In most cultures, relationships ending sourly is one of life’s inevitable truths alongside death and taxes. How does one go about coping with the fact that his girlfriend left him?
Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (重庆森林, Chung Hing Sam Lam) tries to answer that by following two Hong Kong policemen, No. 223 (Japanese/Taiwanese singer Kaneshiro Takeshi) and No. 633 (Tony Leung). Both are policemen, and both are dealing with the wake of their love lives having recently gone awry.
Chungking Express was one of the sleeper hits of 1994. Little did Wong Kar-Wai know that it would be one of the films he is best remembered for. I picked this one up after having seen Wong’s later (and absolutely amazing) In the Mood for Love.
What is interesting about Chungking Express is how it actually tells two subordinate stories in sequence rather than one main one. First we see plainclothes officer 223 in hot pursuit of criminals on the streets. We learn of how his relationship with a woman named May ended on April 1. He then falls in love with a woman in a blond wig (Fantasy Mission Force veteran Brigitte Lin). Little does he know that she is in reality a drug smuggler who is on the run when a deal went bad.
Quite a bit sooner than the halfway point, 223′s story ends and transitions to that of the uniformed beat cop 633. 633 had recently broken up with his flight stewardess girlfriend. When stopping at the fast food shop he frequents, he encounters the newly-hired waitress Faye (Faye Wong, the same one who sang “Eyes On Me” in Final Fantasy VIII).
The two acts of Chungking Express are interesting in how similar and different they are. We see 223 take part in exciting foot chases, tackling suspects and holding them at gunpoint. We see the woman in the blond wig running away from would-be assassins in a subway station. On the other hand, 633′s job seemed to more or less entail writing tickets for people who littered, and Faye works what seems like an equally dull job as a waitress.
Yet we see that 223 and 633 share similar personalities, strong enough to hope for love, weak enough to be hurt when they don’t get it. 223 decides to down thirty cans of pineapples they day they expire on May 1. 633 consoles inanimate objects in his apartment (like a cake of soap) as if they are the ones who are feeling the hurt from the stewardess’ leaving his life. Much like the lead cast of Waterboys, our two heroes are easy to relate to in how seemingly pathetic they are.
As he later did in In the Mood for Love, Wong didn’t bother constraining his characters to a plot, and instead let his movie be a pure character study. The four leading characters, from the cautious woman in the blond wig to the absolutely carefree Faye, narrate their parts of their stories, giving us their philosophies as we simply take in events as they unfold through the eyes Wong gives us to see.
Despite the first bit of the movie playing like a crime thriller and the rest as a romantic dramedy, the movie worked overall as a whole. Once again, instead of the music suiting the scene, it looks more like the characters move to the music. We see No. 223 chasing down a thug alongside more frantic, action movie music. We see Faye dancing to The Mamas’ and The Papas’ “California Dreamin’”, a quintessentially 60s rock song.
Much like In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express is a beautiful movie because of its shear simplicity. Wong dared to be different in his telling two separate stories in sequence which led to a generally unconventional story; unfortunately for that reason, while having done very well in Hong Kong, Chungking Express bombed at American box offices. Still, Chungking Express is quintessentially 90s, quintessentially Asian, and overall just a very attractive film.