Chungking Express (1994) Movie Review

Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is a romance picture with traces of Everybody’s Related conventions (see Fast Food, Fast Women for explanation). The movie is shot in standard (and dare I say it, awful) Hong Kong filmstock which means much of the film is scratched, there are unintentional audio glitches, and street scenes are uncontrolled chaos, which means passersby and vendors who have no idea a movie is being shot will stop, stare, and murmur among themselves as the actors say their lines. It’s everything you expect in a Hong Kong picture and then some.

Chungking Express concerns two separate individuals, a young plainclothes Detective name Wu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and a uniform street cop known only as Cop 663 (Tony Leung). The film is separated into two halves, opening up with Wu’s story, and gradually flowing into Cop 663’s. The two men are about the same age and are both going through what they thought was an everlasting love that turned out to be not so everlasting after all.

Into the two men’s life walks separate women, an unnamed criminal involved in sending drugs overseas by way of illegal Indians (played by Brigitte Lin) and a perky cornershop vendor name Faye who falls for Cop 663. The question arises: Can the two cops get over their personal loss in order to concentrate on the love of these two new women? Is it even possible? Or are they all destined for loneliness?

Wong Kar-wai claims credit as writer and director of Chungking Express, and anyone who has seen Ashes of Time won’t deny those claims. Wong uses the same film techniques that he employed with Ashes, including (and what I consider to be very annoying) varied film speeds to capture scenes of action or quick motion. Much like he did with the swordfights in Ashes, Wong brings the same jagged, blurry imaging to Chungking Express, and although I had expected it, and didn’t mind it all that much, I still wished he had used normal film speed. The whole technique reeks of gimmicky, and I had hoped Wong might have gotten over the habit since Ashes, but it was not to be.

Chungking Express is very funny at certain spots, heartfelt throughout, and aside from the awkward action scenes, the movie is appropriately labeled a romance. Which brings me back to the movie’s action. As was the case in Ashes, the action in Chungking Express seems out of place and unnecessary. There are a couple of violent scenes where people are killed, and by movie’s end, I couldn’t tell you why anyone had to die, or why there even had to be any gunplay to begin with. The same was true of the swordplay and sporadic bloodshed in Ashes. I don’t know why they were put it, I didn’t need them, and Wong should have done without them because the films certainly had little use for them in the final tally.

Acting in Chungking Express, as usual for a Wong Kar-wai film, is terrific across the board. The two male leads, Leung and Kaneshiro, play their roles with the perfect balance of loneliness and men on the brink. Actually, of the two leads, Tony Leung is the better actor, and proves it with his oddball performance. (Leung’s half, incidentally, is actually longer than Kaneshiro’s by about 20 minutes or so).

Leung’s Cop 663 talks to his soap and admonishes them not to lose too much weight; similarly, he seems to be constantly tittering on the brink of a mental breakdown, or is that just quirkiness? You decide. Young Faye Wong plays Faye, the girl who makes Leung’s Cop 663 his chef’s salads, and who has a mad crush on him although he doesn’t know it. Faye’s character is the movie’s highlight, and she made me laugh throughout, especially when, after getting a hold of Cop 663’s apartment keys, she makes daily trips to his apartment to clean up and fool around, all the while ignoring her duties at the cornershop. This, of course, results in the shop’s electricity being shut off because Faye hasn’t paid the electricity bill, but instead has taken the time she’s supposed to use to pay the bill to run over to Cop 663’s apartment!

With Chungking Express Wong seems not only concerned with love lost and found, but with voyeurism. We don’t actually see the characters go about their business more than we are easedropping, or peeking in, at their lives. Much of Wong’s usage of moving cameras are shot from behind the actors as they move up streets or through corridors. True to form, even the characters within the movie do a lot of voyeuring. As an audience, we are never fully involved, and Wong never lets us forget that we’re glimpsing scenes from these people’s lives, and not interacting. We are observors and nothing more.

It’s always unfair to compare a director’s movies to each other, but Chungking Express, although a good and heartfelt film, is not nearly as lyrical or poetic or complex as Ashes of Time. And Wong if you’re listening for God’s sake please stop with the varied film speed, okay?

Kar-wai Wong (director) / Kar-wai Wong (screenplay)
CAST: Brigitte Lin …. Woman in blonde wig
Tony Leung Chiu Wai …. Cop 663
Faye Wong …. Faye
Takeshi Kaneshiro …. Cop 223

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