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/

film

Old School Review: “Tokyo Story” (1953)

Written by Kôgo Noda and Yasujiro Ozu, and directed by Ozu, “Tokyo Story” is seemingly a simple family drama about an older couple traveling to visit their children and grandchildren in Tokyo. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking such of an arthouse film, but you’d be wrong in this case. In essence that is the skeleton of the film, yes, but beneath the initial layer lies a story about family and how time can erode once strong connections. It is about how parents can lose their place in their family’s hierarchy. How work and modernization can manipulate and destroy family in subtle ways. Mostly though, it is about the bittersweet heartbreak of growing old and losing touch with those closest to you.

When Shukichi (Chishu Ryu), the grandfather, and Tomi (Chiyeko Higashiyama) the grandmother, arrive in Tokyo they’re welcomed by a busy family. They spend the first few days with their oldest son Koichi (So Yamamura) a doctor in a small local clinic. He is married to Fumiko (Kuniko Miyake), and they have two sons. After meeting their grandchildren and hanging out about the house (Not many adults have the time away from work to take them sightseeing) they head to Koichi’s sister, Shige’s (Haruko Sugimura) home. Shige is also married and runs a beauty salon in the first floor of their abode. The family members mean well, and make several attempts to entertain their elders, sightseeing some and buying them treats (though Shige protests at her husband for buying such expensive cakes- they eat most of them before presenting the gift). At a lack of finding things for Shukichi and Tomi to do the married couples recruit Noriko (Setsuko Hara) their widowed daughter-in-law who hasn’t yet remarried since the war. Noriko is more than happy to help, even though she isn’t a blood relative and has the least stature among the adult children of Shukichi and Tomi.

They try not to burden any of the family while they are in Tokyo, but it becomes clear after some time that they are simply too busy to accommodate them. After a failed trip to a resort spa outside of Tokyo, paid for by Shige’s family, Shukichi and Tomi decide to head home. They linger about for a bit, trying not to offend anyone for having left the spa early, which isn’t why they came to Tokyo in the first place. After a night out with Shkichi’s old village friends now residing in Tokyo, and Tomi having a profound evening with Noriko- they depart for home. Shortly after having returned home, Tomi falls gravely ill and the children begin to make the journey home for their dying mother. It is a beautiful and tragic sequence of scenes for the last half hour of the film, Shukichi veiling his grief with blank expressions and the children all commingling their grief and true feelings about their parents- it’s a lot, and if you can make it through the end with dry eyes, I honestly don’t know what would move you to tears in cinema.

The story, however, is only one slice of what makes this film so memorable and potent. Yasujiro Ozu’s technique behind the camera accounts for much of the dreamlike quality of the film. His cinematography and framing choices seem unique in how he utilizes them. He doesn’t always adhere to the eyeline rule, characters can seem as if they aren’t looking at each other as they speak, but he cares not. His style doesn’t sacrifice spacial or auditory understanding in the least, it enhances it. Ozu often frames two people sitting side by side, facing away from the camera, which gives the audience an almost ghostly viewpoint of the dialogue. It’s in this pairing of those faraway, unconcerned, shots of conversation with his low angle mid-shots of the actors directly facing the camera that Ozu’s style emerges as one both heavily invested in what his characters have to say, but also of the world they inhabit. Many scenes are bookended with “pillow shots” (relating to a similar technique in Japanese poetry); beautiful compositions of elaborate cityscapes, simple architecture, trains chugging along, or boats cruising along the coast in the background that bind the characters to their place and time so beautifully.

Inherently relatable and elegantly true to life, “Tokyo Story” was a joy to discover. I cannot recommend it enough, I found it (as with most older films lately) on the Criterion Channel, and with it a new filmography to plumb. Test new waters, take a chance and maybe you’ll find a new favorite film or filmmaker, I know I have.

Final Score: 4 adult children, 2 grandchildren, and 1 heartbroken old man..

*To further inform you on the humble perfection of this film, I’ve linked Roger Ebert’s review of the film below:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-tokyo-story-1953