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Weekly Classics: Chungking Express

March 01, 2013

During the problematic production of Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai made this low-budget film within a two-month break by “following my instincts,” he said.

This instinctive urge had him improvise everything from script to production design, liberating Chungking Express from conventions, and rendering it Wong’s most emotionally provocative piece – a herald to his other cerebral paintures of quixotic longing which defined the Wongian style.

Feature films are typically written according to certain cinematic rules such as the absence of jump cuts and no breaking of the 180 degrees. These principles govern the Hollywood film factory that churns out commercially successful movies that are often structurally and visually identical.

But such rules do not apply to Wong. It seems that rules, to him, are more meant for breaking.

Chungking Express is assembled from the director’s own disparate ideals on emotions. There is no precedent to steer a film based primarily on emotion; thus, there is nothing “standard” about Chungking Express because it is a commodity born out of uniqueness.

The first half of the movie takes place mostly at the Chungking Mansion, a disordered slum-like quarter where people of assorted ethnicity intermingle. Takeshi Kaneshiro acts as Cop 223, a socially awkward loner still infatuated with his ex-girlfriend, May, who left him on April fool’s day. He deceives himself into thinking after he buys up all the tinned pineapples that expire on May 1st, also his birthday, the month-long ‘joke’ that his ex-girlfriend pulled on him will resolve. But his one-night encounter with a femme fatale played by Brigitte Lin makes him understand the fleeting and transient nature of love.


The second half focuses on an equally faithful man Cop 633, played by acclaimed actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Unable to get over his relationship with an air stewardess too, he visits an outdoor fast food restaurant, Midnight Express, almost everyday to seek comfort amidst the familiarity. There he meets a quirky young employee named Faye (played by Faye Wong) who immediately falls for him and does the most incredulous break-in to seek breakthrough in their passive and sparkless relationship.

The two bifurcated narratives are thinly connected, yet due to its dialogue-driven nature, flow seamlessly like an untried journey to explore the concept of old and new love.

Beginning with a mystifying narration, “At our closest point, we were just 0.01 cm apart. Fifty-seven hours later, I fell in love with this woman”, the film later transited into its second segment with a dialogue that corresponds this narration - “At our closest point, we were just 0.01 cm apart, I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”

Just like this, the two stories are all of a sudden, oddly connected.

And if it weren’t for a very understated and brief encounter between protagonists from the two segments, one would really miss the point of non-linearity in Wong’s portrayal of life.

Life is not like a book, where one chapter simply follows another, it is more akin to a series of interweaving from one special moment to another, denoting the causal chain of interaction which connects, more often than not, parallel lives of every individual who barely keep track of strangers whom they brushed past on a daily basis till an encounter became more momentous.

Space is hardly a linear concept too. Within very constrained areas such as the kitchen of Midnight Express and Leung’s house, you see a variety of shots that barely focus on the protagonists at times. But these lax and highly explorative cinematic spaces played truer to the concept of realism, deriving more from our eyes than the camera’s eyes.

To be honest, I have never been a fan of Christopher Doyle’s stylised cinematography. His work always felt too excessive and mechanical to me. But when combined with Wong’s avant-garde directing, and especially in this film, Doyle’s images became alive amid the dazzling, dreamlike metropolis, like a switch turned on.


The bravura blurs of light and colour, plus the copious use of slow motion and slow shutter speed set the upbeat yet obscure tone of the movie. Together with the intentional play of camera techniques, they amplified audiences’ awareness, sitting them on the edge of on-screen and off-screen intensity. Therefore, it becomes harder to ignore the feelings felt through the characters, especially since these existential questions begging our response had been there all along. Leung’s overwhelming self awareness which led to zero awareness of his surroundings in the film, also suggests that we as the audience occasionally carry a redundant consciousness during film-viewing.

The intimate narration by each character is like an elegiac poem recital typical of the Wongian style. There is nothing more poetic than Wong’s rhyming quips that linger on an introspective and lyrical note, sounding more melodic than dialogic.

“I don't know when it has started, but everything seems to have an expiry date … is there anything on earth that doesn’t expire?”

“On May 1st, 1994, a woman wished me Happy Birthday. I'll remember her all my life for that greeting. If memory is also a tin, I hope it never expires. If it does, I hope it's in 10,000 years.”

When spoken at different considerable moments of the film, these simple sentences transformed into lines that echoed one another, sparking off immense memorable connotations.

As seen from Days of Being Wild, Wong never fails to capture a moment in its intensity. He literally stopped a minute in the spoken film with one of his classic lines.

In Chungking Express, he stopped more than that. Like the scene where Faye watches Cop 633 drink a cup of coffee, and the crowd bustles past the couple in the foreground, a romantic rapture between the two is stunningly captured.


At times, words don't matter much in Chungking Express. Words are inadequate to describe the kind of sentiment Wong wants us to feel. It’s beyond reductive to see and hear the chimes of love; to truly understand love at its purest, we must feel rather than watch the film – which is why Wong always tries for the perfect aural complements that could set off his images on the most fitting mood.

Dinah Washington’s husky rendition of What a Difference a Day Makes accompanied the love scene between Tony Leung and Valerie Chow. As Washington croons on the joy of being in love, the mise-en-scene likewise overflows with the couple’s passion.

California Dreaming, though excessively used, also captured the free-wheeling spirit of Faye beautifully.

As discovered by the protagonists, a fast-moving city like Hong Kong is not going to mend any broken hearts. It is more akin to a jungle (Chungking Jungle is the actual Chinese translation) where you can discover new routes of adventure despite your initial resistance. Wong’s obsession with numbers and deadlines (on the tins) in the film seemed to be a result of his own resistance from the Hong Kongers’ identity crisis after the 1997 turnover.

The meticulous set ups and pay offs in the film border on the precious. Wong has always preferred delicate metaphors, like how Tony Leung eventually turned out to be Faye’s other “California”, and how his ex-girlfriend “cancelled his plane”.

He seems to have confidence that his audience is sharp enough to pick up the tiny clues he leaves behind. Well, not everyone does, but I can tell you when one eventually does pick up all these subtleties (perhaps after the second watch), it’s like opening up your mind to Wong’s cinematic poetry, where even the tiniest details resonate.

The personification of non-living things is played to the extreme through Leung’s frequent rhetorical and monologue-like chats with the objects in his house, but not for a psychotic reason. Wong merely wants us to delve deeper into the apparent isolation Cop 633 felt in an ostensibly displaced world, how his small appartment (which is actually Doyle's appartment at the time of filming) suddenly grew bigger and emptier at the absence of his ex-girlfriend.

To that, he said: “When it cried, I felt relieved. Despite its change of looks, it remains true to itself. It's still an emotional towel.”

Love manifests itself in so many ways that the feeling itself has already become a cliché. But in Chungking Express, where humanity deconstructs rather than reveals the different faces (phases) of love, we can revel in the scenes where one heightened moment surpasses the façade of everlasting love. Like fireflies, love is treasured for its ephemeral illumination, not the span of it.

As how I have always spoken of his works, Wongian romance is achingly and intoxicatingly beautiful. Chungking Express is no different.


The author is an Intern at from Singapore who likes to write on films, books and music.