Millennial Malaise 06: Chungking Express

In Which We’re California Dreaming

As a place and cultural entity Hong Kong serves as a kind of inflection point for the other aspects of 90’s culture that we have yet to cover. The ideas of urban isolationism, receding colonialism, encroaching global cultural exchange, and the existential fear of the uncertain future all swirl in the neon streets of the Asian metropolis. Because of it’s unique history and geographical position Hong Kong has serves as a kind of whirling hub of activity in the eastern hemisphere. Transporting goods and ideas between the east and the west while standing as a singular place in and of it self. All of these factors combine to make Hong Kong an incredibly romantic city.

But not just any kind of romance, we’re talking capital R Romantic. The gushing emotions of 19th century poetry, the dizzying heights and precipitous falls of love, the totemic and thematic import of the shifting landscapes, and the endless pining for relationships that can never truly happen. The loves out of reach being the greatest loves of all. When you drop a director like Wong Kar-Wai into the mix, the city explodes into an expressionistic dream of missed connections, failed affairs, and yearned affection. With his 1994 feature Chungking Express explores all those themes while also touching upon the angst of a rapidly shifting Hong Kong and expanding global culture.

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The film is cleanly divided into two stories of love lost and never quite regained. The first follows police officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) as he recovers from a breakup. Slamming down canned pineapple to heal his broken heart. One night he bumps into a drug smuggler in a bright blond wig (Brigitte Lin), and they share a brief and fleeting connection. The story than shifts to officer 663 (Tony Leung) as he mopes around an all night food stand mourning the loss of his stewardess girlfriend. Faye (Faye Wong), an attendant at the food stand 663 frequents, takes this opportunity to insinuate herself into his life by breaking into his apartment and following him around. They seem like they might get together before going separate ways before their first date.

If the plot here sounds fractured and thrown together, that’s because the film was made at a desperate moment of creative impasse. Wong was struggling to edit together his wuxia movie Ashes of Time, and took a break from the production to make something else instead. Chungking Express is the result of a few months of wild, improvised shooting and editing. Many times cast and crew had no idea what would happen in any given scene, and tended to wander on and off set while Wong was trying to put together the story and blocking. This scrambled and hectic production lead to Wong’s first international success, and the disorientating birth of Chungking Express helped shape its deep, but off the cuff, sense of romanticism.

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In the film Wong, and his longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle, help shape the aesthetic ideal of pre millennial isolation and longing. Here the characters are frequently shot through smearing handheld cameras, turning the streets into a blear of fluorescent, neon, and movement. You can usually track the characters (especially Lin thanks to her bright, blond wig) in the blurry environments, but these impressionistic set ups isolate the characters in their own emotional world. Whether it is Lin gunning down drug mules, or Leung waiting for a date, the backdrop of Hong Kong becomes a void of light and people where an individual can tumble indefinitely.

Some of the most iconic shots from the film highlight this solitude, but also offer an out. In one scene officer 663 sits and drinks his coffee after learning that his girlfriend broke up with him. He gazes into the distance as Faye stares at him. This moment is caught in a kind of hyper-speed slow motion. Both Faye and 663 move like beings in molasses, their muscles caught on the lowest speed of articulation, but the world around them is spinning too fast, the blur of the crowds blowing past them. In that moment they are isolated from the world around them, but they are isolated together.

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Wong’s romances accentuate these points of contact, and the inability to act on them in the time and longing for them later. In voiceover 223 notes that the times he bumps into people on the street is the closest he’ll ever get to them. His fling with the Woman in the Blond Wig is almost completely devoid of amorous emotion, instead it’s filled with the pining for connection, that just being in another room with a living body might be worth the trouble.

In the story of Faye and 663 their connection is longer and more ingrained, but no less regretful When 663 finally offers to go on a date with Faye, she frets and leaves him a boarding pass for a year later. Unfortunately for 663 the destination is smudged in the rain. When they meet up again on that date everything has changed. 663 now owns the snack stand that Faye worked at, and Faye has taken up the occupation of flight attendant. 663 asks for a new boarding pass that could take them anywhere right as the film cuts to credits. In this moment we see the regret of not acting on these emotions earlier and being unable to engage with the people around us, but their might be something better down the line and out in the world.

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Or there might be nothing. One of Chungking Express’s biggest gambits is its use of music. Through the course of the film we hear about five different musical tracks, but these songs are repeated over and over until the viewer knows every note and move of the tunes. The centerpiece song is “California Dreaming” by The Mamas and the Papas. An anthem to somewhere else that has completely enraptured Faye. It’s a promise that the world will be grander outside the confines of her job and the whirl of Hong Kong, but when she finally visits California and returns home she’s nonplussed by the experience. It didn’t change everything; the song was just a catchy lie that she used to get through the day. But it did provide a way for her to move beyond the snack stand and into something new, it might not be better, but it is momentum.

This relationship with change also reflects on the city itself. Hong Kong is a place in constant flux that is always reminiscing on the times that came before, and the angst of change that infiltrates Chungking Express echoes the wider world. We see character gallivanting to convenience stores and fast food joints, while listening to international pop music. The global culture is integrating into the corners of the city; people are slamming Cokes, playing with giant Garfield plushies, while the Cranberries in Cantonese waft through the soundtrack. The world is coming to Hong Kong even as Hong Kong is separating itself from historic colonial powers. These two contradictory, but effective forces, make the whole city at the time feel unmoored. Looking for something to ground itself while dramatic change is occurring. Wong’s characters feel the same way. Both of the officers are dropped by their longtime romantic partners and they struggle to find connection in the shifting structures of their lives. While not a direct analogy it does feel a bit like Hong Kong itself trying to reckon the oncoming end of colonial control and moving forward in the future.

It’s amazing that all of these themes of romance, isolation, and cityscapes come off as well as they do. From an abstract plot description to actively voicing out the monologues that some of the characters give, it seems like Chungking Express is the twee-indie bullshit that would even be laughed off the stage at Sundance. Are you telling me that a movie with a character breaking into a stranger’s apartment to clean it while listening to California Dreaming on loop is actually moving and thoughtful? Yeah, I bet, and Garden State will change my life. But it’s to Wong’s immense credit that he is able to pull off something like 223’s canned pineapple speech. That the resonant can be wrung from the everyday and be profound in its banality.

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That idea, I think, is a recurring motif in films of the time. That, in a world where past conflicts seem to be mostly settled, revelation and meaning can be derived from the mundane and normal. That grand romances can occur at the snack stand, and all ambition can be comprised in a single pop song. This isn’t the same as the poptimism of future decades, no the sentiment expressed here is much more melancholic and abstract, that the grand struggles of the past have been reduced to day-to-day uncertainty and boredom. But that is Wong’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker, transforming the gestures and motions of city life into the luxuriate expressionism of his images. No matter how odd or off the cuff the story feel, you can always see the emotion painted on screen. Transforming the Midnight Express snack stand in Central Hong Kong into the whirling heart of love and loss in the modern city.

Odds and Ends

  • The voice over here is truly absurd, but it still works on me. I wonder if the fact that I’m reading it in subtitles instead of hearing the words helps remove me enough to engage with the thematic depth of the dialogue.
  • For non-genre work Wong serves as a kind of aesthetic ideal for the decade. Lush and emotional, but pulling from the normal and plain.
  • The way this film got to American speaks to the power of the indie scene during the time. Tarantino saw it and at the height of his influence convinced Miramax to distribute the picture stateside. Tarantino’s relationship with Weinstein is still more than a little skeevy, but it is truly staggering how much important work exists because of them. Yet another reason I’m eternally angry at the film industry.
  • The Cantonese cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” is the perfect example of cultural exchange.

As always check out this Letterboxd list for potential candidates to cover, and follow me on twitter to hear grousing about the Academy Awards.

Next Week: It’s love on the run with Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers.