Friday, September 30, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) ****
Directed by:  Wong Kar Wai.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai.
Starring: Takeshi Kaneshiro (He Zhiwu, Cop 223), Brigitte Lin (Woman in blonde wig), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Cop 663), Faye Wong (Faye), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Chen Jinquan (Manager of 'Midnight Express').

Despite the fact that it was when I finished watching Chungking Express, I immediately went back and watched part of the film again – I simply did not want the romantic joy of Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film to end. The film is an undeniable stylistic masterpiece – one of Wong’s best looking films, and considering his resume that is saying a lot. But some critics only go that far, and praise Wong’s visuals in this film. To me, the story wrapped me up in its strange, obsessive romantic joy. The people in the movie are wounded, obsessive, slightly off kilter – but also completely in love. I just couldn’t get enough.

The film tells two stories – back to back – that are related only in that the action revolves around the same Hong Kong fast food restaurant, the male protagonists are both cops, and both have just been left by their girlfriends, and want them back, before meeting someone new. The first, and shorter story, is about Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who still calls his ex-girlfriend all the time to share the news of his day with her – even though she comes to the phone less and less often, so instead he speaks to her father, and asks about the family. He has yet to grasp the fact that she no longer wants him, and is hanging on desperately. Then, by chance, he meets a Woman in a Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin). We know she is a criminal, a drug dealer and a murderer – but to him, she is just beautiful. She sucks him into her world, and he keeps those romantic glasses on through their brief, non-sexual encounter. He never knows anything about her, but it doesn’t matter – he’s in love. The second story involves Cop 663 (Wong regular Tony Leung), who has been living with a stewardess, who has just him. He doesn’t even seem to notice Faye (Faye Wong), who works at the fast food joint he goes to often, and is obsessed with the song “California Dreamin’”. His ex stops by the restaurant to leave his apartment key for him to pick up – but Faye doesn’t return it. Instead, she spends time in the apartment herself, cleaning, listening to music, etc. She is in love with him, but won’t say anything. When the truth comes out – she is too scared to act.

The two sections of the movie both play with genre – the gangster film in the first part, the screwball comedy in the second. The first part is shorter, because the characters are not as complex – Cop 223, as sweet as he is, is also not very bright. When he literally runs into the Woman in the Blonde Wig in the film’s opening scene, he doesn’t realize she’s wearing a disguise, and when “exactly 57 hours later”, he tries to pick her up in a bar, the thought of whether or not she’s a criminal never enters his mind. He’s like a lovesick puppy dog (the password for his answering machine is “Love You for 10,000 Years”), and that clouds everything he does. While Wong has never been the most overtly political of directors, he has often included references to politics beneath the surface. The film was made in 1994, just a few years shy of the British handover of Hong Kong back to China, and this first segment is littered with references to expiration dates – from 223’s ridiculous obsession with buying pineapple with a expiration date of May 1 (which is his 25th birthday, and is also the time he has given his girlfriend to come back to him), to the Woman, who needs to get the drugs her couriers stole back or be killed. Like 2046, his 2005 masterpiece, whose title refers to the year that China has guaranteed not to change anything in Hong Kong until, Chungking Express never mentions politics, but in this first segment, that fear hangs over it anyway.

The second half of the film is funny, and plays with screwball genre types – most notably Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (1938), wonderfully well. Tony Leung, who has become Wong’s cinematic muse, is the Cary Grant character, forever stuck in his head and oblivious to what is going on around him. Faye Wong is the Katherine Hepburn character, full of life, constantly talking. Wong was a first time actress (she is best known as a singer in Hong Kong, and in addition to her obsession with California Dreamin’, she lip-synchs to her own cover of a Cranberries song in the film). But her comic timing is pitch perfect. She falls in love with Leung the first time she sees him – slowly approaching the camera in one of the most romantic shots in Wong’s filmography. She is smitten – but isn’t quite sure what to do about it, so instead of approaching him, she simply breaks into his apartment again and again, and slowly, subtlety transforms it. He’s so clueless, so caught up in his own thoughts, he doesn’t even seem to notice.

There is an innocence to Chungking Express that some may find old fashioned, but I found endearing. There is no sex at all in the film, yet these characters all love each other in their own way. The final scene of the film – the unexpected meeting between Faye and Leung after a year apart is one of the most sweetly romantic in any film I have seen.

Wong Kar Wai is one of the best directors in the world right now. What is extraordinary about Chungking Express is that he made it while taking a break from his expensive action movie Ashes of Time (which he would later re-edit and re-release, although I have seen neither version). From start to finish, the film took three months. While In the Mood for Love (2000) may be more beautiful, and 2046 (2005) more complex, Chungking Express is so dreamily romantic, that I cannot help but love it to pieces.

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly agree with your review and also find Chungking Express to be my favorite Wong Kar Wai film. Thanks for posting this article, it has inspired me to go revisit many of his works myself, and more importantly check out 2046, which I have not yet been able to see.