Chungking Express


At some point in this film Faye Wong ruminates to herself  “Can dreams be catching” and that comment captures the mood of this ephemeral quirky film.  Wong Kar-Wai’s use of editing, music, unstructured story and time line create a dream like quality. As does the strange way in which small things about the characters seem to shift from one person to another or the way the characters appear in the other characters story for a fleeting moment and then are gone. Sort of like our dreams.
During a break in the very lengthy and difficult production of Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-Wai threw this film together in a very short time frame. Much of it appears to be film making on the run - ad hoc and improvisational - yet it all weaves together. Somehow he created magic. Captured lightening in a jar. This is just a delightful charming montage of a film.

It is a film about relationships in modern day Hong Kong or perhaps the lack of relationships. Everything is connected and yet at the same time unconnected. Everyone is out of synch and out of time with the people around them. WKW’s film technique to show this is brilliant as from time to time his characters are nearly motionless as the world zips by them at blinding speed. Nobody really communicates with anyone else. Almost the entire film is internally narrated by one of the four main characters. They rarely talk to anyone directly and when they do it is often elliptical and unimportant. Nobody gets close. As Takeshi Kaneshiro says in the opening frame as he passes by Brigitte Lin - “this is the closest I ever came to her”. Later he spends the night with her, but watches TV and eats Caesar salads all night as she curls up to sleep in her raincoat and wig.

And yet this is a joyful film - a gentle comedy full of intriguing characters, very funny moments, fascinating editing, eccentric dialogue, terrific songs, charismatic actors and an enigmatic yet hopeful ending.

Briefly the film is segmented into two stories.

The first is with Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cop who has recently been jettisoned by his girlfriend May. He pines for her and tries to connect with her but is never able to. Brigitte Lin is trying to put together a drug smuggling scheme that falls apart and she has to go looking for her mules. They cross paths for a moment.   It is a peculiar story in which relationships and lives “expire” on May 1. I enjoy this segment more each time I see it, but it is the second story that really enchants the viewer.

It concerns another cop - Tony Leung Chiu-Wai who hangs out at the same outdoor vendor type restaurant that serves as a linchpin between the two stories. He is about to find out that his stewardess girlfriend  - Valerie Chow - is also dumping him. We see them in a romantic flashback in which WKW humorously has Dinah Washington singing the sultry “What a Difference a Day Makes” on the soundtrack and Valerie is playing and practicing to the Airplane Safety Instructions.  As they roll into bed the recording is saying “sit back, relax and enjoy your flight”.

Valerie Chow
Faye Wong works at the restaurant and she becomes infatuated with Tony and starts to secretly visit his apartment during the day - cleaning it, putting fish in his aquarium, replacing his soap etc. (of which Tony notices nothing in his out of synch state). Much of this is shown in a wonderful music video montage with Faye singing the Cranberries song "Dreams" on the soundtrack. She is a wonder in this film - sadly the only thing she has been in so far. With short hair, an elfin face, caterpillar eyebrows and eyes as big as Christmas morning, she is a  delightful energetic presence. Whether wiggling to California Dreaming or face set in wide eyed surprise, she captures the heart of this film.
  A wonderful film that crosses all boundaries and cultures.

The last lines of the film after Faye has suddenly re-appeared after a year away as a stewardess.

Faye - “Where do you want to go?”

Tony “Wherever you want to take me”

A sweet ending, but where will it go from there?

My rating for this film: 9.0


 Reviewed by YTSL

Although one need not have watched the magnificent "Ashes of Time" in order to enjoy the modest movie that Wong Kar Wai (and company) whipped up while back in Hong Kong from location shooting his desert epic, I think that it does help one to understand -- or at least imagine – the director's frame of mind when, and impetus for, coming up with this gem of a motion picture.  In Wong's own words (which I found floating around somewhere on the Internet):  "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."  This he did, in approximately two months; during which he wrote the script in the daytime and filmed scenes mostly at night (or the day after).

CHUNGKING EXPRESS not only was made in a pretty short time period but also with very simple equipment and a cast consisting of crew members (the film's still photographer doubled as the "Midnight Express"' owner, the make-up artist played the waitress named May, and the person in charge of lighting behind the camera assumed the role of the convenience store clerk in front of it!) as well as professional actors (two of whom -- the always mesmerizing Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and very capable Tony Leung Chiu Wai (who won a Best Actor award for this movie) – also appear in "Ashes of Time") plus a Cantopop phenomenon who was making her movie debut (Faye Wong).  The sense that this was a fairly low budget or casually put-together production is heightened with the realization that the apartment inhabited by Leung's character actually belongs to the movie's principal cinematographer (Christopher Doyle)!
Although this surprisingly fresh and personable ode to often lonely city dwellers who emotionally, even if only temporarily, connect with some others definitely is imbued with star power (other main performers in this movie are the delightful Takeshi Kaneshiro and Valerie Chow), it was almost like Wong Kar Wai was trying to strip down his actors, concepts and pretensions.  Thus, the film not only consists of two disconnected, arguably flimsily structured stories (one of which features a love-lorn cop who's lost his girlfriend and a drug-trafficker who's lost her "mules"; the other of which centers on yet another policeman who loses his girlfriend, albeit one who has attracted the attentions of another female) but also is one in which an actress who is famed throughout Asia for her looks is saddled with a fairly ratty blonde wig and has her eyes entirely obscured throughout by dark shades, and a respected dramatic actor appears for much of his time on screen in just his underwear.
The genius of the film's heralded director cum producer and the beauty of CHUNG KING EXPRESS, though, is that:  Rather than this creation turning out to be a slapdash and empty movie; what came about is a frivolous- and fleet(ing)-feeling yet alternately fun- and thought-filled offering.  There is a high likelihood that the same scenes -- involving such as cans of pineapples with a particular expiry date, chef's salads, the simultaneous wearing of sun glasses and raincoats, a man allowing a woman to sleep unbothered, his taking her shoes off to prevent her feet from swelling and then wiping them clean with his tie, United Airlines stewardresses, household items like towels and soap, stuffed toys, and pieces of paper masquerading as plane tickets -- which strike the viewer as amusing but not much else when (s)he watches them will return as constituted and increasingly fond joggers of memory and thought in the days and months post  experiencing as well as sampling the delights of this Hong Kong Best Picture award winner.
Two other standout elements of this vibrant movie which ought not to go unmentioned are the film's transnational -- not just cosmopolitan -- feel (particularly in the first segment, which I personally got more out of) and music video quality (which stems, logically enough, from Faye Wong's presence and performance).  With regards to the former:  I think particularly of the wonderful scene in which a lonely young man starts off a conversation in a bar with an older female stranger by asking her the same question in four different languages (Cantonese, Japanese, English and Mandarin).  With regards to the latter:  If only the background or accompanying music used had been more frequently Faye Wong's rendition of a popular Cranberries song (used "only" twice!) than "California Dreaming" (which came on at least 5 times in the movie!)...
Postscript:  This Brigitte Lin fan is loath to let it go unmentioned that this was the actress' final film appearance before her marriage to the major shareholder of Esprit (who was one of the sponsors of this offering!).  In a movie industry that is fond of making in-jokes and allusions, I find it hardly coincidental that she essentially ended her career with a bang here and that the very first conversation that we are witness to between her CHUNGKING EXPRESS character and another goes as follows:-

Him:  "You look terrible."

Her:  "I'm not sleeping."

Him:  "(Then) maybe you should quit!"

My rating for the film:  9.

Lots of screen captures here and here