film

Old School Review: “Chungking Express” (1994)

Written and Directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “Chungking Express” is a uniquely romantic film out of Hong Kong in the early-to-mid 1990’s. This film falls heavily into the category of “Art film” and it relies far more on the feeling or sensation of its characters and imagery than the logic of plot progression. If that sort of film repels you, then this one may not be for you. Though I do suggest going out of your comfort zone when choosing which movies to watch, broadening one’s artistic horizons is always encouraged. Anyways, this film is essentially split into two halves- almost directly down the middle of the runtime. Each half even has its own cinematographer! The first half belonging to Andrew Lau, and the second to Christopher Doyle.

Both halves of the film follow lovelorn police officers in Hong Kong. The first half follows Officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in the midst of his listless drudgery, the symptoms of a recent breakup. He’s taken to buying canned pineapple with the expiration date of May 1st- thereby giving himself a month after the break to wallow in self pity. When the date comes, he decides to eat the entirety of the canned pineapples he’s collected and then go out to a bar and try to seduce the first woman he sees. That first woman, however, happens to be a someone we’ve seen along side Officer 223’s malaise. We get almost no information about this woman (Brigitte Lin), other than the fact that she’s involved with some serious criminals. She’s always sporting a blonde wig and sunglasses, something that looks straight out of a 1940’s Noir’s femme fatale wardrobe. We witness her oversee a bunch of Indian men as they prepare to smuggle large amounts of heroin, watch her dance with a white man in a nightclub (possibly indicating him to be her superior), and observe as she goes on the run in an escalating foot-chase through the crowded marketplaces and streets of Hong Kong with a few haphazard shootouts along the way. By the time she escapes into a quiet bar and has a few drinks to settle her nerves, officer 223 enters in civilian clothing- eyeing her as his next obsession of love. From here, the two share a night of communal drinking, awkward expressions, and a sexless night at the officer’s apartment as he watches old movies late into the night as she sleeps unconsciously next to him. When she mysteriously exits in the morning, we follow officer 223 on his habitual route to the Midnight Express fast food shop, which just so happens to be frequented by another officer, number 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung).

The second half of the film changes up it’s color palette and tonal sensibilities while still focusing on another officer experiencing love-loss in Hong Kong. This half is drenched in a colder blend of colors, whereas the first was submerged in deep reds and yellows. It’s also more akin to a rom-com dipped in whimsy than the first’s playful experiment in aspects of pulpy crime; a woman in danger, some gunplay, all existing in a subsect of a criminal underworld that exists parallel to everyday life. Officer 663 is also experiencing a sense of purposelessness in the aftermath of a breakup with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). After the flight attendant leaves 663’s apartment keys, accompanied by a handwritten letter, at the Midnight Express we’re introduced to Faye (Faye Wong), the cashier with a pixie cut. After everyone else in the kitchen has read the letter, Faye indulges and takes a keen interest in officer 663. Faye’s interest quickly turns into a strangely, quirky, obsession as she repeatedly sneaks into his apartment to clean and rearrange his things. In other films, and in real life, several of her actions would seem alarming and unstable at times- but here it’s presented as playfully romantic. Which incorporates into the film’s thesis on relationships, both in the wake of longing and the potential of a new love. Taking the film as a whole, it’s harbors a unique ideology in which change is inevitable, but also that you must open yourself up to allow for the potential of a new positive evolution to take place.

This was an interesting film to take in. On its own merits, “Chungking Express” has something unique to offer- even if I didn’t quite love it as much as I anticipated, the film’s reputation exceeded itself for me personally. Though I am glad to have seen it. I admired the techniques employed throughout both halves. Melding slow motion, pixelation, and freezing the foreground while simultaneously blurring and speeding up the backgrounds of officers 223 and 663 in certain compositions helped to establish them as alone in a sea of people constantly on the move. Even though the film immerses itself in the wallowing of dissolved relationships- it retains a sheen of dreamy optimism that pairs well with it’s hypnotic nihilism, resulting in something truly bittersweet. I caught this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (The Criterion Channel), and I cannot recommend the service enough. If you love old cinema and foreign films from every era, its worth your time.

Final Score: 1 month’s worth of canned pineapple

*For a deeper dive into the film and further context, check out the link below! I found the article to be an illuminating read:

https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/216-keynote-chungking-express/

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