While Wong Kar-wai’s magnum opus, In the Mood for Love, often makes its way onto lists of “the greatest films of all time”, it is his 1994 masterpiece that is regularly named by countless admirers as one of their personal favourites. Chungking Express not only exists in a special place in Wong Kar-wai’s body of work but it is also embedded firmly in the memories of those who have repeatedly taken refuge in its comforting beauty on lonely nights.
Over the years, Chungking Express has developed an extensive mythology of its own due to its extremely intimate treatment of love and loss. Presented as a carefully curated collection of two enigmatic love stories that overlap and intersect, Wong Kar-wai uses Hong Kong as the framework in which he conducts his unforgettable explorations of the dynamism of modernity and the fundamental isolation that it imposes on us. Like the two distinct parts of the film, the title also refers to two different places: the famous Chungking Mansions (even though many of the scenes were shot at the nearby Mirador Mansions) and Midnight Express, the iconic snack bar that we see in the film.
It is interesting that Wong chooses to focus on older parts of Hong Kong rather than the glamorous skyscrapers that tourists usually flock towards, making the film semi-autobiographical in nature. His father was a nightclub manager and he grew up in old Hong Kong which had a very cosmopolitan background that was composed of several different ethnic communities, something that we find in Chungking Express as well. These connections with the director’s own past as well as the history of Hong Kong are essential to the film’s experiments with time and the effects it has on our registers of memory.
“Nowadays people are more likely to talk to themselves than to others,” Wong Kar-wai once explained in an interview. He cited this phenomenon as a major reason for the abundant voice-overs in Chungking Express which continue to charm audiences. When Cop 223 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) expresses his concerns about the emotional trauma experienced by expired cans of pineapples that are effortlessly discarded, we are mesmerised by the philosophical depth of his spontaneous honesty. When Cop 663 (Tony Leung) talks to a bar of soap or admonishes a rag, we are magically convinced to notice the inanimate objects that populate our houses as the undemanding best friends we never had. In many ways, this is the film’s greatest ability: it miraculously finds a way to talk to our terrible loneliness.
There is an endearing obsession with repetition, numbers and time that is present throughout the film which alludes to an atmosphere of induced insanity in the frenzied cityscape. People are often separated by 0.01 cm but most remain strangers to each other unless fate intervenes. Heartbroken and sick after eating 30 cans of expired pineapples, Cop 223 wanders into a bar and decides to fall in love with a smuggler/femme fatale (Brigitte Lin). Although she never tells him whether she likes pineapples or not, this stranger ends up becoming the only person to wish him well on his 25th birthday.
Unlike most conventional takes on romance, Cop 223’s story is that of romantic inaction. It is revelatory because it urges us to come to terms with our fragmented existence instead of sustaining the illusory dream of stumbling into everlasting love – or in 223’s case, a love that lasts for 10,000 years. At least the cans of pineapple are honest about their intentions to foster hostility for our gastrointestinal systems after a certain time period. They proudly wear their expiration dates on their bodies, dispelling all of our insecurities. People, on the other hand, are seldom as forthcoming.
Wong Kar-wai smoothly establishes that all the characters inhabit a very specific slice of space through various techniques such as foreshadowing, enabling the main attractions of the second story to slip in and out of the first. Starring Faye Wong as the cutest home invader in the history of cinema, the latter half features a similar yet completely different tale of modern love. Cop 663’s stewardess girlfriend (Valerie Chow) dumps him and leaves a break-up note at Midnight Express, the fast-food joint where 663 gets his nightly fix of black coffee served by Faye. What follows is an insane saga of psychological conditioning orchestrated by Hong Kong’s manic pixie dream girl who routinely breaks into 663’s apartment and completely restructures his reality. Only Faye Wong can make drugging another person look completely innocent and adorable.
Just like the narrative is divided into two parts, so is the cinematography. The first half is mostly shot by Andrew Lau who worked with Wong Kar-wai on his 1988 debut As Tears Go By. Just like Wong’s first film, Cop 223’s section uses staggered shots which subvert the voyeuristic expectations of the audience when it comes to cinematic violence and action. While Christopher Doyle’s portion is equally unique, it is more graceful and focuses on the choreography of the ever-changing mise-en-scène. Each little body movement of Faye Wong seems like a dance step which is important for her first few appearances in Chungking Express as she was very nervous about her spoken parts. Although she beautifully grows into the role as the film progresses, Doyle’s camerawork transforms her initial silence into visual poetry.
That’s definitely not his only contribution to the production since Cop 663’s apartment in Chungking Express was Doyle’s actual apartment and he was apparently very angry about the scene where it was completely flooded. Due to the immense popularity of the film, the place has now become a regular tourist attraction. When Wong Kar-wai was asked about the contrast between Andy Lau’s visual style and Doyle’s work in the second half, he said that he considered the former to be very masculine while Doyle’s style had a wonderful feminine energy – which the cinematographer disagrees with. These differences strangely shape the unlikely symmetry between the two stories, engendering a brilliant interface of varying creative sensibilities.
Made in less than three months during a break in the production of Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time, it is impossible to overestimate the everlasting influence of Chungking Express. Since the filmmaker hailed from a background which contained training in graphic design, it was almost inevitable that advertisement companies and music videos would endlessly imitate the supposedly inimitable style of Wong Kar-wai. Many critics dismissed Chungking Express as an MTV flick while others felt that the magical spontaneity of the project merited comparisons to the irresistibly improvised artistic vision of Jean-Luc Godard. As for the director himself, he cited literary influences that contributed to his art instead of cinematic ones and claimed that he was reading Haruki Murakami’s works while making Chungking Express.
More than anything else, Chungking Express is a meditation on the tragic consequence of passing time: change. Almost all the characters end up becoming different people over the course of the film, showing us that moving out of our comfort zones is necessary for personal growth even when it means breaking out of the safety of our sad little routines. As the end credits of Chungking Express flicker before our eyes, we find that we have grown up a little as well.
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