Wong: Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express wasn’t originally meant to be Wong Kar-Wai’s breakout masterwork. He shot it in a mere two months, as a respite from editing the wuxia epic Ashes of Time, which was supposed to be the film that finally propelled him into the cinematic stratosphere. After months of shooting in the distant Chinese past, Wong immersed himself back in the flux of Hong Kong for Chungking Express, which bears the traces of its rapid direction, evincing an exuberance, spontaneity and infectious delight in the present moment. Indeed, the film’s energy is too fractured to sustain a single narrative, and splinters halfway through, to produce what is in effect a pair of short films. Both of them revolve around cops, each of whom feels like an incarnation of Tide, the police officer who departed the Hong Kong of Days of Being Wild for the great diasporic unknown. Yet while Chungking Express may also figure Hong Kong as point of departure for the diaspora, the tone and style is quite different this time around.  

This is immediately evident from the start of the first story, which revolves around the elliptical relationship between police officer He Qiwu, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, and an unnamed criminal in a blonde wig, played by Brigitte Lin. As these two characters circle around each other, Wong evokes the space between them with his most mobile, restless, handheld camera so far, poking into every nook and cranny with insatiable curiosity. Every shot feels hypermediated (at one point the camera appears to be linked to a television in the very store that it is depicting) and the slow-fast motion of As Tears Go By is intensified so dramatically we seem to have entered an entirely new temporal orientation, one in which time can accelerate and decelerate in the same instant. By now, Wong is skipping so many frames to facilitate his slow motion that it plunges us into a new vertiginous future, which blooms into hyper-kinetic action sequences that soon exceed even those of his debut feature.  

Likewise, this new temporal orientation produces an even more dogged obsession on the part of his male leads with containing time. He Qiwu is fixated on quantifying the time and space that separates him from past and prospective lovers, who become so many nodes in the ebb and flow of Hong Kong data. The closest he gets to one lover is 0.1 cm, he falls in love 57 hours later, his password is “love you for 10 000 years,” and he plans to buy a tin of pineapple that expires on his birthday for the next three decades. All of these figures have an arcane romantic significance even as they’re absorbed into the flux of Hong Kong, whether in Wong’s manic pans across train timetables, endless catalogues of products and use by dates, or the sheer volatility of the connective tissue of the city itself, which sees the camera continually gravitating towards its objects and then skyrocketing away, like a magnet that has reversed.  

Whereas As Tears Go By focused on the neon streetscape of Hong Kong, and Days of Being Wild took place amidst historical interiors, Chungking Express immerses us in a hyperactive consumer culture that defies any sense of inside or outside. The blonde woman, played by Lin, works as a figure of involution in this respect, subsuming herself into a trajectory that continually sheds the skin of spaces that seem to be interiors, while turning exterior locations back upon themselves. Much of this takes place amidst an endless labyrinth of night markets, but it quickly extends to the narrative structure itself – or lack thereof, since the blonde woman perpetually displaces whatever putative destination she or the film might be heading towards. Everything is play, flow, jouissance, including the identity of Hong Kong itself, which is somewhat deracinated by the woman, who is Taiwanese, and He Kiwu, who is Japanese, as well as by the promiscuously indiscriminate intrusion of English into the screenplay. Characters speak fragments of English at random times, American products are everywhere, and a vague sense of American pastiche hangs over every scene, most memorably in the Barbara Stanwyck-styled bob of the blonde woman’s wig. This deracination peaks around the Midnight Express, a real food stand situated in Lan Kwai Fong, which offers a delirious fusion of global cuisines, from lassi to yeeros, at a crossroads of the new globalised diasporic world.  

The only way to make sense of this world, Wong suggests, is to embrace its principles of contingency and serendipity, which He Qiwu does by promising to fall in love with the next woman to walk into his local bar, who turns out to be the woman in blonde. This is the only connection between the two characters – the connective tissue of the city itself – and they never traverse it, as the blonde woman agrees to romance He Qiwu, but with the caveat that “you’ll never know me” and without ever once removing her trademark sunglasses. Rather than romancing each other, the duo use each other as portals to the hyperactive image economy that cushions, sustains, and culminates with a lurid neo-noir chase through the Hong Kong subway and into a moving train, as plaintive sax riffs wail out over the ever faster, ever slower images. As the first story moves towards its climax, He Qiwu, and the woman, seem to become pure liquid, or submerge themselves in a new kind of global flow. He Qiwu runs to use up moisture so that he doesn’t cry, indulges himself in cans of pineapple next to his fishbowl, accidentally floods his apartment, and imagines a wet towel as drenched in tears.  

The second story in Chungking Express takes place in an even giddier global tissue than the first, and once again involves a couple who meet through pure serendipity. Wong discards characterisation even further here, simply referring to the man, played by Tony Leung, as Cop  663, and the woman, played by Faye Wong, as Faye. Cop 663 has been dumped by a woman he met on a flight out of Hong Kong, as the sound of planes departing segues into a slo-fast motion shot of Midnight Express, where Faye works behind the counter. Spatial dislocation converges with temporal incoherence from hereon out, leading Faye to periodically suspend a toy airplane in an aquarium as if to fuse space and time into some new preternatural global sense organ. She spends her days at Midnight Express playing “California Dreaming” over and over again, loud enough and often enough to drown out all awareness of Hong Kong. So incessantly does she play this song that it stops feeling attached to California and instead becomes the emblem of a new global space, in the same way that a word will lose its original meaning if you repeat it enough. She has her first date with Cop 663 at The California, a bar across the road from the Express, thereby clarifying that is the pastiche of California, the image culture of California, that fascinates her, supplanting the state with its own simulacra.  

All of this takes place in bright blinding daylight, in stark contrast to Wong’s entire body of work so far – a drastic enough change to take deflect all the moody longing of the first story into a vision of diaspora-jouissance, embodied by the manic pixie dream girl role that made Faye Wong’s career. Like the globalised diaspora, she gets into everything, but in a benign and endearing way. She’s liquidity, but playful liquidity, insinuating herself into Cop 663’s apartment, where she disturbs his possessions, displaces them with the world outside, and creates unexpected points of ingress and egress that he only recognises gradually. Most of these revolve around liquidity too, as when she introduces new fish into his tank, drops a couple of sleeping pills into his vodka, or changes the cups used to hold toothbrushes in his bathroom. Faye is like a different kind of stewardess to Cop 663’s original girlfriend, filling the apartment with curios from the wider world that shines through from the enormous Central-Mid Levels Escalator, which ascends outside with the promise of some unnamed diasporic sublime. In the centrepiece of this buoyant, free-form, open-ended second story, we’re treated to a montage of Faye’s pranks against a Cantonese cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams.” It’s not unlike the opening of You’ve Got Mail half a decade later, except that the escalators, rather than email, are the symbols of global connectivity. The deracinated angst of Kaye’s endless rotations of “California Dreaming” turns into deracinated jouissance with this second co-option of Western pop music to the ebbs and flows of the Hong Kong lifeworld.  

It feels appropriate, then, that Chungking Express does not conclude, resolve or diagnose so much as reconfigure the delirious global flows in which it immerses itself. There’s a brief hint of a conventional denoument as we return to the noirish liquidity of the first half, and Cop 663 opens a rain-soaked letter, behind a gorgeously rain-battered window, that turns out to contain a hand-drawn economy ticket for a year’s time, destination unknown. But after a year elapses, it turns out, more bathetically, that he and Faye have simply changed places. She’s now a flight attendant, whereas he has taken over and refurbished the Express, where he plays “California Dreaming” day after day after day. The song is now entirely dissociated from California (Faye has been there in the interim), or at least California has turned into the horizon of a new diasporic image culture in which there is change and no change, net movement but no gross movement, ceaseless deterretorialisation above all else. All space is relative in this great diaspora, and so Wong’s final gesture is to displace any location where an ending might conceivably situate itself too: “Write to me when you reach wherever it is.”

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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