Wong Kar-wai’s neo-classic Chungking Express
is split into two stories, each focusing on a policeman’s personal life. Cop 223 (Kaneshiro Takeshi) pines futilely for a former girlfriend, before encountering a sunglasses-sporting Mystery Woman (Brigitte Lin) wearing a blonde wig. Their meeting is fortuitous: Cop 223 is looking for anyone to ease his loneliness, while the Mystery Woman needs respite after a betrayal by her partner in crime. Their love story (if you could even call it that) doesn’t have a real payoff but their fleeting connection takes on affect due to its incisive, quirky detail and Wong Kar-wai’s arresting way with character.
While the first story is only a brief, quasi-romantic encounter, the second story dives deep into awkward romantic fixation. And yet obsessive love has never been quite so enchanting. Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai in an award-winning performance) walks into the life of quirky counter girl Faye (Faye Wong) and she’s instantly smitten. But she shows her love in odd ways: she steals into his flat, cleans it, rearranges his belongings, and even replaces his worn personal items with new ones. He doesn’t notice because he’s busy mooning over his flight attendant ex-girlfriend (Valerie Chow), but eventually realizes that Faye’s subtle invasion of his flat is really her worming her way into his heart.
Many films possess stories similar to Chungking Express
, and even include the same genre characters (cops, femme fatales
) and plot details (crime, betrayal). But where those films lean into darkness, Wong Kar-wai steers light and even pure. The Mystery Woman may be a criminal, but she’s tender beneath her tough exterior, and love’s darker side is never really acknowledged. Wong is charitable towards awkward or lovelorn individuals; instead of portraying them as possessive obsessives or sad-sack losers, they’re seen simply as unlucky, deserving romantics. It also doesn’t hurt that all the actors are gorgeous, with loveable quirks and the kind of star quality that makes audiences swoon.
’ savvy, cineaste-pleasing visuals speak a language of their own. Brigitte Lin’s costume screams film noir, while Faye Wong’s pixie cut and free-spirited image recall Jean Seberg in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless
. The stylish filmmaking – expressionistic imagery, hand-held camera, motion blur – is intoxicating and dreamlike, and the use of popular music is inspired. For Western audiences, it’s otherworldly seeing Faye Wong languidly sway to California Dreaming
by the Mamas and the Papas, or hearing a Cantopop cover of the Cranberries’ Dreams
(sung by Faye Wong herself). Hong Kong is a pulsating mix of people and cultures, and Wong Kar-wai captures the city’s energy and cosmopolitan vibe like few films do.
At times, Chungking Express
does show its age. Wong’s trademark style is influential and oft-copied – in particular, his use of voiceover has become an object of parody and something of a crutch in later works. But it’s still a marvelous, incisive way to create character. Rather than provide exposition or commentary, Wong’s voiceover allows characters to reveal themselves directly and indirectly. These people are self-aware but also self-deluding, metaphorically running in circles telling themselves what they want to believe while plainly showing us who they really are. Denial, postmodern self-reflection, existential alienation – contemporary urbanites know these things very well. While not the most acclaimed Wong Kar-wai film, Chungking Express
is quite possibly his most beloved. This is a movie about love that’s all too easy to fall in love with.
Wong Kar-wai (b. 1958) started his film career in the 1980s as a screenwriter. After co-writing Patrick Tam’s Final Victory
(1987), Wong made his directorial debut with As Tears Go By
(1988), a formulaic gangster film that nevertheless demonstrated his talent for stylish visuals and soulful romance. With Days of Being Wild
(1990), Wong became an international film festival darling, proceeding from strength to strength with a run of critically acclaimed works including Happy Together
(1997), In the Mood for Love
(2000) and 2046
(2004). Now considered among the most influential and acclaimed filmmakers in the world, Wong continues to fascinate audiences.