Written on the hoof while shooting on his previous film, Ashes of Time, was paused, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is one of the defining films of the 1990s and, thanks to Wong’s remarkable approach to storytelling, one of the great films of all time.
It’s two stories in one, or one story told two ways, if you like, as if Wong had assembled all his elements, used them to tell his first story and then given the kaleidoscope a tiny twist. Hey presto, here are the same bits and pieces arranged in an entirely different way.
Both are romantic fever dreams and take place in a world that’s not really our own, where love strikes and people are entirely undone by it, gripped, obsessed, zombies of infatuation, prisoners of their own… they don’t even know what. All they do know is that they are lost.
Story one is about a policeman, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), pining for an ex-lover called May and living in a betwixt and between world doing his job out on the streets of Hong Kong, eventually bringing all his homeless emotions to fixate on a mystery blonde (Brigitte Lin). When he’s not pursuing Woman in Blonde Wig (as she’s billed), who turns out to be at the centre of a drug-mule operation, Cop 223 is gorging on tinned pineapple, specifically tinned pineapple whose best before date expires on his birthday. His birthday is 1st May, the ex-lover’s name was May, there’s also another May at the fast food joint, Midnight Express, where he also eats most nights. As if in a dream, a song, Dennis Brown’s song Things in Life, keeps recurring.
Story two is about another cop, Cop 663 (Tony Leung), another forlorn loser in love. He eats at the same Midnight Express as Cop 223, but this time there’s no May, instead a pretty young woman called Faye (Faye Wong), who falls instantly and insanely in love with him, though he’s barely aware of her, and sets off on her own pursuit of the unattainable. The tinned food this time is sardines; the recurring song is The Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’.
Though he’s shooting using the familiar bright colours of the mid 90s, Wong uses two different DPs to light his different stories – the same but different is the watchword throughout. Story one moves at speed, with DP Andrew Lau emphasising the energy and movement of a city that never sleeps with cameras that blur movement and skitter through scenes alive with people. Story two slows down a bit, with Christopher Doyle drenching everything in that familiar Wong atmosphere – see In the Mood for Love if this Wong/Doyle approach leaves you hungry for more. Story one tends towards the frenzied; story two really wants to swoon but both come at the odd equation of distance versus love from opposite ends of the telescope. In story one the camera emphasises isolation in a multitude, in story two it’s connection while separated.
There was a story three, which Wong eventually turned into another film – 1995’s Fallen Angels (makes mental note to see that) – but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chungking Express is that Wong shot the whole thing in 23 days, all those exquisitely composed images, the technically bravura moments that come and go in a shimmer. Look out for the shot where Cop 663 bumps into his old love, whose body language is confusingly of the “take me right here” variety, and she then disappears off on the back of a motorbike with some other guy. As she goes, she swivels around in the pillion and waves at him. Wong catches all of it in the reflection of a shop window, almost as if it had all happened in Cop 663’s imagination.
Maybe it did. There are enough moments in this film that make no sense, if we’re assuming it’s all set in the real world rather than some amalgam of the real and the fantastic. It’s film-making done at a level of technical accomplishment that’s breathtaking, with an imaginative impulse that’s also remarkable. It’s spectacularly good. This was the film that prompted Quentin Tarantino to found his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company so it could get a US release. It works as well now (writing this in 2022) as it did in 1994. By isolating it away from its origins, time might even have improved it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022