Catching Up With: Chungking Express – 1994

It’s a shame to live in a large, constantly moving city and not take advantage of it by closing yourself off and dealing with your own loneliness and self-loathing; especially when you live in a city as expansive and vibrant as Hong Kong. That is the central conceit of “Chungking Express,” a beautiful, stylish testament to loneliness and re-connection from the renowned filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai.

“Chungking Express” consists of two unconnected stories that both deal with the same themes. The first one is about young cop named Quiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who has recently broken up with his girlfriend, May. His grief over this expired relationship consumes him, and he channels his obsession with reconciling with her into buying  her favorite canned pineapples, specifically ones that expire on April 30th, the day before Quiwu’s birthday so he can tell himself that if May doesn’t get back together with him by May 1st, the pineapples will expire along with their relationship. One night at a bar he meets a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who we learn is a drug-runner dealing with the aftermath of a botched deal in which she was double-crossed. He strikes up a conversation with her that she is totally disinterested in, until she asks for a place to spend the night.

In the second story, another cop, who remains unnamed and is a few years older than Quiwu (Tony Leung) is dealing with his own break-up with a flight attendant. This cop spends all of his time at an all-night snack bar where he meets Faye (Faye Wong), the young, eccentric waitress who dreams of travelling to California, which is why she blares the Mamas and the Papas classic “California Dreaming” over and over again, all day long. After the cop’s ex gives Faye a letter for him containing her key to his apartment, Faye uses this opportunity to break into the cop’s apartment and subtly re-arrange it, which in turn re-arranges his life.

As I was watching these two stories play out, I was worried Wong would throw some idiotic contrivance into the mix to bring these two stories together, a mistake that movies like “Crash” constantly make. But since he’s a writer and director with some actual storytelling sense, he doesn’t do that. Apart from quick cameos by some of the characters and the shared setting of Hong Kong, these stories are self-contained. Wong is using them to explore greater themes of love and loss, and how human beings connect to one another. People drift toward and away from each other for a variety of reasons. It could be boredom, a lack of ambition, a double-cross, feeling trapped by your surroundings, etc. “Chungking Express” is hard to pin down in terms of genre; it’s part romantic comedy, part crime drama, part breakup requiem. The film, like the crowded, colorful streets of Hong Kong (gorgeously shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle), is bursting with life, which makes the isolation of these characters stick out all the more. What also sticks out is how much style Wong Kar-Wai throws into this whirlwind. Like Martin Scorsese did with “Goodfellas,” Wong throws every technique at this disposal into the story; slow-motion, freeze frames, pop music, a camera so restless it is literally careening off the walls, Wong effortlessly builds his own cinematic landscape.

All of the acting explores the ways loneliness gets to people. Li is an aloof femme-fatale who refuses to let her icy veneer break even though she was abandoned by her American partner-in-crime. The only time she opens up is when she sends Quiwu (Kaneshiro is funny and charming without being too twee about it) the smallest gesture of goodwill that changes his whole outlook. But the movie’s standout is Faye Wong as Faye, an almost cat-like waif who blares the ghostly jangle of “California Dreaming” to get away from the monotonous doldrums of the real world; her relationship with the unnamed cop (Leung is excellent, bringing the right dose of vulnerability) brings some excitement to her life; her subtle re-arrangement of his apartment boosts the cop’s self-esteem. Since he spends most of the day having conversations with inanimate objects, he really needs it.

“Chungking Express” is a movie about contrast; exemplified by amazing shots of the characters moving in slow-motion while Hong Kong blurs around them. But this contrast is not merely technical, it’s about how separation affects us all, and how we find something to latch onto once again. It’s a beguiling film that, like the cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” that Faye sings toward the end, shimmers with romantic yearning.

Grade: A


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