Visual Framework: Watch How Wong Kar-wai Uses Frames Within Frames in In the Mood for Love (Video)

An integral aspect of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s mastery is his recurring use of frames within the film frame.

The below take, by Evan Puschak of The Nerdwriter, on Wong’s 2000 masterpiece In The Mood For Love dives into that motif. “Five minutes in,” Puschak notes, “and every shot is a frame within a frame—meaning that every single shot featured characters not only framed by the rectangle of the film itself, but by smaller, internal shapes as well.”

The classic, lensed by Christopher Doyle, centers on two individuals, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), who, after becoming aware of the infidelity going on between their respective spouses, choose to try to understand their partners’ reasons for cheating. Unexpectedly, the two do this by acting out scenarios as each other’s spouses.

As Puschak describes, Wong furthers the inherently voyeuristic practice of cinema during these scenes. How? It’s not always clear to the viewer when Chow and Chan are acting, which keeps us off-kilter, getting us to lean forward, hoping to more closely observe what is actually transpiring.

Another way of ramping up the intimacy: careful shot composition. “By placing objects in the foreground, the director enhances the feeling that the characters have—of being observed—not to mention, our own feelings, of being observers,” says Puschak. Wong also employs “erratic” time jumps that follow no traceable pattern, which according to Puschak, means “The viewer is often left initially confused as to how much time has passed between scenes.”

It’s hard to imagine a Hollywood studio signing off on the process with which Wong operated back in 2000. Puschak notes, “There was little more than an outline when Wong Kar-wai and his crew began filming—a process that took a long 15 months, in which the script and the individual scenes were written on the fly by the director and the actors together. Which is surprising because watching the film you can’t help but feel that you’re in the hands of somebody in complete control. Visually and emotionally, In The Mood For Love is fully consistent.”

This sparse outline approach to production is abetted by its small number of locations and camera shots. “The film is so self-contained that it only features a handful of locations, filmed from the same angle so that you experience a kind of circular effect, of returning again and again to the same thing. This technique isolates, against fixed backgrounds, the things that actually are changing in the film—the inner lives of the two leads.”

In The Mood For Love is a remarkable film, a perennial on everyone’s “greatest 21st-century films” list for good reason. MM

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