The Criterion Recollection: Healing Heartbreaks in 'Chungking Express'
Chungking Express is Wong Kar-wai’s third film and the one that garnered him international attention in the ‘90s. The director notably broke away from the typical crime and comedy genres of Hong Kong cinema of the time to produce a frenetic, colourful, and soulful drama/romance in one of the busiest and diverse locations in the city, Chungking Mansions (where the movie takes inspiration for half its name. The other half is for the snack bar, Midnight Express).
In the two loosely connected halves of the film, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-wai play a couple of broken-hearted beat cops who find themselves roused from their sorrows by a mysterious, beautiful criminal played by Brigitte Lin and a quirky, fast food server played by Faye Wong.
The film was completed over the course of three months while Wong was working on post-production for Ashes of Time, a large-scale wuxia film, which also features Leung in a supporting role. That tight schedule helped lend an intensity and feverish energy to Chungking Express. Wong’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle also lent his distinctive eye (and his apartment) to production.
Like many of director Wong’s other works, Chungking Express relies heavily on atmospherics built on lush visuals and music. Important character details that would typically have thematic relevance are left uninvestigated, and major storylines are left somewhat unresolved as a result. The police officer roles of the two male leads are seemingly inconsequential and do not really factor into their relationships to the women they obsess over, even though both women break the law. The criminal plot that Lin’s character faces (some men she uses to smuggle drugs out of Hong Kong disappear and she must figure out her next steps) is of minor importance to the film’s ultimate focus on meaningful relationships.
What’s truly memorable are the candy-coloured filters, rushing camera movements, canted angles and the repeated use of “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas plus Faye Wong’s Cantonese cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams.” These elements add to the wistful quality to the romantic values that underpin the film. And who can forget those cans of expiring pineapple that signify the end of young love?
The small but very attractive cast makes it very easy to fall in love with the characters. In the first story, Lin is deliberately heavily disguised with a blonde wig and red sunglasses as the unflappable femme fatale of the film. Her cool, grown-up, devil-may-care attitude contrasts sharply with the puppy dog affections of Kaneshiro’s young cop who is dealing with the pangs of first heartbreak. The Taiwanese-Japanese Kaneshiro uses his multilingual abilities to add to the multicultural flavour of Chungking Express as his character desperately pines for an unseen ex-girlfriend over the phone, and then tries to find someone new to fall in love with. Eventually, a chaste encounter with Lin’s gangster one evening helps him get out of his slump.
Conversely, in Chungking Express‘s second story, a more lighthearted and long-term romance is struck between an introverted cop and a zany waitress. Faye Wong, a huge Cantopop star in real life, is charmingly manic as the gangly and infatuated young woman who awkwardly tries to insert herself into Leung’s character’s life the moment she sees him approaching the food stall where she works. Who can blame her? It is quite remarkable (especially for anyone who has only encountered Leung via his compelling turn as Wenwu in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) to witness a young and talented Leung, with the same gentle, sweet, and magnetic persona that he has carried into his current middle-age.
With dreamy, oversaturated colours; blurry, kinetic camera movements; bustling, claustrophobic settings; and lonely, lovesick characters, Chungking Express is an intimate and poetic ode to youth, love, heartbreak, connection, and self-discovery in a city like no other.
Chungking Express was originally released in 1994.