Spotlight (2015) follows the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, a group of four investigative journalists who, in 2001, looked into the widespread child sexual abuse committed by the district’s clergy, as well as the Catholic Church’s coverup of the misconduct. The film, with its sparse cinematic style and superb cast, allows us to focus on the issue. It doesn’t patronize the journalists, as much as the plot is a hero story. Spotlight’s heroes do their job, which entails an active commitment to truth. They experience setbacks and hardships (from uncooperative lawyers to having to pause their investigation to cover the 9/11 terrorist attacks, to sharing in the shock, grief, and trauma of the victims), but the journalists overcome those and break the story.
Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, among others, do an excellent job in making us feel their characters’ stress, exhaustion, and indignation. We see their characters’ commitment in the intensity of their gaze, in their furrowed brows as they listen to the victims tell their stories, as they pester lawyers; and we hear it in the firmness of their voice as they deliver their questions, assurances, and retorts.
Another detail reveals the journalists’ dedication: their wedding rings. At several points in the film, the ring is in the frame. Reflecting light, the ring catches our eye. When we’re introduced to Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton), we already know something about him before he speaks: We know he’s married as we spot the ring. The same goes for Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), and even their supervisor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). By letting us know that they are married, the ring tells us that the Spotlight journalists have a personal life, that they have other commitments.
We don’t see much of their personal lives, though. In the few times we do, we often see them working on their own at home, absorbed in clippings or books despite their physical and emotional weariness for having worked on the same story all day.
It then seems like the characters are instead married to their jobs. Which is to say there’s a cost in being one of the Globe’s best investigative journalists and in exposing a systemic issue: time for oneself and for the loved ones.
We’re reminded of this cost whenever the ring shines on-screen as the journalists work overtime. Sacha works in the library until it closes. Michael has a dinner meeting with Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who remarks that Michael works a lot, and Michael reveals that his wife minds that he does. “That’s why I never got married,” says Mitchell. “I’m too busy. What I do is too important.”
For us, knowing the cost is necessary because in good hero stories, something is put on the line to reach the goal. That makes the whole journey more difficult, and the win more triumphant. In Spotlight, we see how much the issue weighs on the journalists based on what they give up; we see their heroism in their sacrifices to tell the story accurately and in a way that leaves the Catholic Church without any more coverups.
Yet there was no time for the journalists to relish their accomplishment when the Boston Globe ran the story. The film ends with the team in the office on a Sunday, answering phones to note down the sexual abuse experiences of other victims. It’s a conclusion that shows humility. Not self-congratulatory, it seems to say that the rigor and the sacrifices are all part of the job for no reward or sense of fulfillment, and no reason other than duty or editorial responsibility. The journalists then seem more admirable for appearing to be genuinely selfless.
While the wedding ring in Spotlight gives the audience biographical information about the characters to know what’s at stake for them, the wedding ring in In the Mood for Love (2000) is the characters’ prop or tool for them to express themselves and support their choices as a response to the situation they’re in. This gives us a peek into their inner lives, and makes watching the film more emotional.
Set in 1960s Hong Kong, In the Mood for Love tells the story of two characters whose spouses cheat on them with each other. Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung), the main characters who also happen to be neighbors, come together to understand how the affair of their spouses began. They later develop feelings for each other.
One of the striking features of In the Mood for Love is the way it composes a shot. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are almost always framed by the objects around them: the walls, the door frame, and tight corners. This style gives two impressions: that they are being observed—as if someone, including us, the viewer, is watching close by—and that they feel trapped.
Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are in fact being observed. Their neighbors remark that Mrs. Chan’s husband is always away, “It’s sad to see her so lonely,” that she’s overdressed when she goes out to buy noodles (“She dresses up like that to go out for noodles?”). In one scene, after Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow have spent much time together, Mrs. Chan’s landlady reminds Mrs. Chan that she’s married, so she shouldn’t be going out too much. As for Mr. Chow, a neighbor notices him holding two bags of sticky rice as he leaves his flat, prompting him to lie that they’re all for him. As Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow are aware that they have keen, nosy neighbors, wearing their rings gives the statement and insists: “We’re okay in our marriage; there’s nothing to worry about.” The reality, though, is that they aren’t fine. And there might be something for others to fuss about considering that “feelings can creep up,” as Mr. Chow puts it.
It’s inevitable for Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan to feel constricted, upon knowing that there are eyes and ears everywhere. They become extra cautious and discreet so their neighbors won’t talk or think that they have an affair, because they don’t have one. They don’t return to the apartment building together; one has to get out of the cab and walk home. Once, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan have been physically trapped together. Mrs. Chan was in Mr. Chow’s apartment reading martial arts serials and helping him write his first, when their neighbors arrived on their floor. The neighbors played mahjong in the common room, making it impossible for Mrs. Chan to return to her flat without getting caught by them and raising suspicion. The neighbors were at it all night until the next morning, forcing Mrs. Chan to sleep in Mr. Chow’s place and even skip work. All the while Mrs. Chan had to be quiet and still too.
Apart from the physical adjustments or limits the two have to deal with, the truth remains that their marriage continues to fall apart. With their partners away, Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan can’t confront their spouses yet about the cheating and how to proceed from there. This leaves Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan hanging on to the marriage without any form of closure to help them face and bear the pain from the betrayal, which is necessary to moving on. And as long as they wear the ring, a symbol of staying faithful, they are indefinitely trapped in a bad marriage and in a state of limbo.
What aggravates the situation all the more is that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan eventually develop feelings for each other. Their unfaithful, absent partners and their feelings tempt them to consummate their love. Yet as they continue to wear their wedding rings, they choose to do right by their spouses and not have an affair, to stay in a broken marriage even as they find happiness in each other. They prefer being trapped to being adulterers. This just heightens the pain and sadness from the situation, since the two injured parties who’ve fallen in love with each other can’t be together.
As an image that stands for why the two can’t be together, the ring compounds the loss: first of the spouse, then the would-be lover.
We feel this loss when we see Mrs. Chan grasp her arm in agony after rehearsing her parting words for Mr. Chow.
In the Mood for Love becomes a much more poignant film owing to the implications of wearing the wedding ring and the secret it hides. Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan wear their rings no longer out of love or trust for their respective partners, but to be the better people in the dysfunctional relationship and to cover up and resist their feelings for each other. And that means confining themselves to an unhappy partnership in real life, and resorting to fantasies where they are free to long for each other yet only imagine a life together. Outside of this fantasy, they are trapped and lonely.
For us, the agony is at its sharpest when, years later and Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan no longer wear their rings, hinting that they’ve separated from their spouses, their paths almost cross, but never actually do again.
Adapted from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” Arrival (2016), on the surface, is about a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams) who translates the language of newly landed aliens for the U.S. military. Like any good science-fiction story, the film is more than the intrigue and threat of aliens, and the intricacies of physics—and in this case, linguistics. As it progresses, we come to realize that it concerns us: our being bound by time, our free will or lack thereof, and that we are influenced by our image of the future, whether or not we wish it to come true. And beneath all this meaty discussion points, Arrival tells of Louise’s coming into terms with the loss of her daughter. And she achieves this by not only remembering her daughter and their moments together, but also addressing her, telling her that having her is worth the pain that follows her foreseen death.
Louise’s wedding ring cues us that there’s something awry with the film’s timeline. Arrival begins with a montage of Louise raising a family. She nurses her newborn baby whom she names Hannah, then the scene cuts to her playing with Hannah, now a young girl. The frame shows us that Louise wears a wedding ring; we even get a few closeup shots of it. Her husband, out of focus in the post-birth scene, wears one too. Then the film skips to Hannah as a teenager, who is diagnosed and later dies of cancer. We watch Louise receive the news and weep.
The following act finds a somehow dazed and nonchalant Louise walking to class on the day the aliens arrive. She doesn’t mind the news or the frenzy it’s caused. And basing her lack of concern for her surroundings on the previous scene, we assume she’s turned inward due to Hannah’s death—a sign of mourning, or that the fact and finality of her daughter’s death hasn’t sunk in. But as she unzips her laptop bag, we see that her hand bears no ring—a curious detail, since it seems as if a night just passed. Nothing led up to her taking the ring off, signifying her estrangement from her husband. Even when Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) fetches her with a chopper at her home, we find her alone. And in the few times we glimpse her hand as she attempts to translate blotchy circles, there’s no ring.
It’s possible that Louise and her husband separated before Hannah became ill. After all, Louise weeps on her own. But this detail is not very clear, nor is it confirmed yet. All the other domestic scenes, save for Hannah’s birth, show Louise and her daughter only—the two of them play together; only Louise tucks Hannah to bed yet Louise is married as evidenced by her ring.
Louise’s line in the beginning of the film sparks the idea of a circular timeline. She says:
I used to think this was the beginning of your story. Memory is a strange thing. It doesn’t work like I thought it did. We are so bound by time, by its order. I remember moments in the middle. And this was the end. But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings.
There’s a lot to unpack from her words. But we can gather very early on that Louise somehow looks at time as a loop. We’re then opened up to the possibility of the film sequence being non-linear, since the story is told in her point of view. Therefore, as soon as we notice the ring’s absence in the classroom scene, we can’t help wondering if the aliens’ arrival could have happened before Louise got married and bore a child.
Given the plot about the aliens, their threat, and worldwide panic about humanity’s safety and future, the question of where we are in the sequence of events isn’t pressing. It merely hangs in the air, even during the interspersed scenes where we see Hannah frolicking, which gives us the impression that Louise misses her daughter and has yet to spend her days grieving—a sad enough situation—until it’s revealed that Louise doesn’t recognize the girl in her mind’s eye.
When we find out that the familial scenes take place after the interaction with the aliens, it occurs to us that that’s why she wears no wedding ring at present; she’s single. She’s not divorced; she’s in fact single when she tells Gary (Jeremy Renner), “Trust me, you can understand communication and still end up single.” We then know who will be her husband. Who else than Gary, the guy she’s interacted with the most, shared an intimate moment with, and matches her on an intellectual level?
It seems then that the ring was used to catch us off guard and trigger a small question when it goes missing. It makes us wonder if we are moving back in time. When this is confirmed towards the end of the film and we know what’s to come for Louise, new tension arises: Will Louise be romantically involved with Gary knowing that they will separate? Will she have a child with him knowing that the child will die young, devastate the both of them, and possibly cause the fall of their relationship? More to the point: Upon knowing the future, does Louise choose, and does she think she can?
When it comes to telling a story through film, so much goes into creating the framed picture: camera angle, composition, depth of field, music, special effects, and color scheme, to name a few. What we see on-screen then is something the director wants us to see, be it to know more about the characters; to understand a feeling or idea through symbols, synecdoches, or parallelisms; or to foreshadow or brace us for an important event in the story.
Costume designers work with the director on what goes inside the frame. They’re in charge of each clothing detail to make the characters believable as real people. Through their manner of dressing and what they wear, characters reveal their lifestyles, histories, statuses, desires, and personas, and that they live in a certain setting. And it’s important that the characters seem real to us, so that we care enough about them to sit through their narrative. In doing so, we learn more about them, what helps make a compelling story, and the film’s themes.
Being aware of how costumes reveal things to us can even prompt us to reflect on how we express ourselves or communicate something of ourselves to others through what we wear. Only the keenest ones can piece a story from our outfits. And while that can be accurate, our clothes and accessories alone don’t say everything about us, especially not our motivations.