For dedicated fans of Wong Kar Wai, Chungking Express remains to be one of the most beloved films in his oeuvre. It is a romantic movie telling the parallel stories of two lovelorn cops set in the gritty apartments and back alleys of Hong Kong. Steeped in symbolic imagery and pop references, these intertwined yet distinct tales have something profound to say about the fleeting nature of relationships and the discomfort of urban isolation. But more than the plot of the story, this movie is fondly remembered for its unique visual style and cinematography that brought modern Hong Kong cinema to the international stage.
Wong wrote the film in between the editing of his martial arts epic, Ashes of Time, and there is an impulsive, natural feel to the movie, reflecting the spontaneous way in which it was conceptualized. But this isn’t to say that its spontaneity detracts from the quality of the film. Rather, it gives it an energetic, vibrant and kinetic atmosphere that makes it visually compelling. Chungking Express still feels contemporary now as it was seventeen years ago.
The first story features the Japanese-Taiwanese pop star Takeshi Kaneshiro as Cop 223, a police officer who gets dumped by his girlfriend on April Fool’s Day. Refusing to accept the finality of his break-up, he gives his girlfriend until May 1 to come back to him. He buys a can of pineapples with an expiry date of May 1 every single day as a countdown to his self-imposed deadline. On the eve of his marked day, he encounters an enigmatic woman in a blonde wig, played by Brigitte Lin, and they spend the night together. This unnamed character is also a drug smuggler operating in the grimy, rundown shops of Chungking Mansion. While nothing romantic or sexual happens between them, she makes a lasting imprint on his life.
The second tale has Tony Leung as Cop 663, who is also recovering from his breakup with his girlfriend. He meets Faye, a waitress played by Cantonese star Faye Wong who works in Midnight Express, a canteen that he frequents. 663’s girlfriend leaves a letter to Faye knowing that she can hand it to him. Contained in the letter is the spare key to his apartment, which Faye keeps for herself. She then secretly goes to his place regularly to improve his living conditions, which have degraded after his break-up. In one of her trips there, he catches her in his apartment and eventually falls in love with her.
Some critical assessments of this movie dismiss the story as secondary to its form and presentation, but what spoke to me the most is the underlying theme of forming and letting go of relationships that figured heavily in the plots, however minimal, of both stories. Wong was able to communicate the transience and precariousness of human connections, especially in an urban context. His depiction of Hong Kong is that of a constant flux of bodies, emotions, desires and configurations. When he first comes into contact with the blonde woman, Cop 223 says that, “At our closest point, we were just 0.01cm apart from each other. Fifty-five hours later, I was in love with this woman”. This points to a world of romantic and emotional possibilities that exists even in the most minute of spaces. But these potential relationships are constantly threatened by time, distance and dislocation.
Admittedly, I found the first story to be weaker than the second. Wong adopted some conventions from noir in telling the former, and it has some stylistic similarities with his earlier film, As Tears Go By. The sub-story of Brigitte Lin’s character’s operations in the drug underworld didn’t fit into the overall narrative as well as I wanted it to, and I thought that 223’s story wasn’t as satisfyingly resolved. But the second story more than makes up for the deficiencies of the first. It is a more intimate portrait of how Faye liberates 663 from the fetters of his previous relationship. Like 223, 663 is delaying his acceptance of the break-up by refusing to read the letter his girlfriend leaves him, and Faye acts as the catalyst for his transformation. The second story ends on a more ambiguous note, but there is some resolution to be found despite the uncertainty of their futures.
I thought Wong was highly successful in establishing empathy for his characters by adding quirks and idiosyncrasies in the way they coped with their break-ups. 223’s fixation on expiry dates and jogging (because to him, jogging removes the body’s excess water leaving none left for tears), and 663’s conversations with inanimate objects in his apartment are all brilliant touches that show Wong’s strength in communicating the intricacies of human nature. He gives us access to the rich inner lives of his characters and in the process reveals the depth of their humanity, making them real and perhaps more importantly, relatable.
Aside from building strong characters, Wong also shows his expertise and mastery over the cinematic artform. He plays around with perspective, uses slow motion and jump-cut sequences, and deploys a variety of techniques that gives Chungking Express an impressionistic, hazy mood. His brisk and fresh style has been compared to Jean Luc Godard, and what is most impressive about him is how he combines the aesthetic of the French New Wave movement with his Asian background, giving him a unique voice in international cinema.
It is easy to get absorbed in the flurry of images in Chungking Express, and this film truly deserves multiple viewings. The fact that most of the characters are unnamed signifies that they are all but pieces in the vast urban landscape that Wong paints, where the smallest details can be rife with meaning and presence. And while the themes of loss, temporality and impermanence are always palpable, there is a hopeful subtext of optimism, the hope that meaningful relationships can be formed amidst the detached, impersonal interactions of modern, urban life.
Bottom Line: Chungking Express is a delightful, poignant movie about urban alienation that marks Wong Kar Wai’s emergence as a brilliant auteur.