‘Chungking Express’

As some of you may know I am writing a thesis on the cinema of Wong Kar-wai and when KN reader Ken suggested that I write a post on one of Wong’s films I was more than happy to accommodate his request. When it came to choosing a film from Wong’s oeuvre I was spoilt for choice, but the ultimate decision was not particularly difficult. Chungking Express (1994) is the first of Wong’s films that I had the pleasure of viewing and it is a film that never ceases to entrance. For me, it represents a perfect balance of cinematic elements: an eccentric and humorous script, a pop-tastic soundtrack that underscores the film’s emotional trajectory, the amazing screen presence of Tony Leung, an incomparable filmic representation of Hong Kong and, most notably, the electrifying vision of Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Time, to me, forever brings a loss of innocence. As you go through time, you are bound to look back with hindsight, you begin to reminisce about things that you dreamed about doing but didn’t get to do, you begin to wonder what would have happened on that particular day if you had taken a different turn on the road…You cannot help but regret.

– Wong Kar-wai

Equal parts comedy, policier and romance, Chungking Express is exemplary of Wong’s unique mode of filmmaking that plays with genre conventions and structure to explores the inner subjectivity of his characters. The main protagonists – two cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Leung), a heroin trafficker (Brigitte Lin) and a takeaway shop girl (Faye Wong) – are lovelorn urban flâneurs drifting through the neon-lit and labyrinthine spaces of mid-1990s Hong Kong. And it is Doyle’s framing of the city that immediately captures the viewer’s attention from the opening seconds of the film. Just about every technique of visual trickery – freeze frames, rapid editing, slow motion, coloured filters and stop-motion photography – is included in the opening moments; however, rather than culminating in aesthetic excess, these elements combine to create an emotive vision. Possibly more than any other director, Wong is concerned with conveying mood with every movement of the camera. The utilisation of stroboscopic stop-motion effects, which have become characteristic of Wong’s cinema, are particularly key to breaking vision, movement and time into fragments, thereby producing a visceral cinematic experience.

Certainly, the passage of time and the wallowing in the past are central to all of Wong’s films. In Chungking Express, the camera pauses on clocks and the expiry dates on cans of tinned produce, and memory is evoked through voice-overs, flashbacks and soundtrack. If you have seen the film you may recall a gorgeously erotic scene featuring Leung and Valerie Chow that is set to Dinah Washington’s “What A Difference A Days Makes” and provides a bittersweet snapshot of a love affair that has been relegated to mere memory.

Although Wong’s films are tinged with sadness and an awareness that moments to come may never reach the distilled beauty of those contained within the characters’ recollections, Chungking Express is also delightfully hopeful and slightly silly. If ever you are trying to get over someone you could take the lead from Kaneshiro’s character: go to a bar, decided to fall in love with the first man or woman that walks in the door, take a seat next to your new object of affection and inquire whether he or she likes pineapple. You never know, it just may work.


September 9, 2010