Chungking Express

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Kar-wai Wong

REVIEWED: 06-06-96

THERE ARE LOTS of explosions, guns and exuberant kicking in most Hong Kong movies but not in Chungking Express, a sweet, broken-hearted love story from filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai. He's sort of the Quentin Tarantino of the Pacific Rim--young, innovative and totally overexposed. After making only five films he's so well known in Hong Kong he's inspired a slew of parodies. Chungking Express is the first of his films to get an American release and it's a yummy little cupcake--sweet without being sentimental, a pleasure to look at and packaged in bite-sized pieces.

Chungking Express contains two loosely interwoven love stories that revolve around the randomness of city life. Characters swarm through the dense architecture of Hong Kong, occasionally colliding and falling in love, but usually taking the wrong turn and missing their potential soulmates entirely. Everything seems to depend on a mysterious sense of timing, and the hero of the first part of the film, a handsome cop known only by the number 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), endlessly muses on the fate theme in voice-over. He also obsesses on his girlfriend, who has dumped him. He pines. Everyday, he buys a can of pineapple that expires on May first, their anniversary. It's her favorite food.

This story is entwined with the tale of a small-time drug trafficker who's been double-crossed by her smuggling partners. She dashes around in stiletto heels and a wig, acting like she's in an action flick--but the truth is this is a love story. Her random turns intersect with 223's until eventually they maneuver themselves into position to rub up against each other--but only briefly, since this is not an ordinary boy-meets-girl story. The dominant moods are longing, regret and the sadness of lost opportunities.

Wong Kar-Wai seems to have an affinity for French directors of the '50s and '60s--the snaky structure of Chungking Express, and its characters obsession with a lost past, calls up echoes of Alain Resnais, with a little Goddard thrown in to dirty things up. Wong Kar-Wai manages, though, to ditch the high-art ponderousness of the avant-garde while hanging on to the mood of remorse and nostalgia.

The same plaintive tones saturate the second story, which also centers around a jilted cop, number 663 (Tony Leung Chi-Wai), a man who once loved an airline hostess so much he bought her a chef salad from the same food stand every day. The girl who works at the food stand (Faye Wang) develops a major crush on him and begins, basically, to stalk him. One day he takes a risk and buys the airline hostess fish and chips, and she leaves him.

Chungking Express is full of this kind of random cause and effect. As the two lovesick cops struggle to understand why love is fickle--why a woman could crave chef salad one day and fish and chips the next (go figure)--they make the unusual move of turning to inanimate objects to explain their lives, rather than, say, humans. This story occasionally trespasses into the territory of the whimsical, as the two cops murmur dialogue to cans of expired food, bars of soap, water taps and the like. The film is rescued from the horror of cuteness though by the sincerity of the filmmaker. You get the feeling Wong Kar-Wai isn't trying to be darling, but rather, he honestly believes objects deserve our tenderness. It's pretty endearing.

Also endearing is the sheer stylistic exuberance of this movie, an element it does share with other films from the Hong Kong school. Most of Chungking Express was filmed at night with a handheld camera. The action-ish scenes are gritty and blurred, and most of the shots have some fuzzy object jutting into the foreground. It feels like someone just went out into the street and shot this movie, which is basically what Wong Kar-Wai did. The entire film took only three months to complete, including editing, and it has the feel of a good idea executed swiftly, without a lot of agonizing. Its asymmetry is especially natural and delightful--most films with multiple story lines have at least three sections, and they're usually all around the same length. Chungking Express has two, and the second is much longer, which is nice, because it's more interesting. It's a relief in this parched landscape of summer blockbusters to see a stylish film about sensitive boys who miss their girlfriends, and don't blow anything up.

--Stacey Richter

Capsule Reviews
Chungking Express

Other Films by Kar-wai Wong
Fallen Angels
Happy Together

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A Pure Formality

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