“He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty windowpane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” —closing epigraph, In The Mood For Love
Time is elastic in Wong Kar-Wai’s movies. As in The Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” it keeps on slippin’, slippin, slippin’. The first of Chungking Express’ twin stories involves a countdown: Cop 223’s girlfriend has dumped him, but he isn’t yet ready to accept that she’s gone, so he contrives a monthlong waiting/mourning period that gives their already-dead relationship an expiration date. The film’s second story ultimately pivots on a hand-drawn boarding pass good for a date one year in the future. Wong’s characters almost never fully exist in the present moment. Some part of them is forever looking forward or backward, either anticipating or remembering. Often, paradoxically, both at once.
The notable exception to this rule in Chungking Express is one of my favorite shots in all of cinema.
It occurs in the second story, just a little past the halfway point of the film as a whole. The shot lasts 22 seconds, and nothing whatsoever happens during that time. Cop 663 (Tony Leung) drinks a cup of coffee, and Faye (Faye Wong) watches him. That’s it. The coffee isn’t poisoned, and there’s no narrative value to be found elsewhere in the frame. The shot could be cut without impeding the story in any way. Nonetheless, it’s one of the most fervently romantic interludes of all time—22 seconds of pure rapture. As a demonstration of what movies at their best do that no other medium can, it’s hard to beat.
From the very beginning of Chungking Express, Wong and his cinematographers—Andrew Lau and Christopher Doyle, the latter of whom has collaborated with Wong many times, and here, primarily worked on the film’s second story—find ways to visually represent temporal distortion. The opening sequence employs an unusual stutter-step effect, most likely achieved by removing every second frame—or even every second and third frame—and duplicating the others. Wong uses this device sparingly, but because it’s the first rhythm viewers are offered, it winds up having a profound influence on the film as a whole. It’s neither slow-motion nor fast-motion, though it feels closer to the latter. It’s… other motion. A rupture of sorts. The most striking moment occurs when Cop 223 is running after a suspect, crossing the screen from left to right: He’s in focus, but the background isn’t, and the result is that he races past a series of neon streaks, creating the impression that he’s somehow been dislodged from his surroundings—not in space, but in time.
The coffee-drinking shot does something similar, but sort of in reverse. How it was technically achieved, I don’t know, and I had no luck digging up any information online. Somehow, Wong and Doyle depict Faye and Cop 663 in slow motion, while simultaneously having pedestrians whiz past them in the foreground at exaggerated time-lapse speed. It’s an extraordinary effect, repeated just once later in the film (when 663 is putting quarters in a jukebox), and it creates the vivid sensation of a moment elongated into eternity. The shot feels both longer and shorter than 22 seconds—objectively shorter, and subjectively longer. When I estimated it for a review on my personal website, immediately after its release (so there was no way to time it), I guessed 10 to 15 seconds; if I had to guess how long it seems to the characters, I’d plump for half an hour, at least. It’s the temporal equivalent of that visual illusion (made famous by Vertigo) in which the camera simultaneously zooms out and dollies in (or vice versa) in perfect sync, making it appear as if the subject is motionless, while the background is inexplicably growing or shrinking. The world has both sped up and slowed down, and each reinforces the other, making the contrast even more extreme.
At this point, I need to confess something pretty mortifying. I’ve seen Chungking Express at least four times from start to finish over the years, and have watched bits and pieces of it—this scene in particular—on countless other occasions. Yet I somehow missed, until now, what’s actually going on in this amazing shot. (By “now,” I mean between finishing the last paragraph and starting this one. No joke.) Its placement within the scene had always seemed more or less random to me, and I’ve always attributed the sudden shift in time as Faye’s perspective, since she’s the one who’s in love at this point in the story. She’s gazing steadfastly at him, while he’s looking at nothing in particular. Violent emotion can alter perceptions, so it just stood to reason that her ardor was the motor behind the endless sip of coffee—that we’ve temporarily invaded her head. She’s even wearing a T-shirt with a big ol’ heart on it, for crying out loud, and standing in front of a glass counter that ensures the audience can see it, even though she’s leaning on her arms.
As some of you have no doubt already recognized, however, I am an idiot. (I honestly don’t know how I missed this multiple times. The shot’s poetry apparently made me lightheaded.) Immediately beforehand, Faye tells 663 that his stewardess girlfriend, with whom he’s been quarreling, left a letter for him, and she tries to give it to him. “After my coffee,” he says. As long as he’s still sipping that cup of coffee, therefore, he hasn’t opened the letter yet. In the end, he decides not to open it anyway, or even to take it with him (which I will now seize upon as another weak justification for why this obvious detail previously escaped me), but it’s unlikely that he’s already made that decision during the shot, and Faye certainly has no reason to expect it. Arguably, then, we’re actually in 663’s head during those 22 elongated seconds, not in Faye’s. It’s a visual representation of his desire to indefinitely forestall the bad news he knows awaits him within that envelope. And the intense romantic yearning I’ve associated with the shot since 1996? Poof. Gone.
Maybe not, though. Dopey as I now feel (and I promise this isn’t a rhetorical device on my part—I really did realize the shot is about delaying the opening of the letter halfway through writing this piece), I’ve ’fessed up because I find it fascinating that this shot worked so powerfully on me even though I failed to grasp its most salient point. All interpretation is subjective, and while it seems pretty clear that Wong intended viewers to make the connection between the shot and 663’s line “After my coffee,” that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the other effect it had on me. After all, Faye could easily have been bopping around behind the counter as she usually does, rather than atypically remaining motionless, with her eyes trained squarely on the object of her affection. Just as the shot is both sped up and slowed down, it can simultaneously be a projection of her desire and his fear. What matters is that the filmmaking technique does a tap dance on viewers’ nervous systems. The feeling of attenuation produced by this shot is universal; if different people ascribe it to entirely different characters and emotions, well, that’s the nature of worthwhile art. You can get it wrong, as The Beatles teach us, and still you think that it’s all right.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion ends here. Don’t miss Monday’s Keynote on Chungking Express’ unifying feelings of change and hopefulness, and Tuesday’s Forum on the film’s use of time, tradition, American pop culture, and more. And as a bonus piece of Wong Kar-Wai boosterism, tune in tomorrow for a Compulsory Viewing interview with Much Ado About Nothing and Dollhouse star Fran Kranz, touting 2046 as his favorite film. Next week, we’ll be discussing Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful, daring screwball comedy Trouble In Paradise.