Loneliness, and What Could Have Been

by Niall Chithelen

In the Mood for Love is an acclaimed film about unrealized romance, a film taking place mostly in those moments when two people cannot quite convince themselves to give in to the tension that exists between them. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Su are neighbors, their spouses are having an affair (with each other), they find themselves spending increasing amounts of time together, and soon they realize they are nearing an affair of their own. We watch them brush past one another, glance at each other, try a conversation, and, eventually, strike up a friendship. We also watch them pause outside one another’s doors, pause when the other picks up the phone, and pause in response to difficult questions.

In its focus on this near-romance, the film reveals lives controlled by work and loneliness. Chow and Su and their spouses all have good jobs, but they still have to rent out single rooms from a landlord, and thus they end up neighbors. It is not clear how their spouses began their affair, but they cover for it throughout with business trips—at times even to the same place—and calls home about being late from work tonight. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Su confirm the relationship between their spouses through gifts their spouses brought back while abroad for work (Mr. Su seems to have brought a similar handbag back both for his wife and his mistress; Mrs. Chow did the same with a tie). Their relationship comes to an end after Mr. Chow accepts a posting in Singapore and invites Mrs. Su along but she shows up too late. At every turn, a job is waiting to turn relationships, to entwine the sexual and the professional, just as it does when we learn that part of Su’s job is arranging the gifts her boss buys for his mistress, and when business trips and affairs become synonymous. Somewhat counterintuitively, as their relationship grows more serious, Chow and Su calling one another at work feels inappropriate precisely because they are not having an affair. 


We also know that both Chow and Su work late themselves; having no reason to be at home alone, they stay at the office alone instead. When they start spending time together, however, their relationship is not an escape from loneliness but a form of coping with it. The film fakes us out with flirtatious conversations between Chow and Su, only to have us see that the two of them role-playing as their spouses, trying to figure out how the affair began. Their outings then become a way of acknowledging the failure of their marriages. They are only able to go to tea and to dinner because their spouses are somewhere else, together. When they touch one another it is uncomfortable, and sexual tension between them seems almost out of place. Their relationship is at its clearest when they sit awkwardly across from one another at a table, being lonely together.

Near the middle of the film, however, they do seek a more fully formed relationship. Mrs. Su borrows a martial arts serial from Mr. Chow and he explains that he always dreamt of writing one and she can borrow from his collection anytime. She does so, and later Chow even suggests writing one together, finally providing a reason for the two to spend time together that has nothing to do with their spouses’ affair. As he  begins working on the stories, Chow, significantly, even misses work. Su joins him and the two of them start to spend time in a hotel together, writing. These brief and warm scenes are the only time in the film when Chow and Su seem to interact as they might’ve if they had they known each other for more innocent reasons, not intruded upon by work or failed marriage or their concomitant, loneliness.

Apparently, the stories they produce in that time are quite good, as Chow begins to sell them. This is not, however, auspicious. The way Chow’s dream has been realized is, in effect, by becoming another form of work, and his success is not a reason for their relationship to develop further, it just risks making them into coworkers—and then, of course, a real affair would be normal.  


Tellingly, the film does not slow down for that interlude of real friendship but rather speeds up, eliding conversation through montage. It is hard to even imagine what conversations Chow and Su are even having. We do not know what they might be laughing about while writing together, because, oddly, we have no idea what they find funny. What made them compatible before was perhaps less disposition than situation; we never learn much more about them than that they are two decent, reserved people who keep ending up in the same places at the same times and have one very good reason to talk to one another. What would a relationship between them look like? We don’t know.      

Ultimately, that question is not very important, because the film is about the missing of an opportunity, not about what that opportunity was. It doesn’t matter much whether Chow and Su could have had a successful relationship or not, because the most successful relationship that we, anyone, can imagine is precisely that—imagined. A real relationship would have been something more than a break from dealing with loneliness, and it seems that both characters were reluctant to really pursue such a relationship in part because they know that the forces in their lives that drove them together have little to do with whatever forces might keep them together. Their relationship at its best was a fuzzy interlude, a break from the lives to which they have to return.  

Before the end credits, a title card appears on screen, telling us that when Chow looks back on these times, the “vanished past,” “everything he sees is blurred and indistinct,” and the past “is something he could see, but not touch.” The film itself is vivid and clear, exceptionally beautiful in almost every frame, but Chow’s vision of the past seems more metaphorical—in looking back on these moments, this relationship briefly free and fun, he only sees indistinctly what could have been, but sees clearly that something was not.