FIVE STAR FILMS #35: Chungking Express (1994)

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Chungking Express was recently voted as number one in an influential Hong Kong film society poll that included criteria of over 20,000 films from the iconic city. After a sublime re-viewing on the Criterion release Blu-ray, it is hard to deny that this may well be one of the most defining films not only in Hong Kong, but of the 90’s in general. Wunderkind Wong Kar-Wai has been masterfully telling his brand of auteur-infused stories since 1988, and his latest effort, a martial arts-art piece is due for release early this year. His sense of style is profound but his understanding of conflicted, damaged and heartbroken characters is paramount. I present to you five reasons why this masterpiece still effortlessly holds up today.

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1. Christopher Doyle

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle and director Wong Kar-Wai are a match made in heaven. Doyle understands Wong’s vision perfectly and projects it on the screen effortlessly. Employing various styles of cinematography, his lens ranges from quick fire shots to rapid pans and even long stilted takes that seem to slow down time themself. It is in Chungking Express that his camera portrays not only the emotions of the protagonists, but also the complex territory of the Chungking district of Hong Kong. Without saying a word, the camera sets up this place and expertly navigates the political and ethnic environment these characters find themselves in. Likewise the characters backgrounds, desires and intentions are all highlighted in the frame and a strange sort of understanding washes over you, truly sublime work. Mentioning his incredible use of compositions and colours merits a separate article entirely.

 

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‘The closest we ever got was 0.01cm from each other’

2. Melancholy

You really feel for the characters in Chungking Express, they have all been jilted one way or the other and each of the two parts (two characters per story) is captured in an entirely different spectrum of emotions, film effects and locations. The link that connects the story and keeps the viewer emotionally engaged however is in the arc of each character, as we eventually find out there are ancillary things that unites them both stylistically and kinetically. Each character exudes desperate longing and strong feelings of melancholy that carry over in their insipid and sad actions that affect the story as a whole.

 

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He Zhiwu is always in motion

3. Express

Chungking Express is about damaged and conflicted characters in love, lust and longing. The film is told in two parts although the second part is never really announced, and as He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro as one of the protagonists of the first film) visits an American-fusion inspired takeaway hut so too does one of the protagonists of the second story Cop 663 as he is only known (Tony Leung). The two characters pass the torch through simply being there; aspects of time and the flowing of it do not really matter. Arguably all of the characters are in an ‘express’ situation. All of the stories are taking place at once, and there is incredible immediacy in every scene, particularly the first story. Motion and emotion come together, but there is a grander scale of things as other interesting characters briefly pop up, only to disperse, to live their own express life in the hustle and bustle of a city that does not seem to sleep. The loves are brief, disconnect and reconnect are common; the consequences are not as long-lasting as they perhaps should be. Chungking Express masterfully tells the tale of four characters, but like fast food they experience fleeting pleasures and pain; the entire city is filled with these stories, we have just zoomed in on a few of them.

 

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Faye contemplates

4. Repetition

What links each character is their actions and ultimately who they are. The two male protagonists are policemen; the two female protagonists however could not be more different. It is through the clever repetition of their actions, the places they visit, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the habits they form and the feelings they develop that we truly understand how and why these characters meet and the trajectory of their developing relationships. Every location and piece of music is used to convey this development, hang-up and regression. The shy but cheeky Faye (played by Faye Wong herself) falls in love with Cop 663, this is never stated and she has no internal monologue that reveals this much. In hindsight this is because she drowns her thoughts and feelings out with the American hit song California Dreamin’. The iconic lyrics ‘all the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey’ plays constantly in the background of the takeaway store, often stopping and restarting. She longs for the feeling of melancholic love, but must get is directly and in an express manner through pop tunes. This is but one example of repetition being used in masterful ways, Wong has interwoven each characters arc with repetitive and strange actions that you begin to notice in both stories, truly remarkable.

 

 

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From left, Wong Faye, Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung

5. Sublime monologue

The protagonists in Chungking Express all have internal monologues that lyrically and quirkily sum up their current position. Wong Kar-Wai has filled them to the brim with a unique angst that is expressed beautifully and summed up quite stunningly in their head as they equate their sorrow or joy to often mundane and ancillary things. I began to explain a few examples in this article but found I actually could not, given the moment in the film and the understanding of the particular protagonist – this is the only way to truly appreciate and connect with their unbelievable, outrageous and romantic notions.

 

Chungking Express is a romance at heart, but it also represents a changing façade of an urban landscape in a homogenised district (Chungking) quite stunningly contradicted by the immigrant population that resides there. Also homogenized is the concepts of love and relationships and this is also masterfully defeated by the unique and sensitive souls that carry these beautiful but brief stories forward, but never to a conclusion as the heart of the city keeps beating, never stopping.

Kwenton Bellette - follow Kwenton Twitter here: @Kwenton