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World of Wong Kar-wai: Chungking Express

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[On November 25th in NYC, Janus Films began presenting a slate of 4K remasters for legendary director Wong Kar-wai’s catalog of films. Set to run for the next few weeks, we at Flixist will be taking a look back at each of these films and explaining what makes them so important to cinema as a whole. Join us as we enter into “The World of Wong Kar-wai.”]

With Chungking Express, Wong Kar-wai’s third feature, the iconic director had mapped out a clear style and was already taking the distinct characteristics of his first films to almost-literally dizzying heights and extremes. While the confidence in his work can be found as far back as in As Tears Go By, you’d have to wonder if there are moments of Chungking Express that push the director’s style beyond even his own wishes: Wong’s sense of humanity and eclectic love permeating almost too bombastically.

Though with a filmmaker this clear in vision, there’s little room to criticize or ask for improvement. What Wong Kar-wai gives us with Chungking Express is unfiltered, passionate artistic energy.

Amidst the narrow neon alleys of Hong Kong, we track two police officers and their romantic predicaments with two very different women. He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a young detective, recently broken up with his girlfriend of several years. Slumped into a ritualistic sort of grieving (in which he obsesses over canned pineapple – a favorite of his heartbreaker), he crosses paths with a mysterious blonde woman (Brigitte Lin): a cool, sunglass-wearing operator in the Hong Kong underworld.

Later, a patrolman we know only as Officer 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) frequents the Midnight Express restaurant (a favorite haunt of He Zhiwu’s as well), picking up food for his girlfriend until she leaves him (“Guess I should have stuck with the chef’s salad…”). Faye (Faye Wong), a music-blaring, spontaneous worker at the restaurant soon starts a fascination with 663, and a back-and-forth game of hard-to-get ensues.

It’s apparent in the aforementioned dual-narrative structure of Chunking Express, but Wong continues to examine the ways in which people come to know each other, and in turn, fall in love with one another. The snappy freezeframes of He Zhiwu recalling the first time he bumped into the mysterious blonde, or the gradual familiarity between 663 and Faye all feel like a gushing, playful recollection of unabashed romance by someone looking back fondly on a happy period of their life. Indeed, though it’s contemporarily-set, Chungking Express evokes a sense of nostalgia due to Wong’s use of narration.

Interestingly, the wistful, dreamy romance is often juxtaposed with jagged, choppy slow-motion chronicling the claustrophobic hustle of Hong Kong’s seedier streets. The business dealings of the mysterious blonde, in particular, feature no shortage of drug-smuggling and gunshot wounds, utilizing jump cuts and frenetic camerawork to provide a sensory overload so vibrant that you can almost smell the simmering food and clumps of trash in the alleys. Meanwhile, we later have a scene of 663 playing sensuously with his former lover, a flight attendant (Valerie Chow), set to music and made utterly sexy and romantic by Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s tight frames and tracking shots around the lovers. Chungking Express is almost always on full-blast, visually and sonically, but it can be hitting you with different kinds of intensity simultaneously.

The film’s soundtrack is of particular note, beyond the diegetic melting pot of different languages and sounds echoing through the grimy tiles of Hong Kong’s tunnels, Wong’s use of music is more prominent than ever, particularly in the way he uses music as themes for characters.

A mysterious, dangerous and, to my ears, melancholic refrain plays often during the hopeless ballad between He Zhiwu and the blonde gangster, while 663’s frequent stops by the Midnight Express restaurant are met with the overpowering blast of The Mammas and the Pappas’ “California Dreamin’,” a favorite of Faye’s and a source of comedy throughout the film. The music becomes so positively ingrained with the characters, and we see Wong’s clear love and need for music in his life.

As in Wong’s past films, characters hang on jukeboxes like old friends and take solace in loud, overpowering music. It’s the visceral, subconscious impact that music can have on you that Wong is in love with, I think, and the ways in which his characters respond to music can often corroborate this.

For all of its potential excesses, beneath the visual flourishes and flirtatious, dreamer characters, Chungking Express is a film about empathy. Empathy for your fellow man and woman. Wong Kar-wai embodies a philosophy of inspection of and appreciation for the moment in which you exist: consider the strangers you pass on the street, where they come from and where they hope to go. Understand that maybe the girl working the register at your takeout joint dreams of flying far, far from here, or that, somewhere, someone is just as lonely as you are.

It’s the sense of singular humanity that Chungking Express strives for that makes me tear up because the logic of its optimism (essentially messaging that no matter what you’re going through, there’s someone going through something very similar, and they might be closer than you realize) is skeptic-proof. You’d have to be a real cynic not to agree.Chungking Express

If there’s a lasting impression I think I take away from the essence of Wong’s filmmaking, it’s that even at our most miserable and aimless, we can find something worth taking joy in. It takes a lot for a film to make you think that deeply about life in any context, and certainly, the odds of a filmmaker tapping into that sort of existential musing so cunningly across multiple works is a testament of a true artist. If anyone deserves an ongoing retrospective like this one, Wong Kar-wai is certainly on that list.