Chungking Express: Love, Loss and Chance in Two Different Worlds
Spoilers for Chungking Express (1994)
This month, the Asian Film Archive starts off their Retrospective series at Oldham Theatre featuring Wong Kar-Wai’s evocative and sensual films.
Chungking Express is arguably his pièce de résistance. Almost three decades on, it is regarded as one of the defining works of Hong Kong cinema and continues to grip our imagination. It lays out two separate tales that in unison, tell a story of love and loss with an affective subtlety. And rightfully so – the film’s message sits so well because it’s one that we all already know: that love is accompanied with loss, and life goes on regardless.
Wong explores romance in a big city by using material elements to communicate ideas, exploring their ever-increasing role as the synaptic points of human connection. In the opening scene, Hong Kong is alive and its infrastructure towers over the characters. This image primes the audience for a larger concept at play: How does one find an emotional connection in a sea of people, in a city so attached to the material?
The film opens with a whiplash, stop-motion chase sequence which tracks He Qiwu, also known as Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), as he weaves in and out of a torrent of people flowing through the narrow alleyways of the famous Chungking Mansions.
The first half of the film revolves around the aftermath of his recent breakup, meeting him on the night of 28 April. We quickly learn through 223’s narration that to make sure his ex is serious about their breakup, he is giving her a month to come back to him. That glimmer of hope he holds will expire on 1 May, coincidentally also his 25th birthday.
To commemorate each passing day he buys a can of pineapples that expire on 1 May. As he accumulates the cans, all brandished with the same expiry date on them he becomes obsessed with the idea of expiration – he muses, “When did everything start to have an expiration date?” He continues scouring the local convenience store for an increasingly elusive can, as the date draws dangerously close.
As we watch 223 frantically searching for something that does not exist anymore, and will never exist again, a sense of both urgency, as well as surrender, is conveyed, mirroring how losing someone often feels. We see that, while 223 can scramble in desperation to hold on to something that is slipping away, there is nothing he can do to preserve it.
Wong’s screenplay cleverly forces the viewer into 223’s frame of mind. Lingering shots of expiration dates on objects make us hyper-conscious about the concept of loss and finality. We feel the distance and isolation when we watch the cop have conversations over the phone with people who aren’t physically present, and listen to their dismissive refusals to entertain him.
The omnipresence of his ex characterised by her conspicuous absence is deliberate, as we get the sense that she’s everywhere but nowhere at the same time. We watch him obsess over her, yet we never see her, and the only pieces of information we’re given is that her name is May and the one peripheral detail that she loves pineapples. She occupies a massive space in the film and our understanding of it – but that space is hollow. Wong made a film with an emptiness that demands to be seen, acknowledged, and felt.
Enter Brigitte Lin’s mysterious ‘woman in the blond wig’ that fills up the void in 223’s life for a night. The two main leads come from two opposing poles of the same world – he’s a plainclothes policeman, she’s an underworld figure in disguise. Their two stories converge on a bar counter where she remains unmoved by his advances. Side by side, Lin’s character is a larger-than-life femme fatale and Kaneshiro’s is but a boy.
At 25, he still hasn’t completely shed his boyish cheekiness, and his simplistic, rather ridiculous pick-up line doesn’t come off as leery, rather, we see harmless, puppy-dog ignorance. She’s so unperturbed by him that she doesn’t even flinch. Yet, one can argue that their encounter would have been less impactful had she given in to his advances, because he wouldn’t have been forced to stop and think.
Her refusal to pacify his moping gives him clarity and release. His 25th birthday then truly marks the dawn of another chapter of his life. He polishes her shoes and leaves content with their short interaction – the first thing he’s walked away from in 30 days.
Story One’s film noir aesthetic and dark themes takes the viewer on a descent into the underworld. While life here trudges on against a backdrop of anarchy and chaos, Wong tells a story about how one chance encounter can change everything in a flash.
Back at the Midnight Express, a 0.01cm shift in the film’s focus marks a transition in genre, pace, and mood. Cue a hazy, whimsical romantic comedy starring Faye Wong (in her acting debut) and Tony Leung, doled out to The Mamas and Papas’ 1965 hit “California Dreamin”.
Much like Lin’s underground Mystique, Wong’s ditsy fast-food stand worker has a larger-than-life quality about her. Ethereal, she has an impish disposition and is somewhat detached from reality. The story refocuses, shifting to Cop 633, played by Leung, and his breakup with his flight attendant girlfriend. Leung’s character manifests a different form of heartbreak to his earlier counterpart, one where his struggle to let his ex go is notably far more private compared to Kaneshiro’s 223, whose suffering demands to be seen.
The second half of Chungking unravels at a slower tempo. Wong explores the concept of a relationship taking place over the non-simultaneous sharing of a physical space. Unlike the first plot, this one takes time to let romance blossom. As Faye observes and develops feelings for 663 from afar, her adoration is relayed through the everyday material objects in his apartment.
The more emotionally invested she becomes, the more significance she takes in his life without him even noticing it. But because her feelings are never made known to him explicitly, they are only present in the objects – his apartment and its inanimate things are the vessels through which he feels her love.
This method of care proves perfectly suited for 663’s introverted nature, for a cop whose struggle to get over his ex is hidden in the solitude and tranquility of his own apartment. While Kaneshiro’s extraverted and confident 223 coped by calling up girls, Leung’s 663 copes by talking to the material belongings in his home. In a few piteous yet oddly heartwarming scenes, he chides a soap bar for becoming thinner, urges a wet towel to ‘stop crying’, and tenderly grooms a stuffed polar bear.
When Faye gets a hold of the keys to his personal space, its chaotic state reflects that of his inner psyche. Inviting herself in to clean and redecorate is the best she can do for someone who doesn’t externalise his pain. Up until he discovers her in his apartment, their brief interactions at the Express and the market are surface-level – 663 has a barrier up and remains staunchly guarded against the free-spirited Faye.
One of the most iconic scenes of Chungking Express is arguably the one where Faye redecorates 663’s apartment in a lucid dream-like sequence to “California Dreamin’“ and 梦中人, Faye Wong’s own cover of “Dreams” by Irish rock band The Cranberries. Her character is cherubic, as much ‘in the light’ as Brigitte Lin’s is shrouded in darkness, and this scene encapsulates that perfectly.
Christopher Doyle’s cinematography work here highlights her eclectic nature as the camera moves along with Faye’s erratic movements, seemingly in a dance with its subject. This contrasts the slow camera pans and still shots we get when 663 occupies the space. The space is brighter when she’s in it – Faye breathes new life into 663’s apartment (and consequently also his life) without him even knowing it.
Cop 663 is so caught up in his own head that he is oblivious to his entire apartment changing around him. Story Two thus portrays the blinding effects of love – and more poignantly its loss – but more importantly, it places a spotlight on the good things we miss when we’re not looking. It’s significant that it’s Faye who leaves him behind when she chooses the real California over the bar across the street. When she transitions from the happy-go-lucky counter girl at the Midnight Express to a literal high-flying stewardess, her character arc lies in finding direction in her life, which the film rewards her for.
As their stories converge again on the counter of the Express, we’re left with two characters who have ultimately chosen themselves. Although the chemistry is undeniable, we don’t know if they will ever find a place together. We’re only left with the bittersweet knowledge that, because of one another in some way or other, they have become better versions of themselves. And if that isn’t love, what is?