Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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Chungking Express (1994). Wong Kar Wai Retrospective 4K Restorations.


Devices of the love-lorn, some of which work

As Quentin Tarantino explains in the bonus address to viewers of his Rolling Thunder Pictures/Miramax DVD of Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, it was made in only 26 days as a palate-cleansing quickie and break from what had become a drawn-out process of completing his highly stylized martial arts film, Ashes of Time. Both were released in 1994. Chungking Express tells two separate stories. There was a third story Wong originally thought of that he decided to hold and put into his next film, Fallen Angels,.

Quickie or not, this seems the movie that first brought Wong international fame. So it may be likely you've become familiar with this one, perhaps quite familiar: there's a saying that there are people who've never seen a Wong Kar-wai movie, but none who've seen one only once. If you're watching the six features of this retrospective (plus Ashes of Time) in the order they were made as I suggest, this will be number three, after the moody, languorous experience of Days of Being Wild And what a surprising, original and fun movie it is.

Chungking's two stories both concern young Hong Kong policemen recovering from being dumped by girlfriends. They are Cop 223, He Zhiwu (or Qiwu) (Takeshi Kaneshiro), just coming up on his 25th birthday, and the slightly older Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai, then 34), whose airline stewardess girlfriend has just moved out. Both men regularly eat at the same late night snack bar, the Midnight Express, located in the busy center of Hong Kong. The snack bar's boss (Jinquan Chen), an outgoing sort, frequently recommends not only alternatives to the chef's special salad, but that the cops consider taking out one of his cute girl employees, May (Liang Zhen) or the new one, Faye (Faye Wong. who like Takeshi Kaneshiro and Leslie Cheung of Days of Being Wild, was a famous pop singer).

Surprisingly, since the first half begins with the slowed-down, abstracted step-printing sequence of Brigitte Lim, it is the part shot by the more conventional Andrew Lau Wai-keung, and the wilder, more innovative Christopher Doyle shot the second half featuring Tony Leung and Faye Wong.

Wong had already hit his stride working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle and the triumphant, sexy performance of Leslie Cheung in his second film, Days of Being Wild (1990), where he first worked with Christopher Doyle, but this retrospective is a reminder that here, Wong still worked with Andrew Lau as well. Doyle's unique vision and the dominance of the visual element almost seem to overwhelm the films after this, starting with Fallen Angels.

To understand Wong Kar-wai maybe it's best to acknowledge that dominance of the visual and strong collaboration with his dp, together with the fact that he liked his actors to improvise, and preferred to fix a scene that wasn't working by changing an actor's position or the whole setting rather than by altering the script. Correspondingly the emphasis isn't on action or even dialogue but on the thoughts and feelings of the characters conveyed in voiceovers. Here Wong shows his debt to the French New Wave that Tarantino, who himself got a lot out of Godard, has cited as a key aspect of Wong's originality. So is the not-unrelated whimsy, whimsy that even lightens drug running or the murders of a hitman as well as the burden of failed or frustrated love.

There is especially a lot of musing in voiceover by Kaneshiro as He, whose voice here, speaking in Mandarin, shows how soft, gentle, and insinuating Chinese can be, as he talks on and on about dates, hours, maybe even moments. He notes the exact hour when he actually turns 25, and he is obsessed with the expiration date of canned pineapple. Whimsical in the extreme is his plan to buy up and consume 30 cans expiring on his birthday, May 1st, because his ex-girlfriend's name is May - not to be confused with the May who works at Midnight Express. For all his love-disappointment there is something light and playful about Kaneshiro's performance (he will become outright raucously nutty in Fallen Angels). See how hilariously, improvisationally, he calls a string of childhood classmates late at night and asks them for dates, using the Midnight Express public phone, talking to them in a variety of languages, striking out every time.

Also eccentric is the idea that jogging, which He does at the middle of the night in an empty playing field, will rid the body of unnecessary moisture and thereby cut back on the tears. It's all crazy, but the point is, such little devices are ways of coping with emotions you can't even talk about. And these numerous voiceovers are Wong's way of stabilizing his loosely structured movies, anchoring them in the feelings of his characters.

The Blonde Wig lady, apart from a chance to introduce a famous actress in a raincoat and sunglasses at night, an Asian Greta Garbo, is also a partial holdover element of the Hong Kong gangster genre Wong grew out of and continued to play with, because when first met she is orchestrating an elaborate drug mule caper. The whole episode of the Indians used as drug runners, who then disappear, is vaguely distasteful and seems to drift off into nowhere, a plot line that's allowed to dangle. But Wong softens that impression by having He (Kaneshiro) decide "the next woman who comes into the bar" (the Blonde Wig lady, Lim) will be his new girlfriend, and latch onto her. (He should probably arrest her, but he's only briefly in full cop mode in this movie.) She is by now so tired after initial resistance she winds up resting her head on the young man's shoulder and he gets to, in some form, spend the night with her, while consuming yet more prodigious quantities of food, having downed 30 cans of expired pineapple early in the evening to signal giving up on his ex-girlfriend.

Cop 663, on the other hand, actually winds up in a new romance, linking up in the film's later sequences with the impish and delightful, if quite nutty, new employee at the midnight snack bar, Faye (Faye Wong), whose unforgettable signature is her passion for loud pop music, notably the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin," one of Wong's notable repeated pop anthems. Faye falls for Cop 663, and he eventually falls for her. But what a strange "courtship"! - Her constantly breaking into his little flat (which it turns out is where Chris Doyle was actually living at the time of the shoot), and cleaning it - and also feeling everything, rearranging everything, singing and playing around, rolling about on his bed, and eventually running into him several times and barely escaping his finding her several other times.

This is an intimacy achieved by the ultra-shy, and perhaps Cop 663 figures it out and is charmed by it, strange though it is. (What people will do for love...) It's also an idea explored in Wong's next movie, Fallen Angels, an offshoot of Chungking Express anyway, with the "partner" of the hitman who's somehow fascinated by and perhaps in love with him but never gets to see him, only to clean his apartment, tend to some of his affairs, snoop into his garbage, and get outright sexual on his bed.

It's somehow miraculous (and some may think implausible, but heartwarming and optimistic, Wong's affirmation that love after all isn't all pain) that Cop 663 and Faye actually turn into a couple. Thus for all its crime, whimsy, and strange divagations, Chungking Express winds up being Wong Kar-wai's most cheerful and happy film.

Chungking Express 重慶森林 (Chung Hing sam lam, "Chongqing forest"), 102 mins, debuted at Locarno Aug. 1994, also showing that year at Toronto, New York, Tokyo and Stockholm. Its US theatrical release came in Mar. 1996. Its Metascore of 77 is hardly worthy of the high esteem it's now held in by viewers, cinephiles, and critics.


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