Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 film remains one of my most favourite films of all time. It was shot while Wong took a break from his wuxia film Ashes of Time. The plot is fairly simple. Divided into two main stories, each story revolves around a heart-broken cop and a mysterious lady who enters their life. The movie stars mainly well-known actors and actresses of that era such as Tony Leung, who have worked with Wong for numerous films, Faye Wong, Brigette Lin and Taiwanese heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro.
FAST-PACED CITY LIFE
By the 1990s, Hong Kong has emerged as one of the Four Asian Tigers which underwent rapid industrialisation and excessive high economic growth. In Chungking Express, the idea of a fast-paced city life is reflected explicitly throughout the movie. In the opening scene, we are already greeted with the use of fast-motion cinematography on the streets of Hong Kong. Everyone seems to be on the move and hunt for something else. They talk about flying to California, they talk about jogging, thereby making the characters always on the move. Moreover, instead of having home-cooked meals or enjoying Hong Kong’s delectable cuisine in a teahouse, the busy and idle characters often have canned food and fast-food for meals.
And it’s not just the choice of food that makes the audience conscious of the fast-paced lifestyle in Hong Kong. Another noteworthy point is the motif of deadlines. The characters all have a task to fulfil. Cop 223 (Takeshi) wants to get over his ex-girlfriend, May, and the Blonde (Brigette) needs to complete her drug smuggling operation by 1 May 1994. Interestingly, the entire first story spans across just four days (28 April 1994 – 1 May 1994), further supporting how in cities things can evolve and progress at such high rates. Similarly, for the second story Cop 663 (Tony Leung) is stuck in an endless loop of repetition while trying to get over his failed relationship. Meanwhile, Faye (Faye Wong) is dreaming of a day where she can visit California. The idea of having to get something complete each day is a familiar thought for us city-dwellers and relaxing becomes something luxurious.
“每天你都有机会和很多人擦肩而过，而你或者对他们一无所知。不过也许有一天他会变成你的朋友或是知己。”“Every day we brush past so many other people. People we may never meet or people who may become close friends.”
This has all boiled down to a society where meaningless relationships are formed. Even in a packed city where people bump into each other each day, we know nothing about other individuals. Many at times, the characters are also found alone in their apartments engaging in monologues. Even in a densely populated area, people can still experience loneliness. There is, thus, physical proximity without reciprocity in the city.
Chungking Express perhaps has the most accurate representation of time. Time always works against us. When we are faced with tight deadlines, time flies pass by us in a blink of an eye. Similarly, when we are wasting our time away, a minute can seem like an eternity.
If you have not noticed, there are mainly two ways one can perceive time in the movie. The first half of the story is over four days whereas the story between Faye and Cop 663 in the second half drags to a year-long. In Cop 223’s story, everything is quantifiable. Wong uses many time markers in the story to represent the milestone in the relationship between Cop 223 and the Blonde and the James Bond-spy-movie music on the Blonde only makes viewers more anxious and weary of time ticking away. It may be because of the “1 May 1994” deadline which require the Blonde and Cop 223 to be reminded of their tasks that resulted in such precise marking of time in the first story.
On the flip-side, Cop 663 and Faye’s story has a looser timeline and it stretches to over a year long. The cinematography takes a slight break in the second half as mise-en-scene dominates the screen to illustrate the change in time. There are no obvious time markers in the story and in fact, if you did not pay close attention you might not notice the changes in Faye’s costume. With regards to cinematography, fast motion was only used in two major scenes – the coffee scene and the jukebox scene – to highlight the loneliness and alienation of characters in the city. Specifically, in the coffee scene three aspects of time can be seen. Cop 663 drinking his cup of black coffee represents the past as he reflects on his break-up with his air stewardess ex-girlfriend. The use of fast motion cinematography speeds up the crowd in the foreground, the ones living in the present, and the ones who cannot understand the emotional pain of Cop 663. Meanwhile, we have Faye who is in a state of reverie as she dreams of a relationship with Cop 663.
MCDONALDS, CIRCLE K AND COCA-COLA
Hong Kong was a British Crown colony up till its 1997 Handover to Mainland China and it became a prosperous port city and a globalised city of that era. Maybe because of this, many immigrants fled to Hong Kong in search for a more promising future. Traces of foreign influences are seen all over the show. In Chungking Mansion, there is a group of Indian immigrants packed tightly in small apartments unbeknownst to them that they are soon going to be involved in a drug smuggling operation. There were McDonald’s, Loft, Coca-cola and many other brands that caught our attention in the show. In addition, we see women disguising themselves with a blonde wig to attract men. Coupled with that, there was a myriad of languages and dialects heard in the movie, creating a sense of a multi-racial community.
Also, the characters’ hang-out place is at Midnight Express, a fast-food food kiosk that sells mainly western cuisine, including the characters’ favourites Chef’s salad, black coffee and a cup of Coke. In fact, the opening scene was rather unexpected and out of the ordinary. I thought that Wong would feature iconic sights of Hong Kong like Victoria’s Peak or its Central Business District in its opening scene but nope, Wong decided on a run-down tightly-cramped Chungking Mansions. This gives viewers the first impression that whatever happens in the next 1-2 hours will not be a typical Hong Kong film. True enough, this argument stands. The identity of Hong Kong, a mainly-Chinese populated city, has gone and been replaced by foreign influences.
Maybe the advancement in the economy has lead to economic progress in Hong Kong but it also has produced a society which is emotionally distant from each other. We may be physically close to someone but we are still close off from the people around us.
OF PINEAPPLES AND CHEF’S SALAD
Relationships in the city definitely will not be as easy as it would be in the rural area where their lifestyles are plausibly more simpler. People are driven by their individual goals, societal goals and perhaps family goals, thus making city people more complicated. I might say that people are also always changing and you have to accommodate your partner. In Chungking Express, Cop 223 dated his girlfriend for five years before she decided to call it off and the reason was due to his lack of understanding towards her and the same goes for Cop 663.
But all’s not lost in the city, you still can find romance in a bustling metropolis. Maybe you just need to change a little bit. Cop 663 was dumped simply because his ex found that he was not able to understand her. Of course, he didn’t. He bought her Chef’s Salad everyday without even asking if she even liked it. His story is a loop of repeated events (visited Midnight Express 4 times) and his job as a policeman shows his attitude towards life: he needs things to be structured and predictable. It is as though the “there must be a change somehow” lyrics used in the first story should be reserved for Cop 663 instead.
However, with the help of Faye’s secret intrusions into and tidying up of his apartment, realised that he is not a creature of habit, but is actually a man capable of change. He eventually got over his ex and fell for Faye but luck was not on his side as Faye left for California on their date night, leaving Cop 663 with only a boarding pass with no destination drawn on a tissue paper. Their relationship was left hanging if it ever started to begin with. But Cop 663 proved himself capable and worthy of Faye’s love as he changed himself and renovated Midnight Express, the place where they first met, to fit Faye. Similarly for Faye, she has outgrown herself and changed from a person who “doesn’t like to think” to a flight stewardess. Nobody knows whether Faye and Cop 663 would end up together but I myself, feel that the movie ended on a happy note as the two are now able to understand each other better having stepped onto each other’s shoes. Alas, Faye can stop daydreaming as her dream lover “梦中人” (Faye’s theme song and sung by herself in real life) has come to her life.
As for Cop 223 and Blonde, I would not go as far as to say that these two have a relationship. They had no meaningful interactions and the Blonde certainly did not seem interested in him. But what was powerful from their interactions was its ability to encourage each other to move on in life. Touched by the Blonde’s birthday message on 6 AM 1 may 1994, Cop 223 was probably able to move on in life knowing that someone out there actually remembers him. No longer will Cop 223 need to eat canned pineapples to forget a lover.
Chungking Express is a beautiful story that shows little yet speaks a lot. Its time references and close resemblance of “1 May 1994” to “1 July 1997” as well as the motif of airplanes as a form of escape can be seen as a reminder to Hong Kong residents of the impending handover. While it started off as an anxious and fast-paced mode, the movie gradually calmed down and ended off on a high note. The passage of time did bring about changes to the characters’ lives and they resulted in positive effects. Maybe that was Wong’s intention, to reassure the Hong Kong citizens of that era, but unfortunately, things were not as expected these days. Nonetheless, Chungking Express is an excellent movie on loneliness and romance in the city. We see how it is possible for a cop and drug smuggler to share a significant relationship and we spotted three brief moments where characters from the two stories intersect. These illustrate how a city is a place filled with multiple possibilities, only waiting for its dwellers to explore. I personally would recommend this movie to fans of urban life or Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation.
如果记忆也是一个罐头，我希望它不会过期。如果要加一个日子，我希望她是一万年。“If memories could be canned would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.”