Beautifully shot and refreshingly sincere, Won Kar-wai creates a minor masterpiece
“When people cry, they can dry their eyes with tissues. But when an apartment cries, it takes a lot to mop it up.”
Hong Kong’s stylistic directors in many flavours – from the over-the-top gunplay seen in John Woo’s finest films, to the visual spectacle of Tsui Hark – but few members of the Hong Kong New Wave (a term used to apply top several emerging directors in the 70s and 80s) have portrayed city life as humanly as Wong Kar-wai.
Chungking Express follows two stories: the first is about Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), whose girlfriend May leaves him on April 1. He vows to wait a whole month, buying a tin of pineapples each day, until May 1, at which point he will consider their relationship – like all these tins of pineapples – to be expired. At a bar, he tries to talk to a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Bidgette Lin), who is also having a rough night: she is a drug smuggler whose plans have gone awry.
This one is the shorter of the two stories, and there are times when it’s a bit evident. Thankfully there isn’t a lot of time wasted establishing the characters; the stakes are raised almost immediately, which lets us enjoy the ride as soon as it begins. Cop 223’s actions might seem a bit strange at first, but Kaneshiro sells us on his heartbreak. Bridgette Lin provides great contrast here with her detached character. She has a lot on her mind, but at the same time understands when she needs to let her guard down. Her moments with Cop 223 are brief to say the least, but they work well, less a romance of any sort and more an interlude between parts of their larger, more important narrative.
Where the segment’s length comes in is in the resolution of the stories. We get a sense of closure for Cop 223, of sorts – his story is small and contained enough to last twenty minutes easily – but the wigged woman’s story ends in what feels like a rushed way. You get the impression that once the second segment starts, that it’ll intersect with it. But it doesn’t. Story 1 almost feels like two separate intertwining stories in itself, in that respect.
The second, and more detailed plot, revolves around the unnamed Cop 663 (Tony Leung), who has also been dumped, by his flight attendant ex. Like Cop 223, he expresses his heartbreak in an unusual way, only he talks to the inanimate objects in his apartment, projecting his issues into towels, bars of soap, giant stuffed polar bears, and so on. He goes to a snack bar and meets one of the only named characters in the film: Faye (Faye Wong), a bubbly, cheerful girl with a pixie cut and a fascination with California Dreamin’ by The Mamas & The Papas. She takes a liking to him and sneaks into his apartment every day when he is at work, to tidy and redecorate. He doesn’t notice at first, but then he begins to realise what’s going on, and he begins to find himself attracted to her.
Cop 663’s story is a bit more traditional in its style, while remaining fresh and original. Where other films would arrange for cutemeets and the like, Wong Kar-wai decides to keep the characters separate for a lot of it, with 663 completely in the dark about what is happening, to the point that when his giant polar bear turns into an equally giant stuffed Garfield plush, he shrugs and accepts that his polar bear is actually just too depressed to even enjoy Mondays. This, and 223’s obsession with tinned fruit, might make the main characters seem less relatable and a bit crazy, but it’s really Wong’s way of giving them identity, without compromising their humanity. Neither one of them delves into one-dimensional gimmicks, largely due to the performances by the actors. Leung and Kaneshiro put so much into the subtleties of their characters that you never stop believing them to be real human beings.
Props to them, and to Wong for having created such real characters. Faye, in any other context may have looked like a lunatic, but here her actions remain true to her character. Chungking Express never falters far from its sheer human sincerity, and that’s what lets it get away with out-of-nowhere endings and strange character choices. The movie feels unique because it utilises different methods for telling a story we’ve seen several times. This might leave the audience a bit puzzled in some moments, especially regarding motivations, but it also leaves them satisfied.
Wong Kar-wai’s choice of location – the cold, neon-lit Chungking Mansions and its equally cold surrounding area – adds a lot to the atmosphere of the film. With his ever-moving camera, Wong makes us feel the hustle and bustle. Every shot is brimming with style; frames are crowded, and noisy, yet the characters feel alone. The people in the background are just that: background, and the leads never interact with them, and so we feel their isolation. There’s little warmth or comfort in these areas, so get them where you can. The Midnight Express, where Faye meets 663 for the first time, is the only place that seems friendly and welcoming. The owner, played by Chan Kam-Chuen, is a happy man who treats his customers like family and because of this, it becomes an oasis in a desert of grey apartment buildings and dull-eyed strangers. This is probably why it is there that both stories cross.
Chungking Express doesn’t want to tell a groundbreaking story. It never set out to do anything crazy or different or teach us meaningful lessons about life, but instead wants to tell its story well. It wants to immerse us, and relate to the characters. We’re right there with the characters when they feel heartbreak, or make tough decisions because Wong is so effective at this storytelling. What he does here, both in the story and the camerawork, he does with a subdued passion and incredible talent.
Verdict: Mixing beautiful direction with likeable characters, Wong Kar-wai creates a film worthy of multiple viewings
Chungking Express (1994)
Also known as 重慶森林
Director Wong Kar-wai
Writer Wong Kar-wai
Cop 223 Takeshi Kaneshiro
Cop 663 Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Faye Faye Wong
Woman in Blonde Wig Bridgette Lin
Manager Chan Kam-Chuen