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
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.