At the end of 1994, while summarizing the year in film for these pages, I suggested a hypnotic Hong Kong comedy called Chungking Express as an ideal movie for either U Film Society or Asian Media Access. Ideal it might have been, but what a difference a year makes: Now Chungking has been priced way out of reach for any indie exhibitor, owing to the rise in popularity of HK cinema and the industry clout of one Quentin Tarantino, who saw the movie at the New York Film Festival and eventually persuaded Miramax to buy it. Yet another example of the commercialization of a cult genre--but in this case, one that involves an artistic stretch of the genre as well.
Playing in '96 like a heady response to John Woo and Jackie Chan, Chungking goes beyond mere exhilaration via gunplay and acrobatics. Rather, this innovative masterpiece by writer-director Wong Kar-Wai tells a highly literary story through entirely cinematic means--by flaunting an array of loud pop tunes, philosophical voiceovers, Godardian jump-cuts, frenzied action scenes, and candy-colored set pieces. Pure sensation, yes, but with a distinct point of view. Even more so than Pulp Fiction, it aims to knock your eyes out and alter your state of consciousness.
Partly as a way of spreading the word about Wong, it's become common to equate this 37-year-old genre-bender with Tarantino. One reason is that both make great movies that profess their love for other great movies--Chungking for Breathless, Bringing Up Baby, and Blade Runner, to name just three. But Wong has none of Tarantino's infatuation with nihilism, and more than enough interest in the romantic nature of fate and circumstance to suggest a cooler Krzysztof Kieslowski. Following a pair of lovesick cops who order take-out from the same fast-food stand, Chungking's two short films about love groove on the interplay between chance meetings and apparent predestiny. "We rub shoulders with each other every day," one of the cops says in the movie's first line. "We could become good friends." Indeed, the trio of vaguely intersecting stories contained in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Wong's equally mindblowing, soon-to-be-released pseudo-sequel, add up to a Hong Kong "Trois Couleurs," portraying all shades of love in the time of neon and noise pollution.
The lovers here are a plainclothes cop, badge #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and a uniformed officer known as #663 (Tony Leung), both of whose longtime girlfriends have recently left them for other guys. One evening, the insomniac #223 brushes past a mysterious femme fatale (Brigitte Lin) who, we discover, works as a heroin smuggler and disguises herself in a blonde wig and dark shades so as to resemble Gena Rowlands from Cassavetes's Gloria; #223 falls in love with her exactly 57 hours later. Once this brief affair has run its totally unpredictable course, the movie passes the narrative to another pair of characters like a baton, embarking on a second story that inversely reflects the first. #223 gives up a chance to date Faye (Faye Wong), a twentysomething gal who toils behind the counter of the Midnight Express, and who develops a crush on the shyer #663. To express her love, Faye steals #663's keys and proceeds to secretly clean his apartment on a more or less regular basis.
If Chungking Express sounds like a stir-fry of the French and American New Waves, it also works as a boiled-down statement about hyperkinetic Hong Kong life circa 1993, seasoned with a more universal measure of urban alienation. Although both cops prove their neuroses by obsessing about their former sweethearts' favored food (canned pineapple rings and chef salad), #663 bears witness to pieces of furniture and bars of soap, while #223 talks mainly to himself. Contrary to them both, Faye likes cranking the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin'" in order to avoid having to think, while the drug dealer is too elusive to admit her own fetishes--that is, the ones other than heroin and guns and money. Ultimately, Chungking both celebrates and critiques the modern tendency to displace our emotions onto consumer goods; in particular, #223's preoccupation with expiration dates seems to soothe his underlying fear of mortality--a slightly weird behavior that ironically helps to keep him sane.
Wong distinguishes each of the characters by giving them their own visual style and/or theme song: Faye gets jittery tracking shots and the joyous melancholy of "California Dreamin'"; the heroin dealer struts coolly to the beat of a vintage rocksteady tune amid a series of smeared, drunken images; #663 has his various inanimate objects of desire and, occasionally, the HK cover of the Cranberries' "Dreams"; and #223's world is static, spare, and nearly devoid of sound, signifying that he's the most isolated of all.
Certainly, there aren't many films so viscerally in tune with their characters as this one. For instance, Wong at one point reveals Faye daydreaming at her job, sipping a drink and twirling her hair; he slides the camera along the display counter to focus on a coffee pot, at which point he shifts the image to slo-mo and adds the out-of-nowhere whoosh of a jet plane. Might Faye have an idea brewing? Indeed, she puts on a pair of pink rubber gloves and sneaks into #663's apartment to play house, the camera following close behind as she wanders through his flat, throwing his stuffed animals around, washing his dishes, rearranging his stuff. She might be the Jeanne Dielman of slacker romantics, or a Hong Kong Kate Hepburn from Bringing Up Baby. For his part, #663 thinks nothing of this mystery: When Faye accidentally leaves the water running one afternoon, causing a minor flood, he figures his lonely home must be shedding tears.
Throughout Chungking Express, the director's control of the medium is nothing less than astonishing, evidenced by the smooth, confident, sensual way he segues between a handful of moods--alternating MTV-style chase scenes and languorous barroom conversations with elliptical depictions of playful boredom. As it turns out, the movie is precisely about how wild transferrals of energy can keep anyone--cop, crook, or clerk--in sync with an ever-changing world. By the end, two of the lovers have traded places, and Wong has pulled a serious switch on what passes for "reality" and "entertainment" in pop cinema. In that Hong Kong is poised to revert to Chinese rule in '97, Chungking Express has a sense of preparing for a much bigger reversal of fortune. CP
Chungking Express starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.