Chance encounters in love are never quite as they seem…
Two love stories overlap: a cop, pining for his lost girl, encounters a blonde wigged girl who is ending a crime-filled day from hell. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and the Blonde (Brigitte Lin) end up in the same motel room and both of them need to decide where the morning will find them. While another cop, 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) runs into Faye at the takeaway along his patrol and Faye (Faye Wong) has to decide if he is worth stopping over on her way out of the neon lights of the takeaway.
Having only seen a smattering of Wong Kar-wai’s filmography, I went into Chungking Express with a certain amount of expectations. In the Mood for Love and As Tears Go By are conventional films, albeit with flair and design, so I thought a semi-anthology romantic drama would be along similar lines. Chungking is an unconventional film with interesting camerawork and exceptional sequencing. But a turkey might look good but if it doesn’t taste good, it’s a waste. So how does this work as a narrative piece? Quite well, the connective tissue being the overlapping narration of Kaneshiro and Tony Leung helping to move us between different feelings, different locations and people.
The film uses montage and voiceover to create a sense of familiarity with the cast to the audience, allowing us into their thoughts but not their reasoning. As 223 moves through his collapsing month, he tells us earnestly how his plan to eat pineapple (which May liked) until May 1st might sound sweet but really, he’s only putting off the inevitable and we know it. With the Blonde, she just wants to sleep, figurately and physically. The drug smuggling gig she was managing has gone to hell, she’s tired, and this sweet but dumb as a post cop is hitting on her. We flip back and forth with her as her night disintegrates, voices overlap, her endless walking becomes a march. She cajoles, threatens (kidnapping a small child at one point), and in the end, gives ups. Oddly, in letting her sleep, 223 gives her the energy to clean up loose ends (violently in her case) and she at least knows what the morning brings her in the end. So of the two in the first story, her tale is more honest than 223.
With 663 and Faye, only his narration is honest. This is because, for us, he knows the least about what he wants. He misses his former flame but he’s not waiting for her. On the other hand, we see Faye being duplicitous and evasive about 663. Even with her boss at the takeaway, she hides the truth. She breaks into 663’s apartment and while sweet in her want to clean up his life, the symbology is move about moving his former girlfriend out of his life. She deletes a voicemail from her to him, she hides her flight attendants shirt, and makes sure he doesn’t get distracted by problems. But even then, she doesn’t know if she wants to stay around for him. Faye gives the impression with her love of repeated listening to the 60’s song California Dreamin’ that her mind’s on the horizon, forever waiting to leave and find new experiences. Again, Wong uses symbology, turning Faye into a flight attendant, just as 663’s girlfriend was. The latter has become the former and the object of their desire still remains to be found. Along the way, the model airplane that 663 has in his apartment seems to be a stand-in for people’s intentions. He flies it around his former girlfriend back, as they lay on a bed, in a post-coital silence, resting it on her back. Later, Faye flies it around 663’s apartment and crashes it into his aquarium.
The feelings coming from the work seems to be how close we can be to a person and yet, not get into their lives. Faye and 663 orbit around each other but even unseen, their gravity draws the one towards the other. Wong wants these two to connect in the end but other sources keep them away from each other. 663 pining for his lost girlfriend who flew the coop (literally) and Faye with her indecision about 663. 223 is on a long ejection from the orbit of May. As he leaves her influence, he encounters cans of food, locations, and people whom he uses to try arrest his ejection from May. But only by coming in contact with the Blonde, does his orbit change. While not flying out of reach at a dangerous speed, he is still leaving behind his old life. 663 talks to his apartment and the contents (stuffed toys, towels, bars of soap) because he can’t talk to his former flame before he can learn the words to speak with Faye. He talks with Faye before this but only after he figures out she likes him and that she’s been in his apartment, does he actually hear her.
The film’s overlapping sequences, overdubbing lines, and camera work smack of a director thinking on their feet and Wong was working on this right after filming ended on his wuxia film Ashes of Time, finishing the script over the shoot. The whole thing feels like a test of whether he could do it and it works. There’s an element of hovering over proceedings with the way the camera floats around the cast or peers at them from a distance. This might make it a bit hard to enter the world that Wong is after but it also helps to keep you centred on what the characters want in the film. You fall into their thinking, not them as people.
Chungking Express is a film I’d been waiting for a while to see in its entirety. And it lingers in the memory, the images splashing like cold water on a quiet Saturday morning with its potential, much as the cast spend their time in the film, to unfold.
Chungking Express is available as part of the World of Wong Kar Wai collector’s set, released on UK Blu-ray from 31st May by Criterion Collection, the US edition is available now.
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Home media details
Distributor: Criterion Collection (UK/USA)
Edition: World of Wong Kar Wai collector’s set (2021)
Being part of the 2021 World of Wong Kar-wai boxset from Criterion, I was looking forward to seeing their second pass of the film on Blu-ray (their first being the much sought after 2008 version, a frequent quest for eBay questers). Alas, while the restoration is supervised by the director, the actual work was carried out by Italian-founded restoration facility L’Immagine Ritrovata. This lab has a reputation for “yellowing”, that is the colour palette of a film has a more yellowish hue than it originally had*. In most cases, these films have never been restored on Blu-ray so only people who saw the film in cinemas would know what its colour palette was. But Criterion already released this on Blu-ray and a quick search online can show the difference between the two palettes. For me, this new palette looks off compared to how it once looked. Red-ish scenes in neon now look pink. Flesh tones vary wildly depending on the setting. But the film itself looks better than it has ever done. So it’s a tradeoff: you get an amazing transfer but it’s been tinkered with to a point where you can’t unsee the changes. In the audio section, the film gets a clean restoration and the previous interviews, documentary, and behind the scenes are present in the extras.
* Editor’s note: the colour-grading on these restorations was actually done by One Cool.