Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express 2Hong Kong

5*
Director:
Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriter:
Wong Kar-wai
Director of Photography:
Christopher Doyle

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: 重慶森林
Transliterated title:
Chung Hing sam lam

Chungking Express has boundless energy, revels in repetition and is quite simply one of the most absorbing films ever made. This may be the only film made by director Wong Kar-wai that I have ever enjoyed (with the possible exception of Fallen Angels, released in 1995), and it is because whatever stylisation takes place always serves to propel the story forward. There is never a dull moment. The repetition is aural, not visual, and although often slightly manipulated, the images are infused with a gritty Hong Kong realism and feature two of the most likeable cops you’re ever likely to see.

These two cops are #223 and #663, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, respectively, and they both suffer from broken hearts. Their tales are told in two separate story lines, with the Midnight Express fast-food stall serving as the only solid connecting thread between the two. 

The film has one of the most exhilarating opening scenes I have seen in my life. The images jump off the screen, and for a while we are blinded, not by the visuals, but by the music. Michael Galasso’s “Baroque” cranks the action forward with rhythms and sounds that immerse you in a world that is audibly — and then, you notice, visibly, too — in motion. Coming after about 1 minute of opening credits (simple white text on a black screen) in complete silence, the score hits a nerve.

The pictures we get are also different from what we’re used to. A step-printed sequence of images (which means the 24 frames per second shot by the camera were altered in post production to unspool at the same speed, but every second frame has been duplicated, and every other frame discarded) makes for dizzying action, captured with a mobile camera that seems to move both more quickly and more slowly than we are used to from the world around us — or, for that matter, the worlds we know on film. The step-printing process is used again at various points in the film, and it continually succeeds in adding another layer of frenzy to a film that positively throbs with adrenaline in the stiflingly humid, concrete jungle that is Hong Kong.

The action in this first scene, and elsewhere in the first story, takes place at Chungking Mansions, a marketplace where everything can be found because every colour and creed on the face of the earth seems to be hawking their wares here.

In the first story, Cop #223 — whose name, He Qiwu, is only mentioned at rare intervals — has just broken up with his girlfriend, May, whom we never see. He hangs out at Midnight Express, a fast-food joint, almost every night, where the manager (played by “Piggy” Chan Kam-Chuen, who was the film’s still photographer) tries to set him up with girls who are waitresses in his employment. But #223 is not interested. He has decided to grieve for one month, until the 1st of May (yes, the name of his ex), when it will also be his birthday, before seriously pursuing any girl again.

The film’s joyous opening scene ends with #223 brushing past a woman in a blonde wig and is accompanied by a voice-over in which the cop tells us he would soon fall in love with her. At the same time as we follow his melancholy-laden trips to grocery stores where he buys canned pineapples set to expire May 1, we also see snippets of this mysterious blonde’s life. She is dealing with a group of  drug smugglers but when she delivers them to the airport and turns around, they’ve suddenly absconded with copious amounts of cocaine.

Honestly, there are parts of this film that do not gel together all that smoothly. The blonde’s working relationship with the owner of a nightclub, who is also deeply involved in the drug business, takes a few viewings to piece together, and even then it’s not entirely clear, because we are asked to infer meaning and function from mere glances. But thanks to the rapid editing that also accelerates the pace at which the stories are told, small jumps are effortlessly papered over, as it were, by the colourful neon.

The first time around, the viewer may be disoriented by the first part, as there are a few very brief shots (lasting no more than a few seconds) with the three main characters from the second part, whom we don’t know yet. But first, a word about the second story.

Cop #663 meets Faye at Midnight Express, where she starts working at the end of the first story, just as #223 disappears from the film (something else that is never explained). He has a sometime girlfriend, an air hostess, but she gives up on their relationship and hands the key with the “Dear John” letter to Faye, who hangs on to the letter for a while, and on to the key to #663’s apartment for much longer. Meanwhile, she becomes fascinated by this man and even starts going to his place (these scenes were shot in DOP Christopher Doyle’s apartment) to clean and reinvigorate his home (some may think of Amélie here). Here, there are questions of credibility, as she replaces certain items, which #663 notices but doesn’t question.

Faye, the air hostess and the cop all make surprise appearances in the first part. First, the air hostess appears outside the airport when the woman with a blonde wig escorts her Indians with their drugs to the departure gate. While the woman in the blonde wig waits outside a toy store, Faye exits with a massive Garfield toy, which we will see again in #663’s flat later on. Moments later, when #223 leaves Midnight Express, there is a short take on #663 looking down from a raised platform, seemingly at #223, but since geography is rarely established in this film, we cannot be certain.

These are very minor points, but they suggest a film that is slightly experimental and strives to make it clear all the buzzing belongs to the same world yet tells its story at full speed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, producing a vibrant combination of narrative, sound and colour that stays with you.

You’ll never hear The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” again without thinking of Tony Leung and Faye Wong. Few other directors — Stanley Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Terrence Malick with Badlands and A Thin Red Line, and Oliver Stone with Platoon — have managed to pull off such an exquisite audiovisual melding using music that had been around for a long time.

Oddly enough, the repetition of the music holds the unconventional storytelling together: Not only is the film divided into two parts, and do the characters from the one turn up unannounced in the other, but like the sequence in Citizen Kane that telegraphs the dissolution of a marriage, a quick succession of scenes involving an array of fast food for the girlfriend precedes the actual introduction of the girlfriend — in a flashback, no less! But Wong Kar-wai breezily ignores the convention of narrative linearity, and yet the viewer stays riveted because these are all such wonderful people.

We love the movies we love despite their faults, not because we think they lack any. Chungking Express, with its numerous awkward plot transitions, is as good an example as any of this, but because I trusted the film from the very first moment and let myself be carried along the stream of images of audio and was never let down by the story or its gentle characters, this remains a truly dazzling film.