An Appreciation – Chungking Express
The idea of a woman breaking into a man’s home – a person whom she knows really on a casual level – does come off as a bit strange on paper. Shockingly, WKW manages to handle this set up without ever making it feel creepy. Not once do we think that Faye goes into 663’s apartment with malicious intent. She does so to earnestly help a person that she is growing more and more fond of. In a weird way, seeing Faye change out the bars of soap and stuffed animals feels comforting and even loving.
The second half is where the tone becomes sweeter and more dreamlike. Where 223 and The Woman’s story is told with hyperkinetic visuals, WKW and Doyle slow things down with 223 and Faye. The color palette becomes brighter and warmer – instead of the neon lights sparkling in the night, we get the warm sunshine bouncing off windowpanes and counter tops. Where the first half is filled with melancholy, the second has a far more playful, hopeful tone. WKW tends to focus more on happier moments through this stretch. In one of the best scenes, he shows a flashback to a love scene between 663 and the airline stewardess, culminating with 663 pretending to land a toy plane on her bare back. It’s these small details of heart, revealing the connections these characters have, that enriches the narrative.
Chungking Express isn’t so much about story as it is about feeling. How the characters think and relate to one another are far more important than what a second-rate plot would have them do. Both 223 and 663 are police officers, but they don’t spend that much time doing police work. 663’s relationship with Faye isn’t based on big, moving speeches, but more on subtle glances and small feats of generosity. Tony Leung is one of the best actors to utilize this approach. He can say so much with just his face, in how he lights a cigarette or simple walks into a scene. WKW knows this – he repeats a shot where 663 walks up to the camera, turning a wide shot into a closeup. Leung is able to tell us everything his character is going through without ever having to say a word.
The star of the show, without question, is Faye Wong as the dancing, eccentric restaurant employee. Wong is a constant ball of energy; she seems to embody the entire spirit of Chungking Express. She is always playing music, always moving to her own beat. This is likely due to Wong being one of the biggest Asian pop stars of time, she even lends her voice to the cover to the Cranberry’s song Dreams, which is included in the film’s soundtrack. Wong’s musical background allows her to play the character of Faye at a kind of sideways, unorthodox fashion. She stands out from everyone else in the way she moves, dresses, and acts. Some might degrade her performance simply as that of a “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl,” but that would diminish the quality Wong brings to the role. She isn’t being “weird” or “quirky” just for the sake of being so. Her performance has a grounded, relaxed, and natural appeal that is believable and captivating.
Music has already played a large part in WKW films, and this is no exception. He constantly replays particular pieces of music. With 223 and The Woman in a Blonde Wig, he reuses Dinah Washington’s What Difference A Day Makes. And with 663 and Faye, he uses the Mamas and Papas California Dreamin’. Not only do both songs establish the texture of each story, but they are repeated multiple times as a marker for the emotional states of the characters. Like he does later with In the Mood for Love (2000), WKW uses music like a psychological pinpoint, repeating the song over and over in contrast to how the characters develop over time. When we first hear California Dreamin’, it’s played by Faye as she is working at the food stand. Notice how the song slowly shift from Faye to 663. By the end, it’s 663 who is playing the song at a high volume, and interestingly enough, he and Faye have switched spots on either side of the food counter.
WKW is notorious for deviating from his scripts, if he even has one to begin with. He is constantly molding and then remolding his narratives, coming in with ideas in mind but completely open to exploring different tangents as they present themselves. This method can push the shooting and editing processes to exceeding long timeframes. In the Mood for Love took fifteen months just for principle photography. Chungking Express did not take nearly as long, as it was reported that filming only took 23 days. But WKW shot so much footage that he actually had to cut an entire story out and expanded it to be its own feature length film, Fallen Angels (1995). The decision was a smart one, as that film wouldn’t mesh well with the other stories. But it’s an indicator of how WKW can branch out and try different things. Where other filmmakers work strictly inside of their creative boxes, WKW seems to only live outside of his own.
Chungking Express is an intoxicating and exhilarating experience. The themes are universal, but the presentation is unique and personal. It feels like we’re letting go of the steering wheel and allowing WKW to take us for a ride, taking detours we don’t see coming but are more than willing to follow. It’s as random and beautiful as life itself.