Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Favorite Films #5: Chungking Express


Dreaming About Love, Payoffs, & Chef Salad in Hong Kong


A flurry of slow-motion images is shown as a policeman is chasing a criminal throughout the cramped yet intoxicating Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong. In his chase, he bumps into a woman with a blond wig as they briefly look at each other only to meet again sometime later. Through these colorful yet discordant images comes something that isn’t seen very much to Western audiences as it showed a new side to what Hong Kong cinema is. Presenting these images is Wong Kar-Wai who gives a new alternative to Asian cinema with his third film called Chungking Express (Chung Hing Sam Lam).

If one was to sum up what Hong Kong cinema was about, it would come down to the action film genre depending on what audiences wanted. On the one corner, there’s the martial arts films that would star the likes of Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, and Jackie Chan that would also delve into period epics. On the other corner, there’s the more gritty action films with choreographed gunfights that were helmed by John Woo. While Hong Kong cinema also had films of other genres like comedy and drama, not many of these films broke out internationally as the action and martial arts films continued to be popular outside of Hong Kong.

When Chungking Express was released in 1994, it was the film that became a major hit in Hong Kong where it would win Kar-Wai an award for best director at the Hong Kong Film Awards a year later. One of the people outside of the Hong Kong industry who was extremely impressed by the film was Quentin Tarantino. Already becoming a very popular figure in American independent cinema with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Tarantino was so impressed by the film that he gave it a U.S. release in early 1996 where it didn’t really go anywhere despite some enthusiastic reaction from the critics. For those who were fortunate enough to see it in that limited U.S. release, it felt like a breath of fresh air as they had seen something different that wasn’t a martial arts film or an action film.


Chungking Express is a film with two different stories set in two different parts of Hong Kong that involved two different cops and two different women. In the first part of a film, a young police officer is dealing with a break-up as he would meet an older woman with a blonde wig who is going through troubles of her own. The second part is about another cop who is also going through a break-up as a new snack bar counter falls for him. These two different stories with different tones and a visual look rarely intersect throughout the film as it indicated something that is very different to people who hadn’t seen a lot of Hong Kong films outside of the action/martial arts genre.

While Wong Kar-Wai did forge his career in those genres as a screenwriter, he was also someone who had a love for the films of the French New Wave as well as the American films of the 1970s. Finally forging his career as a filmmaker with 1988’s As Tears Go By, Kar-Wai would use the crime drama in that film but also add a look that was very colorful and ravishing. His 1990 follow-up Days of Being Wild would be a turning point in Kar-Wai forging his own identity as a filmmaker. By creating characters who are flawed and melancholic, it had Kar-Wai reach out to an audience that felt that there weren’t being films being made about them. Though Days of Being Wild wasn’t a commercial hit, it did create some buzz as the film would also be Kar-Wai’s first collaboration with Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

The film would feature some of Kar-Wai regular actors that includes Maggie Cheung, the late Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Carina Lau, and Jacky Cheung as they would all appear in Kar-Wai’s next film in the martial arts epic entitled Ashes of Time. The film would become one of the most notorious box office disasters due to the film’s troubled production as it was shot for more than a year in the desert of mainland China. Needing a break from the on-going post-production, Kar-Wai would create a story that was much looser and didn’t involve an extravagant budget.

With Christopher Doyle, longtime editor/art director/costume designer William Chang, music composer Frankie Chan, and cinematographer Andrew Lau, Kar-Wai chose to go for a low-budget, improvisational approach to the film. With Kar-Wai regular Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Hong Kong film legend Brigitte Lin, who had also appeared in Ashes of Time, Kar-Wai also took a risk by casting a couple of pop singers in Taiwan’s Takeshi Kaneshiro and Faye Wong in other lead roles.


While a third story was meant to be part of the film, that story would end up being another film of its own in 1995’s Fallen Angels. The two stories Kar-Wai would create for Chungking Express would be very different as it involve two very different cops in very different situations involving women. Known for not writing scripts and only writing ideas as guidelines, it is an approach to storytelling that a few directors can do so well like British filmmaker Mike Leigh and American auteur Terrence Malick. Notably the latter in whom Kar-Wai was influenced by in terms of creating unique characters that are very flawed. What Kar-Wai does differently from Leigh and Malick is that he brought his own Asian sensibilities where he can go into dark places but also put some humor into the some of those dark places.

The film’s first half that features Kaneshiro’s cop 223 who is musing over his break-up with this young woman as he obsesses about eating pineapples that is expired on May 1, which is his birthday. While on the job in the opening chase scene, he would meet this mysterious woman with a blonde wig who is going through her own issues. Through these very vibrant and energetic scenes played to the tune of Indian music, she is trying to organize a drug smuggling operation involving Indian immigrants where it all goes wrong. Was it because the people she had hired got lost or they had different orders from her boss just to get her in trouble?


Well, she has to take matters into her own hands into finding the smugglers as she had to do things like kidnapping a shopkeeper’s child to get answers. Instead, none of the things didn’t work as she later meets this young cop at a bar where they chat for a bit and later stay at a hotel where she sleeps and he eats and watches TV. He would also clean her shoes as he leaves while she is asleep to go out for a jog where he receives a call from his beeper. It’s the mysterious woman wishing him a happy birthday as it’s an indication that things will be good for him. The mysterious woman however, does manage to take care of things and then disappear.


What is very evident about the film’s first half isn’t just dark tone of it that matches with slow images of the sky and colorful yet entrancing cinematography done mostly by Andrew Lau. It is the pacing of that section of the film that is very intriguing in what Kar-Wai and co-editor William Chang devise. Along with these flurries of frame-speed images where the action is quite jerky and has these strange, slow rhythms. It is part of what defines Kar-Wai’s work as the editing and pacing of that section is very unconventional. At first, these unconventional approach to the pacing will confuse audiences because there’s not a lot that goes on and the pacing can feel like it’s lagging at times. On a second viewing and through another, the pacing starts to make more sense since it’s about a young man wandering at night about his own break-up and meeting this older, mysterious woman.

With a soundtrack that is a mixture of smooth jazz, reggae, Indian, and the hypnotic yet eerie ambient score of Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia, the first half plays up to the unconventional tone of the film. Notably as it is told from the perspective of Cop 223 who laments over his break-up and the night he went through as he is telling it in a voice-over narration. Still, it’s also told from the mysterious woman’s perspective as she’s doesn’t have a lot of dialogue in her own individual scenes. Yet, Brigitte Lin’s performance is definitely hypnotic right to the final moment where she pulls off her wig and leaves. Though her face and true hair isn’t really shown as she is often seen sporting red sunglasses. It does leave a lasting impression as the film would be the last major work of Lin as she would retire from the world of film despite making very small appearances in a couple of features up till 2001.

Throughout the first half, the one character that appears in both sections is a snack bar manager, played by Chen Jinquan, who would tell this young cop about a young girl he wants to set her up with. Cop 223 isn’t sure as he would then bump into this new girl working at the snack bar where their meeting would be similar to the one he would have this mysterious woman early in the film. This is where the two halves would finally meet but Cop 223 would reveal via narration that this new girl isn’t interested in him at all. Instead, it’s towards another man as her favorite song in the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’ is played.

With the exception of the snack bar manager, the characters of all four films rarely interacts although the Faye character in the second half does make a brief appearance in the first half as she is buying a big stuffed animal while the mysterious woman waits outside of the shop. By the time this new story appears, the film’s tone and look starts to change. Whereas this first half was this dark yet moody piece that is shot mostly at night. The second half of the story would be this very loose, brighter story that is shot on both day and night as it is also a much more comical and romantic story.


Why would Kar-Wai do something like this to change the entire tone of the film from this dark and entrancing crime story into a story that is very kooky and upbeat with very different characters? Well, there aren’t really any answers as these two different stories do offer something for everyone. If someone wants to see some stylistic violence. That’s what the film’s first half has to offer. If someone wants to go for a kooky romance that is very vibrant. That’s what the film’s second half is for.

The film’s second half is about this cop, played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who is a beat cop that often frequents into this snack bar order the same thing including something for his stewardess girlfriend. Working at this snack bar is this quirky young woman named Faye who loves to listen to the Mamas & the Papas’ California Dreamin’. She would give his orders quietly while doing all sorts of things until one day, he orders something different as he just drinks a Coke and she stares at him. Then on another particular day, the cop’s stewardess girlfriend (Valerie Chow) arrives with a letter as she gives it to the snack bar’s manager. Everyone including Faye reads it as it includes a copy of a boarding pass and a key.

Cop 663 however, has chosen a different beat and time to work which would allow Faye to break into his apartment and explore everything where she would alter parts of his life. The apartment that Cop 663 lives in is actually the apartment that cinematographer Christopher Doyle lives in as he shot the film’s second half. Doyle’s photography in the second half is far more vibrant and brighter as a lot of it is shot in the daytime. The nighttime and exterior scenes, notably the candlelight scene when the power at the bar goes out, are quite exquisite while maintaining some of the hypnotic look of the film’s first half. The camera work is also looser as Doyle goes for a more fluid, hand-held style.


With this approach, Doyle and Kar-Wai gets a chance to shoot inside the apartment in a scene where Cop 663 is inside thinking that his ex-girlfriend is back as Faye keeps hiding in various places. Through these visits to his apartment where she changes everything that includes a wonderful scene where she gives the home a makeover to a cover of the Cranberries’ Dreams that is sung by Faye Wong. It’s a very playful scene that emphasizes the eccentricity of Faye as she is pining for this cop.

There’s performances in that film that are brilliant but none of them could capture the natural energy and charm that Faye Wong possesses in this film. While Wong is more famous as an Asian pop singer with a few film and TV appearances in her career. Her performance in this film was truly unlike anything at the time. The sense of quirkiness as well as sporting a pixie-like haircut felt new although some would claim that the Faye character would become part of the prototype for the much-maligned stock character known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While Faye does have those quirky characteristics and charming persona that can make men fall in love with her. What deviates her from those aspects of the MPDG stereotype is what is happening to the cop.


Yes, he’s enduring a break-up and is trying to move on by doing his job as he would often bump into Faye as she is trying to drag a big basket of vegetables as the two would chat and stuff. Then, he starts to suspect things when the sardines he eats taste very differently as he also wonders why he has a new bar of soap and such. He thinks that his ex-girlfriend has been appearing until he eventually learns the truth as he asks for the letter and an even bigger surprise to Faye. The big question is what will Faye do? Particularly as there’s people in the snack bar including the manager who is aware of the sparks between the two.

The cop sets a date as he waits for Faye at a bar but she doesn’t show up as he leaves while wondering about the boarding pass that his ex-girlfriend has given him as it’s ruined in tatters and such. Yet, the answer isn’t unveiled as Faye would finally revealed what happened that night in a voice-over through the flurries of people walking around her as she sits still. Then, the picture changes as Faye is shown in a different light with a different hair style and clothes as it’s revealed what she becomes. She reveals that it’s been a year since that date as she returns to Hong Kong to learn that the cop has bought the snack bar as the two talk as he is playing California Dreamin’. The ending is a bit more open as no one knows what happens to the cop and Faye. Do they get together or is it going to be another playful game of chasing one another?


It’s the kind of film that doesn’t give any easy answers or any conventional ideas about love and relationships. It doesn’t feature traditional male and female personas that is often typical with American Hollywood films. It has male characters who are quite sensitive and aloof but also can be a little tough when they’re in action. It has female characters who are a bit romantic but have their own sense of individuality. This is why Wong Kar-Wai is among one of the best filmmakers working today. He creates characters that do more than what their stock types can do.

If anything, Chungking Express is probably one of the best date movies ever made. It’s got enough action and dark overtones that is very entrancing yet it also has this very offbeat sense of humor that can bring laughs. The romantic element is very intoxicating as men ponder about their own faults while the women show that there’s a whole lot more than the girlfriends they’ve had. Wong Kar-Wai does that and more where it’s OK to eat nearly expired pineapples, talk to a wet rag, and dance around to a Cranberries cover inside someone’s apartment. Chungking Express is Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece for the way he can create two different stories and actually make both stories be one entire singular film for all to enjoy.


© thevoid99 2012

7 comments:

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I absolutely love this film too and have been meaning to post about it for ages now but can't ever seem to come up with the words for it.

The Chungking Mansions, Chris Doyle's mesmerizing camerawork, the irresistibly cute Faye Wong looking like a Chinese version of Jean Seberg, has there ever been a better scene in which the song playing in the background is also sung by the actress on screen?

David said...

wow,here it is.Wong Kar-wai has huge fan base in China and I believe many others abroad.I think the reason his films are so attractive is his aesthetics is really different from any other directors,it is kind of one of his own.His new film will hit cinema here in China in a couple of months,I'm not that excited about it since he "divorced" Doyle after 2046.

SDG said...

I am hearing a lot about Chungking Express especially since I wrote about In the Mood for Love. Your post makes me watch it even more. Great, Great post!!

Sati. said...

Great review as always! I love this movie.

thevoid99 said...

@Bonjour-I don't think I can think of any other scene where an actress is dancing to her own song. Besides, when I first saw the film and Faye Wong in that part. Hearts fluttered...

@David-The Grandmasters better come out and... it has to be a hell of a lot better than My Blueberry Nights. That wasn't very good.

@SDG-as long as you just watch and enjoy yourself, it's all cool.

@Sati-Actually, my review of the film is in the link below. Thanks for reading!

Cherokee said...

It's been a while since I have seen Chungking Express, and though I really liked it, I think some scenes definitely could be cut.

However, saying that, you've made me want to revist the film as I do love Wong Kar-wai.

thevoid99 said...

@Cherokee-Don't even think about cutting anything. Otherwise, it wouldn't be the film that everyone can enjoy.