Keith: The first thing anyone notices about Chungking Express—or any Wong Kar-Wai film, really—is its style, particularly its visual style. So I’ll start with that, and let others work outward from there. Chungking Express has two cinematographers: Andrew Lau and Christopher Doyle, both of whom do excellent work. But I think it’s worth talking about Doyle’s process, since it seems particularly simpatico to how Wong was developing as a director. This is Wong’s third collaboration with Doyle, an Australian-born cinematographer who was then working heavily in the Asian film industry. (And still does, though he’s worked as far from his Asian base as Hollywood, Ireland, and South America.) Doyle is a colorful character, and in him, Wong found a simpatico collaborator. Both are known for on-set improvisations, and for finding the film in the moment. For Doyle, that can mean a shot. For Wong, that can mean a whole story. (Tony Leung has talked about how he didn’t find out his character in Happy Together was gay until the day before shooting, Wong having made the change at the 11th hour.) Both walk a high-wire act, maybe no more so than in Chungking Express, a film made fast and loose during a two-month break in editing Wong’s mammoth Ashes Of Time. I don’t think it could have been made any other way. If you want to make an argument that, in film, the style is the substance, start here, and start with the look of the film.
Noel: Chungking Express also offers a unique opportunity to see exactly what Doyle brings to Wong’s films, since he’s mostly responsible for the second story in the diptych, while Lau is mostly responsible for the first. In Tony Rayns’ commentary track on the Criterion Blu-ray, Rayns suggests Lau’s camerawork is “more masculine,” while Doyle’s is “more feminine,” though that may just be a function of the second story having a stronger female presence than the first. Either way, the second half of Chungking Express does seem softer in tone, and more intimate. Consider the flashiest stylistic touches in each half: In the first, characters race through the streets in bleary shots that look like a montage of action photographs; in the second, a cop stands near-motionless at an eatery while customers move rapidly all around him. I have no way of knowing whether Lau is responsible for the first effect and Doyle for the second, but I do know the effects themselves are different. The first suggests that there’s more going on than the frame can hold, while the latter suggests that only one element in the frame really matters.
Tasha: That’s an interesting point about the distinction between the two shots, Noel. Re-watching the film, I personally wanted to draw all sorts of conclusions about the difference between the way the two stories are shot: It feels like the first one is more about communicating that the world is a large and lonely place, where everything blurs by and stories don’t have pat resolutions, while the second story focuses on a small, still place within that loneliness, and finds individuals there. I’d hate to think the changing visual styles weren’t deliberate, and deliberately evocative, in relation to each other, and that they’re more the result of individual creators working at cross purposes.
Nathan: It’s no knock to argue that in Chungking Express, style is substance. Wong and his cinematographers paradoxically convey a bittersweet sense of intense loneliness and alienation in a world overflowing with people, sensation, and spectacle. The film captures, on a visceral, emotional, and stylistic level, what it’s like to be all alone in a crowd. This is accomplished partially through dreamy, elliptical editing, partially through camerawork that transforms the city into a disorienting blur of lurid neon, and partially through wall-to-wall narration that articulates the emotions at the core of this profoundly romantic and evocative film, while at the same time hovering above the action.
Scott: I agree with Nathan about the overall strategy Wong employs with the style—that feeling of alienation and longing in a city full of hustle and bustle. The film is full of artful shots to this end, like one where Tony Leung sips coffee a counter’s length away from Faye Wong, while the colorful blur of passersby flash across the foreground. But what I love about Wong—and what his producers, actors, and other collaborators surely find frustrating—is that he discovers his movies in the process of making them. They’re improvisational and spontaneous, and the associations he develops between people and the objects and songs that connect them don’t feel pre-cooked. He seeks out beauty relentlessly, and he finds it as often as any filmmaker in the world.
AMERICAN POP CULTURE
Noel: Chungking Express reached the U.S. at a time when there was a lot of enthusiasm stateside for pop-culture exotica from Japan and Hong Kong, yet even though Wong’s film takes place in a distinctively Hong Kong-y area—in a district crowded with people and shops, bisected by an enormous escalator—it feels more Western than Eastern. The characters listen to American pop songs, eat at McDonald’s, drink out of paper Coke cups, shop at Circle K convenience stores, snack on Heineken and Pringles, and take comfort in an enormous stuffed Garfield. I don’t think Wong was making any particular comment on the West’s influence in Hong Kong; I think he was just recording this place and this time, while mixing in some of his own memories of what Hong Kong felt like when he first moved there from mainland China as a boy. Still, as someone who rarely ventures that far from home, I confess that one of the reasons I love Chungking Express is that it’s so damned familiar. It’s hospitable, if you know what I mean. (Do you know what I mean?)
Tasha: It’s always fascinating to me to see our culture reflected in another culture’s films, whether Americans are being demonized as irresponsible, overreactive polluters in The Host or exoticized as fascinating foreign instruments of change in anime set in the Meiji era. In Chungking Express, it’s all the more fascinating for the feeling that Americans aren’t significant to the story, they’re just part of the general detritus of a blended culture—except where the songs are concerned. The way the film returns over and over to “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas And The Papas reminded me immensely of the Hayao Miyazaki-penned animated film Whisper Of The Heart, in which the protagonist attempts to translate John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” into Japanese, and the repeated performance of the song becomes a signifier of melancholy-but-optimistic wanderlust. “California Dreamin’” feels like the same thing here—a song that stands in for all the characters’ loneliness and desire to be someplace else, someplace warmer and more welcoming, but entirely theoretical, since it’s an entire world away.
Nathan: I do know what you mean, Noel. I get you, man, and I concede that some of my fondness for the film is also rooted in its familiarity. It’s an international arthouse classic with an extended cameo from a giant stuffed Garfield doll, for the love of God. And I agree with you, Tasha, that it is often fascinating seeing American culture filtered and distorted through the lens of artists from other countries, whether that means Vladimir Nabokov’s acidic take on American life in Lolita, or David Bowie’s bonkers version of Philadelphia soul on Young Americans. Chungking Express is deeply influenced by the work of the French New Wave, particularly Jean-Luc Godard, for whom the Coca-Cola logo is a symbol of American cultural imperialism (something he abhorred) but also of American popular culture (something he had a much more complicated, love-hate relationship with), so the symbolism is fascinatingly ambivalent. Wong’s relationship with American culture isn’t so freighted with Marxist baggage: I think he prominently features American pop culture because it was a big fixture of Hong Kong life at the time, but also because he has enormous affection for it. As reflected in Wong’s eyes, American pop culture feels simultaneously silly and wonderful.
Scott: If anyone asks me for a gateway into Wong’s films, Chungking Express seems the obvious choice, and it only occurs to me now that the primary reason may be the film’s immersion in American pop culture—perhaps above its swooning romanticism, vibrant cinematography, and great soundtrack. It’s easy to get situated in the narrative, because it’s full of so many familiar sights and sounds, and not in the least bit distancing. It’s also fascinating to hear a song like “California Dreamin’” get repurposed into a shared desire for another, more transcendent place, or to see an oversized stuffed Garfield serve as a fluffy companion, rather than that irritating comic strip about the cat with a fondness for lasagna. It makes me wish Wong would keep transforming American pop culture into something more beautiful than we ever imagined. Oh, the things he could do with a “We’re number one!” foam finger…
HISTORY AND TRADITION
Scott: We’ve already talked a little about Wong’s French New Wave influences, particularly Jean-Luc Godard, with whom he shares an interest in American pop culture and an impulse toward deconstruction. Though much like Quentin Tarantino, another self-confessed Godard disciple, Wong is more a pleasure-seeker than a provocateur, and his way of breaking down and reconfiguring narrative style is about creating a more sensual, intuitive experience for the viewer. Chungking Express has the movie-crazy, referential quality of a New Wave film, and a similar refusal to access its characters’ feelings in a conventional way, but the New Wave is more of a springboard into his own unique sensibility, with its rhythms, repetitions, and quirky assortment of songs and objects that he embeds with meaning. The politics are there in the backdrop—the face of Hong Kong on the cusp of a major transition—but they inform the action rather than impose upon it; he seems more interested in beauty, and the amassment of smaller, more personal moments out of time.
Noel: I know you’re not big on information that’s external to what’s actually on the screen, Scott, but some elements of this film are relevant to Wong’s personal history and to what was happening with Hong Kong cinema. For example, this was one of Brigitte Lin’s last films, and the first starring role for Faye Wong, so when the former exits the story and the latter enters, it’s like a transition from one generation of Chinese celebrities to another. And according to Rayns’ Criterion commentary, the song “What A Difference A Day Made” was used in a PanAm ad when Wong was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1960s, so his use of it in this film was a way of connecting the stewardess’s job with his own associations with air travel.
Nathan: Part of the way Wong creates a “sensual, intuitive experience for the viewer” is by borrowing Godard’s filmmaking methods, as well as elements of his style. Like so many of Godard’s early films, Chungking Express was in many ways constructed on the fly. It was assembled as it went along, with many scenes being written just before they were filmed. It was all about serving the moment and living in the present—ironic, perhaps, for a film obsessed with the passage of time—through improvisation and making the most of the happy accidents, an approach that’s a cornerstone of the oeuvres of both Godard and Wong.
Keith: On the one hand, it makes all the sense in the world to compare Wong and Godard, but I’d caution against taking the comparison too far. Specifically, when I think of Godard I think of disruptions—jump cuts, diversions, and moments that call attention to the filmmaking process itself. Wong opts for a greater sense of fluidity. There’s always an element of distance with Godard—that’s meant as an observation, not a criticism—where watching Chungking Express means to be enveloped in its world.
Nathan: Chungking Express is obsessed with the passage of time. Not even inanimate objects are immune from this fixation, as evidenced by Cop 223’s obsession with purchasing tins of pineapple that will expire on May 1, exactly one month from the day that he was dumped. The cop wonders aloud if love and relationships have expiration dates like items of food, explicitly drawing a link between the disposability of consumer products and the fragility and delicacy of love. Seemingly arbitrary times and dates have tremendous meaning for him, and by extension the film; they’re important markers in a world that often feels random and chaotic. As Keith mentioned in his Keynote, this obsession with deadlines and dates has a larger metaphorical connotation as well, as the film was released only three years before the long-awaited handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. It’s never referenced explicitly in the film, but it colors the proceedings all the same.
Noel: Another way the movie considers time is the way characters from the second story pop up in the background of the first story, which is apparently taking place pretty close to simultaneously. Wong doesn’t do this very often, and it’s something viewers wouldn’t even notice the first time through (except perhaps subliminally, since it’s hard not to see a waifish young woman carrying a giant Garfield doll, even on the edge of the frame). But it adds to that effect you talk about, Nathan: the sense that in a crowded corner of the world, there are countless individual lives that have meaning.
Scott: Wong likes to fill his movies with moments out of time, too, when he changes film speeds as a way of expressing instances where time seems to be passing characters by (fast-motion) and instances where something important is held longer for us to absorb (slow-motion). Who can forget those incredible passages in Wong’s In The Mood For Love when Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung pass each other in their lonely descent to the noodle shop, and the slow motion makes that chemistry felt? In Chungking Express, the mix of different speeds occasionally happen at once, usually with the characters held up in time as the world passes them by in a flash. There’s a distance in Wong’s film between the languorous space of his characters’ desires and world as it really is.
Tasha: Chungking Express alternates through frantic sequences and sedate sequences, but both are part of the same thing: a study of people pursuing obsession in various ways. Some are active, like Lin’s character hunting down her drug mules. Some are passive, like Leung’s unnamed cop character, whose obsession with his ex reaches a point where he doesn’t even notice the massive changes in his own apartment in his absence. But the most interesting obsessions become sublimated and warped in odd ways: Takeshi Kaneshiro’s Cop 223 turns his obsession with reconciliation with May into that quest for almost-expired pineapple, which he eats compulsively, as though accomplishing a useful goal. Faye (Faye Wong) turns her obsession with Leung’s character into a compulsion to redecorate his apartment in his absence, but she’s so focused on the sublimated version of her pursuit that she’s alarmed and confused when her actual love object shows up in his own apartment, upsetting her fantasy of him. Then it’s his turn to start pursuing her; when she flees, he sublimates his energy into taking over her snack shack. And so the cycle continues.
In both of the film’s stories, the male/female pair at the center generates some neat parallels as they chase their goals: Lin and Kaneshiro each running down the clock by looking for needles in haystacks, Leung and Wong fumbling to express their desires by quietly renovating each other’s spaces. This is a film where people throw themselves fully into a goal, but it’s rarely a goal they can express with words, either because it’s ephemeral, illegal, or possibly a bit shaming. It takes actions—sometimes weird, seemingly unrelated actions. Or sometimes, bullets.
Noel: This is why it makes so much sense that Wong wanted to shoot this film in and around the Central Escalator, where all day long, characters can see people passing by, often at a distance, cut off by glass and metal, and always moving farther away. In both stories, Wong makes a big deal about people being just “0.01 cm apart” from the object of their obsession, because in the world of Chungking Express, that kind of close proximity isn’t all that common.
Scott: The other aspect of obsession in Chungking Express is Wong’s frequent assertion that people’s lives fall into patterns of repetition and routine. And while that repetition and routine may be of a quirkier variety here—Kaneshiro with his expiring pineapple tins, Wong with “California Dreamin’” and her apartment visits, Leung with his clockwork visits to the same food counter, etc.—it’s nonetheless revealing of the way Wong believes people operate, and the difficulty they have in breaking those habits and moving on with their lives.
Nathan: Building on Tasha’s point, I think the characters in Chungking Express are so obsessed with the idea of their obsessions that they lose track of the people connected to those obsessions. As you stated, Faye is so fixated on the object of her affection that she lavishes his inanimate objects with care and affection in lieu of actual human contact with him, and when he threatens to reciprocate those affections, she’s so freaked out that she flees. In Chungking Express, the chase and the journey are so important that the end becomes borderline-irrelevant.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the Keynote essay on Chungking Express’ unifying feelings of change and hopefulness, and continues tomorrow with a dissection of a single, memorable scene that demonstrates the film’s unique sense of time.