Chungking Express (1996)

March 6, 2003 • Film, hong kong

[director Wong Kar Wai]

Color 102 min

This film was perhaps the most defining picture of Wong Kar Wai’s career. As filming dragged on for Ashes of Time, the actors and filmmakers found themselves shacked up in Kowloon for almost a year, while filming went on in the great Chinese desert. Eventually, they found themselves totally grounded as they waited a full month before resuming filming (Wong cites funding and legal complications as being responsible for the delay). In this month, Wong and his compatriots decided to make another movie. At first it seemed like something to kill time with, but as they gathered other actors, pop music, and some brilliant hand-held camerawork, Chungking Express began to evolve. The entire shoot lasted twenty-three days, with Wong and the actors improvising a plot. The movie they made was Wong’s first big hit, totally eclipsing Ashes of Time at the box office and establishing the highly spontaneous filmmaking style Wong would employ for every movie he has made since.

The shoot-from-the-hip style of the film produced a rather unique narrative structure. Basically, Chungking Express is two stories, thematically similar and spacially related. I say spacially related because both films take place in the sprawl of urban Kowloon, in and around the base of a hotel called the Chungking Mansions (the hotel Wong and his cast and crew stayed at during filming), and we change stories when a character from one story bumps into a character from the other story, and the camera switches from one character to the other.

The first story is of a lovesick cop who spends a night trying to get over his former love affair. He runs into a mysterious woman, a drug dealer with a blonde flip-wig and a yellow raincoat, who has been marked for death by her boyfriend/boss and has been running all night. Somehow, the two of them end up in a hotel room together, where odd, funny things continue to happen. Takeshi Kaneshiro turns in a fantastic performance as the moony cop, and Brigitte Lin plays the drug smuggling, nameless blonde. It was the final performance of her career, and it is truly magnificent. Lin was in the cast of Wong’s Ashes of Time, and so these remarkable performances are both her last and maybe her greatest performances in a nearly 20-year career in film. For the first time, we see Lin turning in performances calling for method acting over her usual performance finesse, and she leaps into it with great energy and sensitivity. She went and married the vice-chairman of Espirit and retired, leaving these last works as her swan song.

The second story follows cafe worker Faye Wong (a popular Cantonese singer) as she becomes smitten with another young cop, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who is mourning the end of his relationship with a flight attendant. The flight attendant leaves her keys to Tony’s apartment at the cafe (Tony hits the cafe every night to pick up sandwiches for himself and his girlfriend), and Faye uses them to break into his apartment and start reorganizing his life, from his kitchenware and bedspreads on up. The blithe young beat cop, who talks to inanimate objects as if they are alive, doesn’t seem to notice that anything is different. But nevertheless, his feelings for Faye begin to evolve. Finally, these two reach a place where, in Wong’s words “they can go ahead,” proceeding to what we hope is a romance.

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