Cinematic Pleasures: Chungking Express
by j.d. lafrance
"If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries." - Cop 223
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 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) accidentally jostles a woman (Brigitte 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 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) whom his girlfriend has also dumped. He is much more accepting of it, much more logical. It's an attractive woman, Faye (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.
Originally, Wong envisioned Chungking Express to consist of two stories. The filmmaker remembers, "One would be located in Hong Kong and the other in Kowloon; the action of the first would happen in daylight, the other at night. And despite the difference, they are the same stories. After the very heavy stuff, heavily emphasized in Ashes of Time, I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie, but where the characters had the same problems." Initially, Wong wanted to make these stories into a film but couldn't find a way to do it until he "had the idea to unite them in one screenplay. When I started to film, I didn't have it written completely. I filmed in chronological order. The first part happened during the night. I wrote the sequel of the story in one day! Thanks to a brief interruption for the New Year festivities, I had some more time to finish the rest of the script." He kept on writing and developed a third story. However, after filming the first two stories, he found that the film was getting too long so he used the third story as the basis for his next film, Fallen Angels (1995).
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. "While I had nothing to do, I decided to make Chungking Express following my instincts." He had specific locations in mind where he wanted to set the action of the film. Wong said in an interview, "One: Tsim Sha Tsui. I grew up in that area and I have a lot of feelings about it. It's an area where the Chinese literally brush shoulders with westerners, and is uniquely Hong Kong. Inside Chungking Mansion you can run into people of all races and nationalities: Chinese, white people, black people, Indian." This is the setting for much of the first story as Lin's character uses the crowded, labrinythine building to evade the men who double-crossed her and plot revenge on her disloyal lover. Chungking Mansion is very famous with, as Wong observed, "its 200 lodgings, it is a mix of different cultures...it is a legendary place where the relations between the people are very complicated. It has always fascinated and intrigued me. It is also a permanent hotspot for the cops in HK because of the illegal traffic that takes place there. That mass-populated and hyperactive place is a great metaphor for the town herself."
The second half of the film was shot in Central, near a popular fast food shop called Midnight Express. "In this area, there are a lot of bars, a lot of foreign executives would hang out there after work," Wong remembers. 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 was also drawn to "the escalator from Central to the mid-levels. That interests me because no one has made a movie there. When we were scouting for locations we found the light there entirely appropriate." One of the iconic images from Chungking Express is Faye Wong traveling along the escalator, a warped reflection beside her. 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. The director remembers, "We filmed like madmen! I told him, we didn't need to pay much attention on lighting (except in the apartment), since it was filmed as a road movie, without any definite location. We didn't have the time to install or use everything; I wanted it to be filmed like a documentary, camera in hands. And Doyle accepted the challenge; to film very fast, while still producing a movie of high quality."
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.
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. He said, "I think a lot of city people have a lot of emotions but sometimes they can't find the people to express them to. That's something the characters in the film share. Tony talks to a bar of soap; Faye steals into Tony's home and gets satisfaction from arranging other people's stuff; and Takeshi has his pineapples. They all project their emotions on certain objects."
For all of its stylish camerawork, Chungking Express is ultimately a film about human behaviour. One of the joys in watching this movie is seeing how these characters interact with one another. How they act and react to what each other says and does. The film holds a hypnotic spell over the viewer as they get sucked into these characters' lives and begin to care about them. As one character observes, "But for some dreams, you'd never wake up." And that's the feeling one gets from this film. You never want it to end.