It comes as no surprise that when Quentin Tarantino set up his distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures, in 1995, one of the first films he released was Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express . The hyper-stylized film inspired a cult following that screams Tarantino. But the director most often compared to Wong is Jean-Luc Godard. Many critics feel that what Godard did for Paris, Wong did for Hong Kong: express the feeling of a cultural moment by exploring a particular generation in a certain time and place.
Hong Kong’s film industry has long been one of the world’s most prolific, partly because of the political and economic freedom it had as a former British colony. But in the mid-’90s, the industry was in a sorry state. Popular American films were usurping Chinese films at the box office, a development that ironically coincided with a growing interest in movies coming out of Hong Kong in the United States. The 1990s also saw Hong Kong on the brink of major political change: in three years it would come under Chinese rule. The tension of the situation is never directly addressed in Wong’s film. Instead, he chooses to explore the anxiety of this era by exploring characters that seem to be in a constant state of transition.
Chungking Express is split into two stories, each centring on a Hong Kong police officer. The movie begins just after the first officer’s girlfriend, May, has left him. “We broke up on April Fool’s Day,” he says in voiceover, “so I took it as a joke.” The voiceover narration throughout the film is conversational and personal, like reading someone’s diary. The officer, who introduces himself as He Qiwu, gives her one month to come back, and he keeps count of the days by collecting cans of pineapple that expire on the first of May.
The film begins with a dizzying tour through Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions, which houses approximately 4,000 people as well as shops, food stands, and low-budget hotels. The building is also a haven for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. In the film’s opening segment, we follow a woman in a tan trench coat, conspicuous blonde wig, and black sunglasses as she snakes her way through the maze of the Mansions.
The dominant setting of the first half provides a fitting backdrop to the film’s central paradox: its characters battle crippling loneliness while constantly surrounded by other people. Wong underscores this sense of alienation by stripping the police officers of their names in favour of their badge numbers, 223 and 663 (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung, respectively).
Officer 223 spends his half of the film wallowing in the memory of his ex-girlfriend. “Everything comes with an expiration date,” he laments. When he meets the woman in the trench coat (Brigitte Lin) in a bar, 223 is so consumed by his personal tragedy that he fails to realize the woman he is trying to pick up is a drug smuggler. The anxiety of unreciprocated love tops any other concern.
The theme of unrequited love spills over into the second half of the film, which takes place at a fast food stand called Midnight Express that officer 663 frequents during his breaks on shift. Here he meets Faye (Faye Wong), a server with pixie-cut hair and an obsession with the song “California Dreamin’.” Faye instantly takes a liking to him, but the second officer is just as heartbroken as the first. When his ex-girlfriend leaves an envelope with his house keys at the stand for him to pick up, Faye sees an opportunity. She spends the rest of the movie breaking into his apartment and redecorating in an attempt to cheer him up.
Again, a sense of isolation permeates the second half of the film. Officer 663 resorts to talking to inanimate objects around his apartment, giving them human characteristics that are projections of his own loneliness: the soap is getting too thin and should eat more; a wet dish towel is not dripping but weeping; when his apartment floods, it’s because it has been crying too much.
Despite the similarities between the two central characters, the second half of the film is much lighter in tone and subject matter. In a 2008 essay for the film’s addition to the Criterion Collection, Amy Taubin points out that the shift from crime drama to quirky romance is a microcosm of Wong’s shift in his own filmmaking focus from crime-driven narratives to lighter, eccentric stories seeped in cultural references. Chungking Express remains his most memorable film, a staple in any film junkie’s collection.
Chungking Express opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King St. W.) on Thursday, April 21 and continues until April 27. The film’s cinematographer and longtime Wong collaborator Christopher Doyle will be in attendance on Saturday, April 23. You can buy tickets online, in person, or by calling (416) 599-TIFF.