Sixteen years after the release of Chungking Express – the film that placed Wong Kar-Wai firmly and what seems to be permanently in the realm of international auteurdom – it is repeatedly remembered and recounted as an exercise in Cannes-friendly urban arthouse cool, specifically in its constant comparisons with the style-heavy and suave work of early 60s Godard; Amy Taubin called Chungking Express the Masculin-feminin (1966) of the 1990s, and Tarantino has made vague comparisons to Breathless. In a sense, they are onto something; for instance, Tony Leung under the framing of cinematographer Christopher Doyle has come to represent in Wong Kar-Wai’s career a muse of the effortlessly cool comparable to a Belmondo or a Léaud, the posterboy pseudo-stars of the French New Wave, and the Leung/Doyle combination of coolness thinly permeates the film’s aura. But in viewing Chungking Express or Wong’s other films, I hesitate to credit so much of this to intentions of the artist, for the most surprising thing about rewatching Chungking Express is the realization of how thoroughly uncool it is.
While the iconography one takes away from a Wong Kar-Wai film includes the exquisite vision of Doyle, the atmosphere of smoky dive bars long after the party has died while its remaining insomniac residents don sunglasses at night, or Wong’s inventive and eclectic use of popular music, all of his films – from Ashes of Time to 2046, from In the Mood for Love to My Blueberry Nights – represent a profound cinema of intense loneliness. The four central characters of Chungking Express may be quite photogenic – in that exclusive type of movie-logic in which the most attractive of people are somehow the ones who can never find love – but they’re hardly magnetic in a way that would ring convincing the comparisons made by Taubin and company (sure, Breathless and Masculin-feminin were heavy in their own right as their characters ultimately found anxiety and tragedy at the end of their tunnels of hip nihilism, but from the unearned confidence of Belmondo to the casual peacoat stylism of Léaud, these characters possessed a setting of trends than Wong’s character/stars never seek).
The two male protagonists of Chungking Express – Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Cop 663 (Leung) – spend their time preoccupied with their own meandering inner monologues, cold-calling old girlfriends or crushes from yesteryear in an attempt to forget about a heartbreak that’s sustained their imaginations for far too long, investing their endless stretches of free time by forcing meaning onto the mundane: 223’s preoccupation with the expiration dates of cans of pineapples, 663’s ongoing conversations with otherwise overlooked household objects. Ordinary objects are given deep meaning by their transformation into significance through personal heartbreak.
“If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.”
The dual female leads are similarly, deceptively square. While the Woman in a Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin) becomes the mysterious object of 223’s affection, Wong affords the spectator an access to her life that 223 never has, and her immigrant-assisted drug-running is gritty and unpolished, inconsistent with the sleek mystery of her appearance. Faye (Faye Wong) is given the most lively, eccentric personality in the film. Her endearingly odd dreamer is the film’s most active character, yet paradoxically she is given a mystery more complex than the Woman in the Blonde Wig as her puzzling actions are dispossessed of a clear motivation or consistent psychology. Yet the only thing to understand about her could be simply the fact that she is a fast food cook looking for a way to make her mundane life exciting, even if that means staging the cutest criminal acts of breaking-and-entering ever manifested onscreen.
Wong engrosses us in the mundane by never condescending his characters’ immersion in it. The scene where 663 asks Faye out on a date is proceeded with Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” as Faye joyfully takes orders from an unusually big rush of customers who seem to appear simply by the will of her elation alone. Though Chungking Express is hardly a social statement on class relations in the way that In the Mood for Love is, we have hardly ever seen, in that decade or any since, in cinema from the East or the West, a more earnestly respectful portrayal of the working class in a major world city. We share the whimsy of Faye as she assembles food together for an hourly wage under the whimsy of a date in the near future, just as we share the memories stamped on 663’s worn dishtowel or the profundity of the expiration date on 223’s pineapple cans.
“It was such a relief when I saw it crying. It may look different, but it’s still true to itself. It’s still an emotionally charged towel.”
Essential to the weight of the many details littered through Chungking Express is how they are framed through Doyle’s inimitable cinematographic palette. The streets of Hong Kong are haphazardly and schizophrenically illuminated by the conflicting hues of multiple neon colors and florescent lighting, while the interiors of the quartet’s living and working spaces are similarly structured in visual contradiction, the inexplicable neon purple hue of 663’s aquarium enabling a three-tier color-and-texture strata in combination with 663’s white undershirt and the fake fur of his giant orange Garfield doll. When 663 converses with his dishtowel, an equally bewildering blue halo permeates his cramped kitchen, which stands in for the whole visual approach to Chungking Express: a hyperkinetic expressionism of ordinary objects and settings, a hyperreal accenting of the mundane that represents both the extraordinary meaning put on the insignificant, and – more importantly – the permeation of the characters’ imaginations outside the suffocating parameters of their cramped reality (and which metropolis feels more cramped than Hong Kong?).
For Chungking Express is ultimately a film about the imagination – how it misleads us in the recollection of our past (an ongoing romance with objects motivating the male characters’ reformation of memory through their respective subjectivities) and, more importantly, misguides us in the formation of our future. All four characters of Chungking Express desire to live a life outside of where they immediately reside, whether it be a location in their reimagined past or their ideal future. The two most repeated pop leitmotifs in the film are distinctly Western and similarly titled: “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas, and Faye Wong’s cover of “Dreams” by Irish 90s staple The Cranberries – the ad nauseum diegetic implementation of these musical cues standing in for this explicit but still subjective desire on behalf of the characters to exist somewhere else, whether it be in some other place (Faye’s love of California) or plane of reality. As if the stereos in which these songs have exhausted themselves have suddenly acquired a life of their own and an understanding their particular use within these characters’ lives, Chungking Express ends appropriately with the Midnight Express food court’s stereo playing “Dreams” without dials even being turned by the presumed agency its human users.
Faye: “I’m not daydreaming.”
Manager: “Right, you’re not daydreaming. You’re sleepwalking.”
These characters are surrounded by the most farcically drab contributions of Western culture (the hotdog warmer in Circle K in which 663 dries his note, the Garfield toy), yet still dream of the naïve opportunities supposedly afforded within that culture (a perception of a place of opportunity that seems to only exist in the film’s Hong Kong-set, gimmicky California Bar). These are ordinary characters who live their lives through the romanticism of Hollywood logic: 223’s preoccupation with the mysterious femme fatale, 663 and Faye’s flirtation with running away to find a happy ending, both 223 and 663’s expectation of a last-minute reunion with a lost lover. It’s no mistake that Chungking’s noirish narration comes across as a story concocted in the heads of the film’s protagonists ultimately heard by nobody, an expression of a life desired rather than a life lived. So it’s rather appropriate that the film’s title likewise signifies a place that is actually no place at all: “Chungking” referring to Chungking Mansions, the setting of the film’s first half, and “Express” pointing to Midnight Express, the food court central to the film as well as the name of the late-70s Alan Parker-directed New Hollywood film, an appropriate connection considering that Wong’s work carries with it a closer relationship to that decade’s cinema of loneliness than it has ever had to the French New Wave.