An Appreciation – Chungking Express
There are few filmmakers who can capture the feeling of longing the way Wong Kar Wai does. Throughout his career, WKW has consistently revisited the ways in which people come together or fall apart. His characters are constantly moving, interacting or separating, or barely missing each other. In Chungking Express (1994) a character comments on how they come within 0.01cm of another person, not knowing how their dynamic will somehow change or how their lives may evolve beyond that singular moment. In a place such as Hong Kong, where overpopulation and limited space makes it almost impossible not to bump into others, WKW created a film that highlights the importance of human connection.
Chungking Express feels like a blast of youthful energy. It operates like a ‘90s pop kaleidoscope, mixing romance, music, and melancholy into a kind of noir-ish collage of color and emotion. The setting places us into a cramped city bustling with life and excitement. We weave our way through back alleys, small corner restaurants, street vendors, smoky bars, apartments, and hotels. Nearly every other shot includes people hustling through their daily routines, selling groceries or clothing to anyone walking along the street. The way we move through all these different people and places give the effect of a nighttime odyssey, where we can meet just about anyone and get into all sorts of unpredictable situations. And yet, with a place that is as diverse and large as Hong Kong, WKW narrows his focus on a just a few people. His featured players are just a handful of contrasting personalities – he emphasizes these smaller, personal stories in the midst of a larger canvas.
Much of the mood and style can be attributed to WKW’s long time collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle’s kinetic and impulsive photography perfectly sets the tone. He plays with color and frame rate, occasionally manipulating the motion to create a jerky, blurry visual presentation. Other times, the camera will stop in place, having the patience to witness moments of quiet intimacy. In a way, WKW and Doyle’s work is reminiscent of the French New Wave – with those rebellious filmmakers – and how they wanted to break from traditional standards of the medium. His influence comes particularly from Jean-Luc Godard in how they both playfully experiment with the technical aspects of storytelling. It’s as though WKW is a kid in a playground, creating this world purely out of imagination with a complete disregard on how a story “should” be told.
But that’s not to say that WKW keeps us at arm’s length because of his unconventional approach. In fact, the effect is the opposite. He takes universal themes and strengthens them to become even more relatable. Take for instance the story of police officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the mysterious Woman in a Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin). 223 has recently broken up with his girlfriend, spending his days either hunting down criminals or checking his answering machine to see if she left him a message. The Woman works in the black market, smuggling illegal drugs. Things get dicey when her latest shipment suddenly vanishes, leaving her to deal with the consequences, possibly in deadly fashion.
Both 223 and The Woman deal with the theme of Time. 223 gives himself one month to wallow in his despair for losing his love before he moves on. He uses the expiration dates on canned goods as way to keep track of the dates. For The Woman, she must race against time to either find the missing shipment, or deal with the drug bosses that are coming after her. 223 and The Woman make an unlikely a couple, and the film knows this. They operate on both sides of the law, and when they meet for the first time at a bar, we notice right away that their chemistry isn’t necessarily of a sexual nature.
WKW shows how two people, despite coming from completely separate worlds, can find some commonality with each other even if it’s for the sole purpose of having company. Despite both of them dealing with their own personal problems, for a single night they were able to create a connection, to find solace in just spending a moment in time together. Much of the story of 223 and The Woman in a Blonde Wig has them separated from one another. Their “relationship” was never meant to last, but they find common ground before they jump back into their own personal journeys. It’s interesting that Brigitte Lin – one of the more recognizable stars in Asian cinema – was completely covered with an obviously fake wig and dark sunglasses. The Woman may be trying to conceal her identity, but does she also signify a mirror image of 223 himself? Is he hiding under his own imaginary disguise dealing with a lover who no longer loves him?
The story of 223 and The Woman is a great singular tale in itself, but Chungking Express truly shines when we meet police officer 663 (Tony Leung) and a young woman working at a late-night food stand named Faye (Faye Wong). Like 223, 663 is also dealing with the disintegration of his previous relationship with an airline stewardess (Valerie Chow). He tries to deal with his sadness by expressing his feelings toward inanimate objects: a bar of soap, a stuffed animal, his laundry, etc. His daily patrol brings him to the food stand, where Faye senses his depression and becomes oddly drawn to him. As a means to help him out, Faye develops a friendship with 663 that steadily grows. Their dynamic builds to the point where she decides to sneak into his apt, fixing it up to help 663 forget his past.