Chungking Express: Criterion Collection
November 24, 2008
Chungking Express (1994) is a film obsessed with time. Not only are its characters consciously aware of and thinking about time passing, but the film itself plays around with the slowing down and speeding up of time. The camera lingers on close-ups of clocks and the expiration date on cans of food. Writer-director Wong Kar-Wai is acutely aware of how time features so prominently in relationships – as the old adage goes, timing is everything. The characters in Chungking Express never quite connect romantically with each other because their timing is never quite right. One person is looking for love while the other is not and by the time the other figures out what they want, it is too late.
Wong’s hopelessly romantic notion of timing is apparent right from the start of the movie. Cop 223 (Kaneshiro) accidentally jostles a woman (Lin). Wong uses a freeze-frame to capture the first moment of contact and the cop says in a voiceover, “At the closest point, we’re just 0.01 cm apart from each other. 57 hours later, I fall in love with this woman.” Chungking Express is comprised of two intersecting stories. The first one focuses on the aforementioned police officer and his attempt to cope with the recent breakup with his girlfriend. He’s obsessed with the time they had together and the time they now spend apart. He even buys thirty cans of pineapples that expire before May — his birthday and name of his ex-girlfriend — and proceeds to eat them.
Anyone who’s agonized over a failed relationship can immediately identify with his refusal to let go and to believe that there is a glimmer of hope that things will work out. The Cop 223 observes, “Having a broken heart, I’d go jogging. Jogging evaporates water from my body. So I don’t have any left for tears.” Even though he hurts inside, he still goes on and still looks for love. He meets a mysterious woman (Lin) dressed in a plain brown trenchcoat, sunglasses, and striking blond hair. She is actually a ruthless drug runner who has been betrayed by her partner and is on the run. It’s an interesting blend of the traditional film noir subplot, complete with a femme fatale, mixed with a lovesick cop on the rebound right out of the romance genre.
If the first story contains more stereotypical archetypes, the second and much more interesting story goes off into uncharted territory, like some sort of wonderful dream. We are introduced to Cop 663 (Leung) who has also been dumped by his girlfriend. He is much more accepting of it, much more logical. It’s an attractive woman, Faye (Wong), working at a deli that he frequents who is the hopeless romantic of this story. She’s an obsessive type who listens to the song “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas over and over. It is not only her own personal soundtrack but also represents her dream of making enough money to go to California. She dances to the song at work, losing herself in its catchy rhythms. Her fixation on “California Dreamin’” is easily identifiable to anyone who’s become so taken with a song that they have to listen to it over and over again. Wong reverses the roles in this story so that it’s the woman who is pining after the man who doesn’t even know she exists. This story really doesn’t follow any kind of set plan. In some ways it feels very improvised as the cop and the woman keep missing each other. Again, timing plays a key factor in this potential relationship. The joy in this story is watching a relationship develop between them and anticipating the possibility of blossoming romance.
Chungking Express was made during a two month break from the shooting of his samurai epic, Ashes of Time (1994). Wong had to stop production on that film to wait for equipment to redo the sound. He had specific locations in mind where he wanted to set the action of the film. Chungking Mansion is the setting for much of the first story as Lin’s character uses the crowded, labyrinthine building to evade the men who double-crossed her and plot revenge on her disloyal lover. The second half of the film was shot near a popular fast food shop called Midnight Express. The fast food shop is forever immortalized as the spot where Tony Leung and Faye Wong’s characters met and became attracted to one another. Wong created the title for the movie from the two prime locations from the two stories: Chungking Mansion and Midnight Express.
Inspired by the improvisational feel of the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, Wong worked fast and furious on the film with his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. Despite this rapid-fire way of filmmaking, Chungking Express never looks like it was just thrown together. If anything, it has a very slick, polished look of someone who obviously knew what they were doing and what they wanted. The film has its own tempo with each story having its own unique rhythm. The first one feels very fast and immediate, while the second story adopts a leisurely pace. In this respect, the central characters and their personalities reflect the mood and pacing of the story. Both the cop and the drug runner of the first story lead very exciting, fast-paced lives and this is reflected in the blurred camera movements during moments of action. Conversely, the cop and woman of the second story adopt a very lackadaisical attitude towards everything and this is in turn demonstrated in the wandering narrative and pacing. As one character observes, “But for some dreams, you’d never wake up.” And that’s the feeling one gets from this story. You never want it to end.
In the first story, it is Cop 223 who is the hopeless romantic while in the second story it is Faye who is in love but both are unrequited. Love is over in the first story and in the second one it has just begun. Cop 223 is devastated by love but Faye is uplifted by it. First and foremost, Chungking Express is about relationships in an urban environment. The Hong Kong that we see in Wong’s film is a densely populated, multi-national environment that influences the characters. For my money, this is still Wong’s best film and a deeply romantic one – perhaps his most romantic, just edging out In the Mood for Love (2000). It is great to see it appear in the Criterion Collection.
For such a popular and highly regarded film, it is sadly lacking in the extras department. There is an audio commentary by Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns. He starts things off by talking about the origins of the film’s title. He points out that both stories pair a veteran Chinese actor with a relative newcomer. Rayns touches upon Wong’s multicultural background and how it informed the film. The critic also provides a brief biographical sketch of the filmmaker and how he to the point in his career where he made Chungking Express. Rayns also defends the film against the criticism that it is all style, like some sort of MTV music video. This is a very informative track with loads of production details that fans of the film should enjoy.
“Moving Pictures” features an excerpt from this British television series which takes a look at the films of Wong Kar-Wai. He and cinematographer Christopher Doyle take us on a guided tour of the Chungking Express’ key locations with Doyle cheekily re-enacting a couple of memorable moments from the film. This is a brief yet fascinating look at his films and filmmaking philosophy as well as a nice snapshot of where he and Doyle were at back in 1996.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.