot to make a movie: great actors, strong plot, a tailored soundtrack and good photography.

In “In the Mood for Love/花樣年華“, director Wong Kar-Wai (王家衛) did not lack any of the ingredients and next to the magnificent Maggie Cheung and an award-ready Tony Leung, he aligned Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bing for photography. It is said the former was replaced by the latter but I could not find confirmation of this. Together they made for some of the most interesting cinematography I have seen in a long long time.

In photography, one has a relatively large range of orientation: portrait, landscape, crooked, upside-down, etc. Movies however, limits this creative component to one, flat and common option: horizontal.

Wong Kar-Wai manages to counter this limitation with 2 distinctive techniques: first, and to me the most noticeable graphical characteristic, is the permanent sense of verticality the movie has. In the example above and the 2 stills below, notice how the frame is divided into action space, in focus, and the rest, out of focus, empty of story-telling interest, yet essential. The telephone, the walls, the window grid and the corridor, each play a part in the visual presence of each scene.

Second technique: on many occasions, the foreground is voluntarily obstructed with random objects (sometimes persons) and the focus is on the action in the background. The foreground becomes completely blurred, and is cleverly used to change the frame format. Another telephone (!) illustrates this below.

Actors are all but put aside. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) is an interesting character, defined by her own codes of elegance, discretion and a very Asian/Chinese false shyness. In a word: aesthetic. Ms. Cheung’s interpretation of Mrs. Chan’s character gives even more opportunity to Wong Kar-Wai to expose graphically his story.

Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) is also put to work. A sartorially inclined (with perhaps the exception of 2 ties) newspaper editor, he stands right in his shoes and in the frame, contributing – again – to the verticality of the movie: straight, clean haircut, ruler-straight ties, sharp decision-maker.

In the mood for love quickly became a classic. Next, we will look at another classic: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Thank you for reading.

Official Images for ‘In the mood for love’