Dressing up for Noodles: Costume Design in In the Mood for Love

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Wei Yi Ow

In the Mood for Love (2000) is a beautiful study in restraint. Set in 1960s Hong Kong, the film details the intimate relationship that develops between two lonely neighbours, Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Neglected and later betrayed by their spouses, they foster a special kinship which social mores dictate must be concealed. This is a society that operates not by brute force but by much more subtle ways; through its institutions, through the eyes and ears of one’s neighbors, through the personal values individuals feel compelled to uphold, and the dark desires they actively repress.

The restraint demonstrated by the characters, who are far too disciplined and respectful to enact any sort of revenge or vent their passions, is echoed by the understated nature of storytelling. Wong Kar Wai capitalizes on the cramped living spaces in Hong Kong, which erode the boundaries between social and private life, to create tension that drives the narrative – it is much harder to keep secrets when your neighbors live so close to you. This in turn shapes the way the narrative is told: since most of the dialogue is either vague or dishonest, the truth must be told another way. I wish to analyze how costume design contributes to the film’s overarching narrative and themes, often filling audiences in on what is left unspoken. The costumes are an outward manifestation of characters’ internalization of the gaze of others – of social responsibility and convention. From Su Li-zhen’s cheongsams to Chow Mo-wan’s suits, characters wear a uniform that projects how they wish to be seen by others. But we see that costumes also betray the secrets people keep.

The devil in the details

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While pursuing the suspicion that her husband and Chow’s wife are having an affair, Su Li-zhen facilitates the infidelity of her boss. In one scene, she informs him that his wife will be at the restaurant at 5.30pm, and hands him a gift from his mistress. Presumably the gift is a tie, because Su Li-zhen casually remarks on it when she returns from getting him coffee:

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Later, she catches him as he leaves the office to have dinner with his wife:

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In other words, the new tie might have exposed his affair to his wife. This scene hints to us how Su Li-zhen discovered her husband’s infidelity, which is confirmed later in the film. This scene is also significant because it signals to audiences that there is intentionality on the filmmakers’ part in such minor costume details as the choice of tie for a certain actor in a certain scene – you notice things if you pay attention.

The infidelity of Su Li-zhen’s boss is employed as a parallel to the affair between her husband and Chow’s wife, often used to foreshadow the realization of the latter. Earlier in the film, Su Li-zhen asks her husband to bring back two handbags from Japan for her boss, one for his wife and one for his mistress:

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Later in the movie, Chow asks where he can purchase her handbag for his wife:

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She would mind, because she knows what it means to have the same handbag as the woman who lives next door, and to see their husbands wearing the exact same tie. Chow knows too; in this scene we discover that despite his verbal dismissals, he is not so naïve as to ignore the evidence before his eyes. He simply plays the fool before the eyes of others. Their astuteness becomes apparent; later on they use their attentiveness to detail to engineer a moment of deception, when Su Li-zhen changes into heels and leaves her slippers in Chow’s apartment to fool the landlords, who return home earlier than expected. The knowledge that any little detail could be used against you is perhaps why both of them take such great care with their own appearance.

Playing dress-up

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This humorous remark by one of the landladies implies that Su Li-zhen’s commitment to her uniform of beautiful and restrictive cheongsams is distinctive not just to audiences, but to other characters as well. Su Li-zhen alternates between 21 cheongsams over the course of the film (though some of them only appear in one scene), and her wardrobe is one of the most visually arresting elements of In the Mood for Love. Here they are in order of appearance:

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Given that the film returns to the same few interior or nighttime sets (the apartments, their offices, the noodle stand, the corridor) again and again, Su Li-zhen’s changing dresses help indicate to us the passage of time. Often they complement the rest of the mise-en-scène, such as this instance where yellow flowers in the room are echoed by her dress:

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Form-fitting and elaborate, with unusually high collars that can resemble a neck brace, Su Li-zhen’s cheongsams reflect how incredibly self-conscious she is about her image and the restrictions she places on herself in order to ensconce herself in Hong Kong society, especially compared to the more varied and Westernized attire of Chow’s wife. The uniformity of her appearance means that deviations from trend are significant. At a pivotal moment in the film, when visiting Chow after he has been missing for several days, she dons a red coat. The feelings she has for him, that she had previously suppressed, are finally revealed – she literally wears her heart on her sleeve.

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Four years later, we note the plainness of her last two cheongsams relative to the others, the lower collar, and a new hairstyle:

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This is the last time we see her. The intertitle immediately preceding this shot reads: “That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists anymore.” Su Li-zhen, by choosing to uphold her public status at the expense of her personal feelings, is able to reintegrate back into society and move into a new stage of her life: motherhood. We have traced the evolution of a character in the way she dresses.

We can do the same for Chow Mo-wan. His uniform consists of a suit and tie, hair slicked back and neatly parted, and an opaquely polite smile:

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Like Su Li-zhen, Chow is also very conscious of external chatter, and he is as reticent in private as he is among his neighbors. In a rare moment, we see Chow in a singlet reading a letter from his wife, who is in Japan with Su Li-zhen’s husband. He crumples up the letter and shuts the door on the camera:

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As a storyteller, Wong Kar Wai is insistently indirect; often the camera seems to be just outside the locus of activity, like a voyeur peering into the private lives of these individuals. Audiences, too, are implicated in the intrusiveness of the public eye.

Gossip and unrequited love drive Chow away from his apartment to Room 2046. When seeing Su Li-zhen out after her visit, we notice that his normally perfectly gelled hair is partially undone:

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Given that at no other point has he had a single hair out of place, we can infer that this is a deliberate costuming decision. The internal conflict between his personal desires and his social obligation as a married man has caused him to come undone. Chow cuts himself off from society – he even stops going to work – and eventually leaves Hong Kong entirely, retreating to Singapore. Since he cannot reconcile his public and private lives, he chooses instead to live in exile, only returning years later.

As long as you both shall live

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In the Mood for Love is about a love story that never happened. We observe that the relationship between Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan, flush with emotion and possibility, remains unfulfilled within a society that conspires to keep them apart. Yet we also observe the agency by which they determine this outcome. Just as their spouses decide to defy the promises they made in marriage, Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan actively chose to terminate their relationship. The institution of marriage casts a heavy shadow over the actions of these characters, and it is visually depicted in the multiple close-ups on wedding rings we see throughout the film:

rings

Notably, rings are always shown worn on the hand, never removed from it. When the relationship between spouses begins to break down, the rings that once signified a great love become a reminder of a social obligation, an observed and observable commitment. They are therefore tied to image, reputation, integrity – socially determined characteristics. Unwilling to relinquish the moral high ground to their cheating spouses, the bond between Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan ultimately becomes a secret whispered into the hole of a tree: an unrealised wish, a blurred memory.

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