"If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries." - Cop 223
Chungking Express (1994) is a film obsessed with time. Not only are its characters consciously aware of and thinking about time passing, but the film itself plays around with the slowing down and speeding up of time. The camera lingers on close-ups of clocks and on cans of food with expiration dates. In this film, not only do cans of food have expiration dates – so do relationships and people’s lives. Writer-director Wong Kar-Wai is acutely aware of how time features so prominently in relationships – as the old adage goes, timing is everything. The characters in Chungking Express never quite connect romantically with each other because their timing is never quite right. One person is looking for love while the other is not and by the time the other figures out what they want, it is too late.
Wong's hopelessly romantic notion of timing is apparent right from the start of the movie. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) accidentally jostles a woman (Brigitte Lin). Wong uses a freeze-frame to capture the first moment of contact and the cop says in a voiceover, "At the closest point, we're just 0.01 cm apart from each other. 57 hours later, I fall in love with this woman." Chungking Express is comprised of two intersecting stories. The first one focuses on the aforementioned police officer and his attempt to cope with the recent breakup with his girlfriend. He's obsessed with the time they had together and the time they now spend apart. He even buys thirty cans of pineapples that expire before May – his birthday and name of his ex-girlfriend – and proceeds to eat them. Anyone who's agonized over a failed relationship can immediately identify with his refusal to let go and to believe that there is a glimmer of hope that things will work out. Cop 223 observes, "Having a broken heart, I'd go jogging. Jogging evaporates water from my body. So I don't have any left for tears." Even though he hurts inside, he still goes on and still looks for love. He meets a mysterious woman dressed in a plain brown trenchcoat, sunglasses, and striking blond hair. She is actually a ruthless drug runner who has been betrayed by her partner and is on the run. It's an interesting blend of the traditional film noir subplot, complete with a femme fatale, mixed with a lovesick cop on the rebound right out of the romance genre.
Towards the end of the first story, the machinations of a crime thriller give way to a romantic drama, aspects of which had gradually appearing throughout. The cop and the woman meet at a bar. He’s finally accepted the fact that he and his girlfriend are quits while she is taking refuge, tired from being chased around by criminals that double-crossed her. These two lonely souls connect for a brief moment in time, hanging out in a hotel room much like the two people that become friends in Lost in Translation (2003). One can’t help but think that Sophia Coppola was more than a little influenced by Wong’s film. It’s fascinating to see the scene play out between these two contrasting personalities. The cop makes romantic gestures, which she initially rebuffs but eventually relents from sheer exhaustion. He watches over her while she gets some much needed sleep, even taking off her shoes and cleaning them before he goes in the morning. It’s a small but touching gesture.
If the first story contains more stereotypical archetypes, the second and much more interesting story goes off into uncharted territory, like some sort of wonderful dream. We are introduced to Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whom his girlfriend has also dumped. He is much more accepting of it, much more logical. It's an attractive woman, Faye (Faye Wong) working at a deli that he frequents that is the hopeless romantic of this story. She's an obsessive type who listens to the song "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas over and over. It is not only her own personal soundtrack but also represents her dream of making enough money to go to California. She dances to the song at work, losing herself in its catchy rhythms. Her fixation on "California Dreamin'" is easily identifiable to anyone who's become so taken with a song that they have to listen to it over and over again. Wong reverses the roles in this story so that it's the woman who is pining after the man who doesn't even know she exists. This story really doesn't follow any kind of set plan. In some ways it feels very improvised as the cop and the woman keep missing each other. Again, timing plays a key factor in this potential relationship. The joy in this story is watching a relationship develop between them and anticipating the possibility of blossoming romance.
Chungking Express is a study in contrasts. In the first story, it is the cop that is the extrovert, the hopeless romantic while the woman is reserved and standoff-ish. In the second story, it is the woman that is the outgoing romantic while the cop is more reserved. This is also reflected in the actors that Wong cast in their respective parts. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a physical actor that externalizes his emotions, playing the cop as an affable hopeless romantic that manages to put a positive spin on everything. This is in sharp contrast to Brigitte Lin’s no-nonsense and ruthless criminal, not above kidnapping a man’s child in order to track down those who double-crossed her. While the cop is an open book and someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, the woman is an enigma, hiding behind a bulky trenchcoat and sunglasses – her armor against the outside world (“You never know if it’s going to rain or be sunny,” she says at one point). She looks like someone trying to dress like a femme fatale out of an old film noir.
In the first story, a character is obsessed with “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown while in the second story Faye is obsessed with “California Dreamin’”. When she isn’t spending her time listening to this song, she’s obsessing over the cop that frequents the fast-food counter where she works. His girlfriend (Valerie Chow) has just broken up with him and we are given a tantalizing glimpse into their relationship via flashback as they playfully make love to “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes” by Dinah Washington, which tells us everything we need to know about their dynamic. It also shows the contrast between the two women – the cop’s ex-girlfriend’s theme music is slow jazz you might listen to on a lazy Sunday afternoon while Faye’s music is bouncy 1960s pop music symbolizing her energetic personality.
At first, the cop may seem reserved but he just expresses his emotions in a different way as evident in the scene where he deals with the breakup by consoling various objects in his apartment. He laments that a bar of soap has lost a lot of weight and tells the wet washcloth to stop crying. Tony Leung handles what could have been a silly scene very well by playing it sincerely. It is obvious that the cop is channeling feelings of loneliness through the things in his apartment and talking to them helps him process the fallout of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. He internalizes, expressing emotions through his eyes in a way that is fascinating to watch.
Despite this rapid-fire way of filmmaking, Chungking Express never looks like it was just thrown together. If anything, it has a very slick, polished look of someone who obviously knew what they were doing and what they wanted. The film has its own tempo with each story having its own unique rhythm. The first one feels very fast and immediate, while the second story adopts a leisurely pace. In this respect, the central characters and their personalities reflect the mood and pacing of the story. Both the cop and the drug runner of the first story lead very exciting, fast-paced lives and this is reflected in the blurred camera movements during moments of action.
Wong immerses us in the sights and sounds of Chungking Mansions, a noisy, chaotic multicultural place where people live and work practically on top of each other. It is here where the cop and the woman work. Exotic music plays over the soundtrack, going back and forth between Indian music and “Things in Life” by Jamaican reggae singer Dennis Brown. Conversely, the cop and woman of the second story adopt a very lackadaisical attitude towards everything and this is in turn demonstrated in the wandering narrative and pacing.
Originally, Wong envisioned Chungking Express consisting of two stories. The filmmaker remembers, "One would be located in Hong Kong and the other in Kowloon; the action of the first would happen in daylight, the other at night. And despite the difference, they are the same stories. After the very heavy stuff, heavily emphasized in Ashes of Time (1994), I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie, but where the characters had the same problems." Initially, Wong wanted to make these stories into a film but couldn't find a way to do it until he "had the idea to unite them in one screenplay. When I started to film, I didn't have it written completely. I filmed in chronological order. The first part happened during the night. I wrote the sequel of the story in one day! Thanks to a brief interruption for the New Year festivities, I had some more time to finish the rest of the script." He kept on writing and developed a third story. However, after filming the first two stories, he found that the film was getting too long so he used the third story as the basis for his next film, Fallen Angels (1995).
Chungking Express was made during a two-month break from the lengthy shooting schedule of his samurai epic, Ashes of Time, acquiring financing by promising backers that it would be a gangster movie. Wong had to stop production on that film to wait for equipment to redo the sound. "While I had nothing to do, I decided to make Chungking Express following my instincts." He had specific locations in mind where he wanted to set the action of the film. Wong said in an interview, "One: Tsim Sha Tsui. I grew up in that area and I have a lot of feelings about it. It's an area where the Chinese literally brush shoulders with westerners, and is uniquely Hong Kong. Inside Chungking Mansions you can run into people of all races and nationalities: Chinese, white people, black people, Indian." This is the setting for much of the first story as Lin's character uses the crowded, labyrinthine building to evade the men who double-crossed her and plot revenge on her disloyal lover. Chungking Mansions is very famous with, as Wong observed, "its 200 lodgings, it is a mix of different cultures ... it is a legendary place where the relations between the people are very complicated. It has always fascinated and intrigued me. It is also a permanent hotspot for the cops in HK because of the illegal traffic that takes place there. That mass-populated and hyperactive place is a great metaphor for the town herself."
The second half of the film was shot in Central, near a popular fast food shop called Midnight Express. "In this area, there are a lot of bars, a lot of foreign executives would hang out there after work," Wong remembers. The fast food shop is forever immortalized as the spot where Tony Leung and Faye Wong's characters met and became attracted to one another. Wong was also drawn to "the escalator from Central to the mid-levels. That interests me because no one has made a movie there. When we were scouting for locations we found the light there entirely appropriate." One of the iconic images from Chungking Express is Faye Wong traveling along the escalator, a warped reflection beside her. Wong created the title for the movie from the two prime locations from the two stories: Chungking Mansions and Midnight Express.
Inspired by the improvisational feel of the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, Wong worked fast and furious on the film with his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. The director remembers, "We filmed like madmen! I told him, we didn't need to pay much attention on lighting (except in the apartment), since it was filmed as a road movie, without any definite location. We didn't have the time to install or use everything; I wanted it to be filmed like a documentary, camera in hands. And Doyle accepted the challenge; to film very fast, while still producing a movie of high quality." Wong infamously shot thousands of feet of footage that went unused, including two weeks of film shot in Brigitte Lin’s home about a subplot that never made the final cut. In addition, he filmed Chungking Express in sequence, writing each scene the night before or on the morning of the day it was to be shot.
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was so taken with Chungking Express that he pressured Miramax to buy the American rights, which he released under his vanity label Rolling Thunder. This allowed Wong’s film to be exposed to American audiences and critics. Roger Ebert gave it three out of four stars and wrote, “This is the kind of movie you’ll relate to if you love film itself, rather than its surface aspects such as story and stars. It’s not a movie for casual audiences, and it may not reveal all its secrets the first time through, but it announces Wong Kar-Wai, its Hong Kong-based director, as a filmmaker in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “While its slender, two-tiered plot links love affairs that happen largely by accident, the film’s real interest seems to lie in raffish affectation.” Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Wong’s singular frenetic visual style and his special feeling for lonely romantics may remind you of certain French New Wave directors, but this movie isn’t a trip down memory lane; it’s a vibrant commentary on young love today, packed with punch and personality.” In his review for the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington wrote, “Like Rohmer, Wong plays the youthful spontaneity of his lovers against the tight, repetitive structure of the plots. And, like Rohmer, he’s a champ at showing the exquisite torture of unrequited, frustrated or sublimated desire.”
First and foremost, Chungking Express is about relationships in an urban environment. The Hong Kong that we see in Wong's film is a densely populated, multi-national environment that influences the characters. He said, "I think a lot of city people have a lot of emotions but sometimes they can't find the people to express them to. That's something the characters in the film share. Tony talks to a bar of soap; Faye steals into Tony's home and gets satisfaction from arranging other people's stuff; and Takeshi has his cans of pineapples. They all project their emotions on certain objects."
Chungking Express is a hangout film as we spend time with these characters at work and during their spare time as they obsess over love lost or the possibility of love. For all of its stylish camerawork, Wong’s film is ultimately about human behavior. One of the joys in watching this film is seeing how these characters interact with one another. How they act and react to what each other says and does. The film holds a hypnotic spell over the viewer as they get sucked into these characters' lives and begin to care about them. As one character observes, "But for some dreams, you'd never wake up." And that's the feeling one gets from this film. You never want it to end.
Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Harvard University Press. 2000.
Ngai, Jimmy. “A Dialogue with Wong Kar-Wai: Cutting Between Time and Two Cities.” Wong Kar-Wai by Jean-Marc Lalanne, David Martinez, Ackbar Abbas & Jimmy Ngai. Dis Voir. 1997.