Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Chungking Express

In her essay for the Criterion release of Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, Amy Taubin likens the Hong Kong director's opus to Jean-Luc Godard's Masculin, féminin, an apt description. Masculin worked as a snapshot of mid-'60s youth with Paris as their focal point, and Wong surveys the attitudes and issues facing mid-'90s youth by way of Hong Kong. Yet Wong has an advantage in the Chungking Mansions from which the film's title is derived: the Chungking Mansions have some of the cheapest housing in Hong Kong, and the area has become something of a cultural hub, housing not only natives but Africans, other Asians and Americans. Wandering through this area, as Wong does for most of the first part of the film, allows for a feeling of universality, as if this supremely cluttered, low-rent ethnic center contained the secret for world unity somewhere in its dense mire.

Where Godard painted a matter-of-fact image -- philosophically and artistically minded, of course, but still forged of his recent conversion to structuralism and his adoption of verité, Wong crafts Chungking Express into something of an abstract. Its opening shots, of sped-up, overexposed film stock following a police officer chasing a suspect, set the stage for the rest of the film, though the director will soon adopt a more coherent presentation for the action. As it did in Days of Being Wild , the narrative elides over information, not in Godard's jump-cutting way, in which he skipped over what he considered useless information. No, Wong is content to leave out the elements that might form something of a narrative. Godard cuts intellectually, Wong emotionally. One film is a photograph, factual and objective, and the other is a portrait, subjective and more readily informed by its creator's feel.

He splits Chungking into two parts, each following a police officer dealing with a breakup and finding a new woman to entice him. The first cop, He Qiwu or no. 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), roams the Chungking Mansions after his girlfriend, May (whom we never see), broke up with him on April Fool's Day. Qiwu's birthday is on May 1, so he gives them a month to reconcile. If on his 25th birthday they haven't gotten back together, Qiwu will know that it's not mean to be and will move on. To commemorate this ludicrous ultimatum -- which we can infer May does not even know about -- Qiwu buys a can of pineapples a day ("May loves pineapples," he says) set to expire on May 1.

Qiwu's story brings out the feelings of loneliness and aimlessness that ran rampant in the '90s. He clearly neglects his police work, capturing only one suspect in the film, the first bust he's made in six months. The asinine gesture with the pineapples suggests that he's gotten his notions of romance from cheesy flicks, and it makes Qiwu out to be the sort of hopeless romantic who perhaps gets off on being a hopeless romantic. Qiwu tosses out potent quotables like, "The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears" and the ponderous "When did everything start having an expiration date?" They are the sort of phrases that oscillate between depth and naïveté, poetic wisdom from the mouth of a doofus too self-absorbed to contemplate what he's saying. He places a cosmic importance on those damn pineapple tins, a meaningless display that his ex-girlfriend neither knows nor cares about that allows the police officer to shape himself into the hero of his own personal narrative. When he finally realizes, with mere hours to go until his birthday, how this ruse won't work, he eats all 30 tins of expired fruit, eating away the pain and physically rejecting his pain when he vomits the stuff back up.

Now filled with despair, he gets drunk in a strip club and meets a woman in a blond wig (Juliette Lin), whom we saw in that opening frenzy. The camera stopped upon her in the opening scene, pausing on her before the film resumed, and Qiwu takes that moment as a sign, because meeting someone is never quite so interesting as being fated to meet (it lets you know right away that that someone is "special"). By now the audience has seen the woman in her own part of the narrative: a drug smuggler dealing with double-crosses, the woman is just as lost and uncertain as Qiwu, but her issues stem from professional, not personal, doubts. (This is highlighted by the use of a can of sardines sent to the woman with a expiration date of May 1; both of these characters have to figure out their problems by then, or they'll lose something, a relationship in Qiwu's case and a life in the woman's.)

Another director would have then crafted a story of a cop falling for a criminal, leading to a doomed romance genre picture, but Wong sidesteps the matter entirely. The two get plastered in the strip club, head to a hotel room where the woman promptly passes out and Qiwu eats four chef salads and watches movies on TV. Yet this chaste moment reinvigorates the two: the woman clears her head and takes care of business, while Qiwu can move past May. He's not quite ready for love, though, as he's still too focused in his own projection of the world when the vendor at the local snack shop he frequents suggests he ask out Faye (Faye Wong), the new waitress. Qiwu thinks that the shopkeeper is talking about the Indian employee washing windows and says that he's "not into boys." There his story ends, frozen for a moment when he bumps into Faye on the way out and appears to have another one of those cosmic collisions, but Qiwu notes in his voiceover that she was about to fall in love with another man.

We then meet the unnamed officer no. 663 (Tony Leung), another cop who frequents the snack shop. Unlike Qiwu, an officer so incompetent he twice meets a woman wearing a wig, large sunglasses and overcoat -- a downright comical disguise that couldn't make her more obviously a criminal if she carried around a neon sign announcing her as such -- and cannot recognize her as a suspect, 663 appears professional and capable, but that hardly gives him any more satisfaction in life. His flight attendant girlfriend dumps him at the start of his arc, leaving behind a giant stuffed bear as one of those consolation presents that just make everything so much worse. Faye comes to love the cop through his frequent stops at the stand, and when 663's ex sends him a letter containing his apartment key, which Faye takes. Saddened to see her crush so upset, Faye takes it upon herself to go into 663's apartment and clean up the place to bring him some cheer.

By only slightly altering the setting between the two story arcs, moving the action out of the Chungking Mansions by way of one of its snack stands and then into another part of the city, Wong generates two entirely different moods and feels. The first half is softly lit by the fluorescent lights that adorn the interiors of East Asian housing, creating a mood somewhere between alienation and comfort (for a further explanation of this odd dichotomy, check out Apichatpong Weerasethakul's notes on his recent short film, Phantoms of Nabua [and watch it too while you're there]). The second act takes place in the daytime, out in the marketplace where the trippy artificial softness is replaced by the reassuring natural warmth of the sun. Wong calms down the camera movement to adjust to the shift, dispensing with much of the verité-like hand-held camerawork and using more static shots.

The change in atmosphere and style makes this arc the more inherently romantic of the two, though perhaps that's because its true protagonist is the female character, Faye. Like Masculin, féminin's Chantal Goya, Faye Wong enjoyed a career as a real-life pop star, but Wong Kar-wai does not make a pop singer out of her character, and the only nod to Faye's career comes with an occasional use of her cover of The Cranberries' "Dreams." Yet the director does work music into the character, repeatedly using, to constantly interesting and resonant effect, "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & the Papas. Like the constant use of a single pop song in a Jarmusch film, the ubiquitous appearance of "California Dreamin'" becomes something of an anchor, commenting on the current scene as it links the rest together.

The Faye/663 story serves to build upon the optimism that appears at the tail-end of Qiwu's arc, and for all the listlessness and and uncertainty in these characters, Chungking Express is a work of surprising and deeply felt sunniness. Remember, the lighting of both sections, each so evocative of different mood, is warm. The elliptical storytelling allows Wong to skip over the sadder details of these rocky romances: we don't see what drives May or 663's girlfriend to break up with their significant others, glosses over some of the darker moments of post-heartbreak narcissistic self-pity (Qiwu may be self-absorbed, but all things considered he's nothing more damning than a bit naïve). When Faye suddenly suffers a change of heart when it appears 663 reciprocates her feelings for him and takes a job as a flight attendant, Wong jumps forward a year, bypassing the arbitrary ultimatum Faye set for her own relationship. She returns to find the old snack shop converted into a proper restaurant by 663, who plays "California Dreamin'" to remind himself of her. The result of their reunion remains ambiguous, but the film ends as it should, with that moment of elation that comes with reconnecting with a lost love, a happiness so pure it can only briefly register the possibility that the rendezvous might not lead to anything. All that matters is the present.

The finale underscores the fundamental difference between Masculin, féminin and Chungking Express. Godard's film is political and scathing, a sharp contrast to the softer, more emotional tones of Wong's work. Taubin argues for a slight political subtext to Chungking, its constant use of expiration dates a pointer to the turnover of Hong Kong to China three years hence, but even for a film this abstract I find that a tenuous proposition (though it's important to note that Hong Kong citizens knew years in advance about the eventual handover). A literal translation of its title, Chungking Jungle, reflects the true spirit of the film and its setting, and the American translation, taking the Express from the name of the snack stand that holds the film together, becomes the method of transportation through that setting. Chungking Express is fast but never too fast, on a set path but relaxed enough that you don't remember all the details. And if it is less polemical than Godard's youth movie, that is because politics didn't matter so much to the post-Cold War crowd, and Wong takes the slackers of Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith films and attunes them to the harmony of the world, making every-men and women out of outcasts and somehow directing the grand nothingness of Generation X into something beautiful and resonant.


  1. Thanks for this great piece Jake. Chungking Express is not only my favorite Wong Kar-wai, it's one of my all time favorites movies period. You've done a really nice job articulating what gives this work such an emotional resonance. The Masculin, feminin comparison makes me all the more excited to finally see that picture for the first time, as it's coming up very soon in my own Godard marathon.

    Fantastic blog. I just found it recently, and you are doing awesome stuff over here. Kudos.

  2. Thank you so much, Drew. I believe it's my favorite Wong movie now as well, though I'm interested to see Happy Together, Fallen Angels and 2046. It's strange that I could actually think about displacing In the Mood For Love a deeply resonant personal favorite, with only one viewing, but this is truly a masterpiece. I don't know why or how I so routinely identify with modern Asian cinema, and I'm afraid to guess for fear that I'd inadvertently make sweeping generalizations about Asian cultures based on their pop culture output (worse still, I might start lumping China, Taiwain, Korea, Japan and the like together as if they were all the same). But something about China (and Taiwan, since of course there is overlap), even its slums and its cheap Communist housing (having visited, I find it odd that the dull concrete post-Mao buildings can mesh with the staggeringly vivid beauty of classic Chinese architecture) that is just so visually appealing that it makes the stories that much more interesting from the start.

  3. Indeed, well said Jake. I too, now that I think of it, have a hard time pinpointing exactly why the cinema coming out of Asia lately has had such an impact on me, but it does on a pretty consistent basis.

    I've also not seen Happy Together or Fallen Angels yet myself, but as someone who (like you) holds In the Mood For Love very close to their heart, I found 2046 to be quite beautiful and profound, and something of a masterpiece in its own right.

  4. FALLEN ANGELS is really good, sorta a continuation of CHUNGKING as Wong planned to include one of its stories in CHUNGKING but it would've made the film too long. Stylistically, I feel that Wong pushes the aesthetic from CHUNGKING even further in FALLEN ANGELS. It's a fascinating film and one that doesn't get talked about much, sadly.

    HAPPY TOGETHER is quite good as well and really demonstrates Tony Leung's versatility as an actor. Wong definitely brings out the best in him.

  5. Very interesting comments about the film. But I'd say the link between expiry dates etc with reference to the handover to the PRC, far from tenuous, is a rather witty way of linking the solipsistic emotional lives of his characters to a political and social event which was looming very large on the horizon at the time, and very much part of the zeitgeist, or whatever you want to call it. To say the residents of Hong Kong knew about the handover years in advance is missing the point of the allusions womewhat - Hong Kong was a colony with a built in expiry date, a symbol of things endings and change as well as well as the location of the film itself. The references to expiry dates therefore situate the two love stories at a specific moment in time, it's just one that admittedly might not resonate (as much as it should) for people outside the colony or the UK. Incidentally, the handover has had a whopping effect on the kind of films being made in that part of the world, hence John Woo, archetypal HK movie-maker, making mainland-based historical epics with the likes of Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro.)

  6. I understand that Helena, but I hardly think that a wry comment on the impending handover gives the film a substantive sociopolitical subtext. It's a way to link these characters to something bigger perhaps, but it's far, far, far less a statement than Woo's historical movies, to say nothing of Masculin féminin, which is all politics at nearly all times. There's not much besides those expiration dates to suggest a solid political message, so reading it politically would ignore the more emotional, humanistic portrait the film paints.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  7. It was a pleasure, thanks for having me.

  8. I consider that the 90's films have been the best ones specially if they are made by ASIAN directors that's perfect because I loved those films.

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