Film Review: Chungking Express by Wong Kar Wai

Brigitte Linn and Takeshi Kaneshiro in Chungking Express.

“The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears”

1994 was a different time. Quentin Tarantino was considered talented. Hong Kong was a British colony. And Wong Kar Wai was a relative upstart, rather than the superstar he became after In The Mood For Love.

Tarantino himself was a big fan of Chungking Express. Always better at recognising than appropriating talent, his distribution company ensured it got a decent stateside audience.

Watching it 25 years later, you can see why he loved it. The new wave stylings, the femme fatale, the repeated use of pop classics: Tarantino’s own Pulp Fiction, from the same year, aped similar tropes. But the difference is heart, soul, and melancholy, all qualities that Chungking Express has in spades.

Set amid the late capitalist chaos of Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong, this is a claustrophobic world of malls, artificial light, and disassociation.

We experience two, loosely interconnected stories, of two lovelorn cops, the blurring of time and emotion, and a lot of sitting around consuming canned goods and junk food.

Takeshi Kaneshiro plays officer no. 223, a slave to his pager, waiting around at the Daylight Express fast food joint waiting for a call from his lost love.

His segment is considered the weaker by critics, but Brigitte Lin’s turn as a cocaine dealer in a lurid blonde wig steals the show, her character and officer 223’s slumped together in the pre-dawn in some shitty bar the film’s defining image.

Tony Leung, beautiful and still, plays the similarly heartbroken officer 663, object of Faye Wong’s waitress’s manic pixie dream girl obsessions and flat-rearranging antics.

California Dreaming follows both these characters around, often at ear-splitting volume, and Wong’s semi-improvised style frees the film from traditional narrative structures and gives the characters room to breathe.

The cinematography is frequently sublime in both segments, and though I’m sure it’s a cliche to say so, the film’s biggest star is Hong Kong itself. The viewer is transported right into the belly of the smoky, neon Chungking Mansions complex, and you get a sense of urban transience and lives lived on top of each other in a manner rarely mastered.

In the end, this is a film about loneliness, time, and the yearning for connection. It is also, I suppose, about love, but only in the sense that these characters seek, but never find, care, but are never cared for, and move without ever going anywhere.

And we love them for it, because we are also trapped, beautiful, and hopeless.

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