How do you write about a Wong Kar-Wai film? I have no idea. Of his filmography, I’ve only seen In The Mood For Love (2000), Happy Together (1997), and now Chungking Express (1994). Each film is crazy different, but often with the central themes of (I’m assuming, remember, I’ve only seen three of his films) people trying to connect to each other.
Obviously, some spoilers coming up. Beware. Proceed with caution. Just watch the movie, it’s so good.
In Chungking Express, Cop 223 is trying to get over an ex-girlfriend. He hangs out at a snack bar and makes phone calls, often to his ex-girlfriend (May) and her family. They broke up on April 1st, which he though was a joke, and now buys a can of pineapple every day that will expire on May 1st, to see if this is a long con and also because May 1st is his birthday. So, on May 1st, he eats thirty cans of pineapple. It’s a strange and bizarre choice to show someone grieve like that, but it gets the sadness and absurdity across pretty clearly. Nice job!
Then there’s the Woman in the blonde wig (hereby referred to as WBW). We learn pretty quickly that she’s a criminal who uses Indian families to help her traffic drugs. She’s always wearing sunglasses, hiding who she is. Not because she’s ashamed, but more so because she’s mysterious and difficult to connect to. Anyway, she’s at the airport with many Indians and many drugs. She goes to check in at the counter and, welp, where’d the Indian family go? Who cares? Now she’s a woman on the run and with a mission. Find the Indians who took her drugs or be killed by the person putting this together (aka the only white person in the film, which I’m sure is saying something but I don’t think I have the cultural knowledge to really unpack it, but you’d have to be blind to not really see the subtext here) (sorry, that sounded condescending).
At one point, 223 and WBW run into each other, going in opposite directions. The voiceover that’s been going on the whole film comes back here, saying something along the lines of being 0.01 centimeters away from each other, but that in fifty-seven hours, he would fall in love with her.
So, again, 223 eats his cans of pineapple, goes to a bar, throws up in the bathroom, sees WBW, sits with her, and tries to talk to her. It takes her a long time to respond, which is the moment where you can really see her reason for wearing the sunglasses. Although she has A LOT on her mind, she isn’t willing to connect with someone, or anyone. 223 just wants to talk. Eventually she does talk to him, but only because she needs to sleep somewhere tonight.
They go to a hotel, she sleeps, he watches two old movies on TV and eats a lot of food. In the morning, with WBW still asleep, he goes for a run (because then he’ll sweat and his body will have less moisture so he’ll cry less, his words, not mine). He checks his messages, and the woman in room 700-something (I forget what number their hotel room was) wishes him a happy birthday. He says something along the lines of, “On May 1st, 1994, a woman wished me happy birthday. If memories could be canned, would these also have expiration dates? If so, I hope this lasts 10,000 years.”
All right, so, they’re not together, but he’s happy. Then he bumps into Faye, a new employee of the snack bar he frequents, and the owner’s cousin.
“At the high point of our intimacy, we were just 0.01 cm from each other. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”
AND THEN THE NARRATIVE JUST STRAIGHT UP SWITCHES TO FAYE AND THIS GUY SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH, AKA COP 663. WHAT!? HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?
WBW and 223 are now gone from the picture. They never come back, but they’re happy with where they are and we think they’ll be okay.
So, what’s the deal with 663 and Faye? Well, 663 is dating an air stewardess, and in one of the coolest shots in the movie, he plays with a toy airplane while she watches him. I can’t find a screenshot of it but man it’s super cool.
663 goes to the same snack bar as 223 did. He usually gets the same food and brings home food to his girlfriend. He’s then encouraged by the store owner to try other foods. So he does, and one day he comes in, and his girlfriend has left him. For a movie with a lot of sadness, there’s a lack of crying, which is actually really nice and allows you to find new ways to show grief.
663, for example, talks to the things in his apartment. When a towel (a very worn down one, in fact) drips, he describes it as crying. He keeps his girlfriend’s stewardess shirt hung up. He takes care of her (? his?) stuffed animals. It’s a weird way to show him grieving but it also shows that he’s hoping things can go back to how they were.
Enter Faye, the woman at the store who always listens to California Dreamin’ too loudly at the snack bar. She and 663 talk basically every day, then she starts going out of her way to run into him. Eventually, she starts breaking into his apartment and changing everything there. The towel is replace with a new one, the mug he holds his toothbrush in is now a new mug, the stuffed animals are different stuffed animals, a lot of weird things that 663 doesn’t notice are changing, and that he attributes to finally starting to get over his ex-girlfriend.
That’s kind of all I really want to say about the plot right now. You have a sense of the characters by now, I’m sure. You also should have watched the film before reading this. But let’s talk a bit more about the actual filmmaking and how it serves the story/characters.
A lot of the first half of the film has the Saving Private Ryan type shutter speed blur that adds to the chaos of characters running after each other. They’re too busy to really pay attention to the world around them, which is understandable because they’re running in tight quarters with billions of people around them. I think the film also has a lot to do with how it’s kind of a miracle that we’re able to talk to people at all. We walk by SO many people we will never talk to, but there’s the chance that you’ll become close friends with them.
With that being said, when the camera is staying somewhat still, we are usually looking through things (glass doors, glass windows), have things in frame that block the whole picture, or people just walk all around (emphasizing just how BUSY the world can be). These constant neon soaked images are a reminder that it’s a big world, and small coincidences are a crazy and wild thing. And if you choose the future, rather than wallowing in the past, maybe you’ll be okay.
A few quick notes on the editing. I’d describe it as jumpy but not jump-cutty. There are obviously a lot of jump cuts, but they’re the types of jump cuts that we are so used to seeing. The only kind of jump cuts that are still really disorientating to me now are the jump cuts Lars von Trier does. The jump cuts here speed up the pace (obviously, “nice observation, wow who would’ve thought”) but there’s also a different kind of jump cut at work, which is the play on the linear structure. Though not as non-linear as In The Mood For Love, there are still sudden jumps to the past, some skip forward in time. Technically, it “breaks the rules” of editing. But, you know, it worked, and a lot of people, myself included, LOVE this film. Take rules lightly. Make your film how you want to.
Chungking Express has a lot to say about relationships and people connecting. This is a wonderful film I will return to over and over again, most likely. Everything about the film is unconventional (the structure, the editing, the cinematography) but it told such a simple story and made it huge to us (the audience) and allowed us to REALLY care about these characters. We feel their sadness and we feel their joy. It’s amazing, isn’t it?