It’s difficult to write about In the Mood for Love in terms of theme because much of the film is concerned with ephemeral, almost inexpressible feelings. Still, the characters’ quest for understanding and the relationship that forms out of that creates an interesting space for writer/director Wong Kar Wai to contemplate the nature of human companionship.
Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Toney Leung) are amicable neighbors who begin to become friends because of how often both of their spouses are away. However, what ultimately brings them together is the suspicion that their spouses are having an affair with one another. As they commiserate about the horrible betrayal both have suffered, they begin to form a complicated relationship.
At its core, In the Mood for Love is a film about the basic human drive for companionship. While it’s true that strange circumstances bring them together, it’s ultimately a need to talk and connect with someone on a deeper level, to talk about that which weighs them down the most that brings Mrs. Chan and Chow together. It’s a necessary and healthy relationship.
The neighbors complain that Mrs. Chan never spends time with them and one of Mr. Chow’s friends comments that he keeps a lot to himself. The relationship allows both of them a desperately-needed outlet, one they aren’t able to find in their respective spouses. Furthermore, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are able to connect over a common interest: a love of serial stories. Mr. Chow begins writing his own serials and Mrs. Chan begins assisting him and offering advice. Their mutual passion is part of what keeps their friendship going after the initial period of connecting over a mutual grievance ends.
However, where things become dangerous is when Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow make the deadly assumption that they can somehow have this companionship without entering the territory of an affair like their spouses are having. As Mrs. Chan says, we won’t be like them. They’re using each other as surrogates and replacements for their spouses; hence, at least on the level of the hearts, the seeds of an affair have already been planted.
In a number of scenes, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow try to act out how they think their spouses might have started their affair. Where simulation ends and imitation begins becomes murky. After a while, the fake advances become less fake, more intimate and closer to the affair that they’re quick to condemn their spouses for having.
The ending of the film isn’t completely clear, there’s a gap in time, but after several viewings the way I see it is that at some point Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow slept together, which resulted in a child. Both end up separate from each other, Mr. Chow leaves the country, returns and hears about a woman and her child who live together. Ultimately, the affair only further isolates them because it can never be what they want it to be. They’re only left with a deadly secret that they must hold, and a memory of a time when they didn’t feel so alone.