In his essay “Time Pieces: Wong Kar-Wai and the Persistence of Memory,” critic Chuck Stevens summarizes Wong Kar-Wai’s approach to film-making perfectly: “Passionate about ideas, possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern loves, [Wong Kar-Wai] transforms emotional free-fall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences, willfully missed signals and capricious possibilities for romance.” The quote refutes the criticisms of Wong as an auteur of style over substance, as someone who can’t think of anything meaningful to say so he just finds interesting things to shoot. And while Wong’s approach may seem frenetic and romanticized, a closer look at his 1994 film Chungking Express will uncover a director who utilizes the expansion and contraction of time, as well as a progressive sense of repetition, to create meditative works about relationships and individual’s natures within them.
possessed by the errant flashes of whimsy and misfortune that haunt modern loves, [Wong Kar-Wai] transforms emotional free-fall into infectious rhymes and deliberate coincidences
As a swift introduction, Chungking Express‘s plot can be summarized as follows: the film contains two stories about two cops who separately experience the breakdown of their relationships and wander around similar patches of Hong Kong until they each meet a (different) mysterious, inscrutable woman who challenges their sense of self, both independently and in a relationship. The first story features Takeshi Kaneshiro as Cop 223 (aka He Qiwu) and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia as “Woman in blond wig” (though I call her Blondie), while the second story stars Faye Wong as Faye and Tony Leung as Cop 663. Both intersect at the Midnight Express eatery, as well as a few other minor locations. Neither relationship between the pairs end up “working out,” but each player ends up in a fruitful location, if physically if not emotionally.
The distinctive, kinetic style CE is lauded for is the work of Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau, the cinematographers for the film (who handled the first and second story, respectively). While they actually vary their techniques widely throughout the film, producing patient-yet-inventively framed shots one moment and feverish, blurred shots the next, the film’s reputation was built on the frenzied sense established in the latter, as can be seen in the choice of opening shots in the trailer.
As the film begins, we follow Blondie through shady hallways and streets while classical music with a noirish languor plays along, before cutting to Cop 223. He brushes past Blondie before chasing a criminal through the crowded streets of Hong Kong, an effect Wong amplifies via a stutter-step technique that at times is kinetoscope-esque. The effect, postulated by Mike D’Angelo to be the removal and duplication of certain frames, is used throughout the film in different ways, but always to the same effect: to dilate and contract time. Here it represents the contraction of time, the bodies blurring by in a way to make both them and the criminal 223 is chasing indistinct. Cop 223 failed to catch his mark, and so the moment plays as a memory best forgotten. In addition, 223’s sense of disconnection from the people around him (his girlfriend dumped him, his childhood acquaintances have moved far beyond him) is ingrained in him that others appear literally indistinguishable to him, such that the contraction of time serves to get them “out of his way” quicker.
The chief moment of time dilation, however, comes when 663’s ex, a flight stewardess, stops by the Midnight Express, but on his off day, and leaves a note the Express owner (and every other employee, including Faye) is quick to read. Unlike the others, who only find humor in its brief message, Faye sees the heartbreak it will cause, which makes it tough for her to reveal it to 663 when he comes by. She does, and is surprised by his refusal to see the letter (“after my coffee,” he claims), at which time begins to dilate in distinctive ways in the same shot: in the foreground, people flash in, across, and out of the scene as colored blurs, nebulous figures sped up in the shot. In the background, Faye and 663 are at the counter of the Midnight Express, 663 leaning his left side on it and staring through space, Faye leaning on the counter and staring at him. Unlike the figures in the fore, however, Faye and 663 seem to be moving in slow motion, their actions choppy and deliberate compared to the chaos in front of them. What results is a shot that perfectly embodies how senses of time are subjective, and can deepen and chasm for one individual (663, his world coming apart as he realizes this is the relationship’s true end), stretch for another (Faye, anxious to read 663’s reaction to the letter’s contents), and remain unaltered/appear hyperextended for other (everyone else in the shot, whose own lives are unaffected by this minor drama).
The narration also often dilates time to great effect. 663’s heartbreak over his ex-girlfriend is undercut by the ways in which Faye influences him, as she used the key his ex left behind to sneak into his apartment and clean in it, daydream in it, and eventually redecorate it. But a new level of nuance is then added when 663, suspecting things are being tampered with around his place, starts returning home at unorthodox times to catch Faye. While he’s physically trying to confirm Faye’s appearance, and transpose her from dream to reality, a distance is kept by the way his voice-over narrates this discovery, with scenes seeming to imply he’s about to catch Faye, but which are really about little routines he performed with his ex. What seemed to be a synchronous moment is
either ironically asynchronous or a projection/reflection of 663 over the moment as-it’s-happening. A similar technique occurs when Cop 223, after a jog on his 25th birthday, places his pager on a chain link fence, the voice-over informing us that he left his pager behind because he knew ‘no one would call him anyway.’ As he walks away from both the camera and the pager, presumably providing closure on the scene, it beeps, and he immediately runs back to check it. Either the voice-over is out of sync with 223’s emotional state, or it is withholding information it finds to precious to share; either outcome proposes a temporal disconnect that adds nuance to the character.
Besides modulating time, Wong utilizes repetition in Chungking Express to great effect. The most obvious example is structurally, as the film is two halves connected by a location, the Midnight Express, an all-night cheap eatery in Hong Kong’s trendy Lan Kwei Fong district. While the title gets its second half from that location, the first half refers to the Chungking Mansions, a den of dilapidated hotels and vindaloo joints in the city’s Tsimhatsui district. (At least at the time. Apparently the Midnight Express is now a 7/11.)
Pulling backwards from the film and looking at its production, repetition also abounds. Chungking Express (CE) was created during a hiatus in the filming of Ashes of Time, Wong’s wuxia film. It was originally intended to have three parts but Wong ran out of time, and instead expanded the excised section into its own film, 1995’s Fallen Angels. He did this by employing the same technique he used in CE: creating two stories that echo each other thematically and intersect each other physically.
The final scene of the film is awash in repetition of intention, but with a sense of progression, like a spiraling point that maintains momentum and direction but finds itself further and further out with each revolution. Near the end, Faye has returned from California (she spent most of the film accompanied by “California Dreaming“) an air hostess, but rather than mirror his past relationship Cop 663 quits his post and ends up buying and renovating the Midnight Express. Faye, not thrilled with the reality, rejects her California dream while 663 embraces his, the boombox playing “California Dreaming.” While she failed to show the first time, here it is her seeking him out, and while she again leaves him, she reconnects as a way to both affirm and reinforce change. Similarly, though Cop 223 leaves his own apartment as a way to let Blondie leave without confusion or embarrassment, it is she who ends up reaffirming 223’s commitment to staying connected with people, as signified by his instant about-face on his decision to leave his pager behind. The reason? A simple ‘Happy Birthday’ message from her.
Audrey Yue, in her essay “In the Mood for Love: Intersections of Hong Kong Modernity,” notes that Wong has a tendency for dual narratives, and compares their form to tête-bêches. The connection is readily apparent: the stories cover the same ground, with characters that could be considered interchangeable. And yet the direction is unmistakably altered, leading to new approaches, new discoveries that seem almost alien to the previous version’s concerns. The “paired” characters embody this: while Cop 663 is clean-cut, dignified (if boring), and in uniform, Cop 223 is sloppy and emotional, willing to call childhood schoolmates to allay his loneliness. Blondie, meanwhile, wears obscuring clothes (and of course the wig) to conceal herself, and is reserved in nature, though cerebral in effect, while we meet Faye with a sleeveless undershirt and pants, bobbing her head to The Mamas and The Papa’s “California Dreaming” and losing herself in the music so she “doesn’t have to think so much.” The slight variations continue in ways big and small, from eating habits to how characters are predominately framed within a shot, and paradoxically amplify the sense of distinction between the stories, while tying together their similar themes of progression and connection.
In a way, relationships seem like excitement, untarnished ebullience, yet they often mellow into routines, and if the players involved come to rely too much on those routines, the relationship can break its back over them. By evoking reality but staying tantalizingly out of reach, the relationships in Chungking Express are transformative: they impel stasis into action, ask to reconsider the spaces around which life happens, or the ways they are navigated. The refracted stories of 223 and 663—jilted cops loosed from physical paralyses—and Faye and Blondie—unconstrained women whose dreams are at odds with their realities—create resonances that reward the patience, the observant, the conscious. For all the stylistic flourishes of the film, it’s really about how people change and are changed. Like the pop songs it recycles throughout its running time, it’s about seeing the distinctions amongst the repetitions. Tired lines may seem trite in one moment, revelatory the next. Rhythms may entice toe-taping one moment, a twinge of pain the next. The essential question Chungking Express asks is not which one you prefer, but if you’re willing to get to one from the other.
- This post is an entry in the Criterion Blogathon, graciously hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. Check out these sites, and all of the blogs contributing to the blogathon, today!
- I didn’t have time to get into it in the essay, but Chungking Express does a lot of interesting things with diegetic/non-diegetic music. If you’d like to learn more about interactions between diegetic and non-diegetic music, check out my essay on sound in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.