What is sexier than unspoken yearning communicated only by your eyes? A breathless moment of eye contact with an attractive passerby on the street, locking eyes with a casual acquaintance from across a party for a beat before you both shyly look away — the tension created by the sultry acknowledgment of each other’s existence and the possibilities that fill the space between you and the other person quickens your pulse.
Wong Kar-wai masterfully conveys this aura of erotic possibility and intense desire between two people in a scene less than three minutes long in his 2000 film In the Mood for Love. The staircase glance comes just 15 minutes into the movie, capturing the tension that drives the story.
Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) are neighbors in 1962 Hong Kong. Their respective spouses work late nights and are often abroad on business trips, leaving them alone. Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are at first cordial but reserved with each other as they periodically encounter one another in the hallway of their apartment building. But they are lonely people. Most nights, Mrs. Chan declines to eat dinner with her landlady and instead picks up noodles from a food stall. Mr. Chow is shown working late at his office, writing his crime serial. Abandoned by their partners who are having an affair with each other, they seek refuge in one another, developing feelings that they are only able to admit when it is too late. The staircase scene sets the tone for this unfulfilled love story, placing Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow in a relationship that is doomed to pass them by much like they pass each other on the stairs.
The scene unfolds like a balletic port de bras. In subtle slow motion, Mrs. Chan strolls down the stairs, eyes downcast, to collect her nightly noodles. She waits at the food stall for her meal, one hand crossing her body to grip the opposite bicep — a guarded gesture. Then she ascends the stairs, crosses under a light, and moves out of frame while the camera holds steady. Enter Mr. Chow from the same direction Mrs. Chan has just exited. Wong Kar-wai’s mastery of nonlinear storytelling is on display here. Did Mr. Chow see Mrs. Chan as he made his way to the food stalls? He eats his dumplings alone. The next cut follows Mrs. Chan up the stairs again, this time passing Mr. Chow on his descent. Their eyes meet. “Hello,” he says without stopping. She continues on her way up, half glancing back to look at him once more.
This is not the only time the two run into each other on the stairs to the food stalls, but it is perhaps the most poignant, as it is presumably the first. It is a moment that lingers with you long after the final credits have rolled and you’ve left the theater, like a trail of cigarette smoke or the scent of perfume after someone has leaned in close to you. The characters don’t so much as lay a hand on each other, and yet it is one of the most erotic scenes in cinema.
Wong Kar-wai is known for his saturated and highly intentional use of color. Throughout In the Mood for Love, the color composition of scenes echoes the characters’ emotions and developing relationship. In this scene in particular, we see shimmers of red on Mrs. Chan’s green dress, reflecting the red light hanging over the staircase. The illusion of a shift from green to red foreshadows the characters’ changing feelings, with the glimmer of red suggesting mounting desire (as Shohini Chaudhuri noted in her 2015 essay “Color Design in the Cinema of Wong Kar-wai”).
The synergy of visuals and sound also contributes to the devastating eroticism of the scene. “Yumeji’s Theme,” a mournful waltz, scores the two minutes and twenty-four seconds, fading out towards the end. Once you’ve seen In the Mood for Love, it is difficult to separate this piece of music from the movie, as it is heard nine times throughout the film. A violin is the star of “Yumeji’s Theme,” a low, yearning composition that captures the budding desire the characters nurse for each other. The song is not a happy one, and juxtaposing it with the staircase encounter indicates to the viewer the longing nature of the relationship that is to come.
Though color and sound play substantial roles in depicting the characters’ cravings for passion and yearning to be noticed, it is ultimately Cheung’s and Leung’s performances that reach under your ribs and squeeze your heart. Cheung’s poise, elegance, and composure radiate magnificently. She is hard to look away from, and yet a sadness permeates her being. She is well dressed in a stylish cheongsam, with not a hair out of place nor a smudge of lipstick or speck of dust on her face. But it is exactly this perfection — paired with her non-smile throughout the scene — that conveys her melancholy. She is not a woman who is touched, and she aches for that intimacy.
Leung’s performance carries a similar sense of sobriety. No one wears a suit like him, not even James Bond. He, too, has smooth, styled hair and expresses a certain thoughtfulness as he places a dumpling in his mouth. The duo’s reserved nature and physical perfection suggest an enormous adherence to conformity. They conform to society’s expectations of how nice, well-mannered people should act, fearful of crossing any perceived lines. Cheung and Leung’s interaction on the stairs causes both their characters to stumble in their acts. Chow looks pleased, while Chan is startled out of her mournful reverie, for once present in the space she is in — a physical and emotional space that Cheung’s Chan closely shares with Leung’s Chow. The two notice each other, neglected souls communing in a look of mutual desire.
It is ultimately that fear of boundary-breaking that prevents Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan from ever pursuing their passion for each other. In the Mood for Love is an unrequited love story — a feeling that pulses through that glance, heavy with want. Wondering what could have been leaves room for every possibility, and the fact that none of the possibilities come to fruition breaks your heart. But we know this moment is coming from the very beginning. The opening intertitle reads:
“It is a restless moment. She has kept her head lowered to give him a chance to come closer. But he could not, for lack of courage. She turns and walks away.”