Friday 30 January 2009

A film without an expiration date

Chung Hing sam lam [Chungking Express] (1994), directed by Kar Wai Wong

Watched just once, Wong Kar Wei’s 1994 film Chungking Express is almost incomprehensible. The viewer is too concerned with finding their way through the multitude of plot lines to really pay attention to the film as a whole. But on a second viewing it all becomes clear. Or rather, one understands that it is meant to be unclear; that linear narrative is not the point; and that what Wong has sought to do (and has achieved in remarkable fashion) is create a film in which character, image and instinct are all important.

Chungking Express follows the exploits of two Hong Kong policemen, each of whom is mourning a broken-down relationship. Aside from a brief moment at Midnight Express, the late-night snack bar both men frequent, they do not meet and their plots do not cross.

He Zhiwu, aka Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), lives only by night. He is counting down the days and hours until his 25th birthday, which will also mark one month from when his girlfriend left him. When this day comes, he will know the relationship is over; until then he waits for her call. He is clownish in his despair, maudlin even when sober; every time he checks his messages he must utter the password, ‘Love you a million years’, and remind himself of his romantic failure.

The heroine of Zhiwu’s plot is nameless, identified in the credits only as ‘Woman in blonde wig’ (Brigitte Lin). She is a drug runner seeking revenge after being betrayed by her contact over a large-scale drug deal. Her relationship with Cop 223 is fleeting and non-sexual, but their encounter has a profound effect on him.

Wong tells this story at a pace that veers between frenetic and languorous. His hand-held camera chases Zhiwu as he pursues criminals, and Lin’s character as she flees from them. Once they stop running, however, Wong uses long, still, seemingly never-ending shots that challenge a viewer by now familiar with the frenzied storytelling of the opening scenes. The accompanying soundtrack is chaotic, an audio representation of the different cultural groups occupying Chungking Mansions, the sleazy settlement where Cop 223 and the blonde each operate.

While Zhiwu is a fully formed character, a young man battling his loneliness and fear for the future, the blonde is no more than a symbol. Because she gives nothing of her actual self away, the men she interacts with can project onto her whatever they want to see. For the white owner of the bar she frequents, she is an object of lust; his native girlfriend dons an identical wig to mimic her Westernised allure. For Zhiwu she is a woman in need of emotional support: he incorrectly attributes her decision to wear sunglasses indoors to the fact that she has been crying over a break-up of her own. The stereotype that Lin has stepped into for this role highlights the depth of character and human fragility of Chungking Express’s other protagonists.

Once Zhiwu’s story ends, the unnamed Cop 633’s (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) begins. He too has relationship troubles, having been dumped by his flight attendant girlfriend. While he whiles away his time projecting his sadness onto inanimate objects, Faye (Faye Wong), the new girl at Midnight Express, who has fallen in love with him at first sight, breaks into his flat and ‘improves’ his living situation in an attempt to mend his broken heart. Sexy but unaccountably vulnerable, Faye Wong is captivating to watch and despite the character’s oddities – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain [Amelie] (2001) is surely a homage to Faye – one finds oneself willing her and Cop 633 to get together.

Quirky and even farcical in places, this plot is much easier viewing than the first half of the film and takes place almost entirely in the daytime. The action is slower because more time is given over to developing the relationship between Cop 633 and Faye, although use of the hand-held camera continues. We see more cleverly conceived shots being employed, such as the use of slow motion in the background of a shot and fast motion in the foreground to create a sense of the passage of time. While the Zhiwu/blonde pairing is superficial and one-sided, Cop 633 and Faye really engage with each other, even if the start of their relationship is unorthodox.

Despite these differences – in some respects watching the two halves of Chungking Express feels like watching two entirely separate films – Wong has commented that the film’s two stories are essentially the same. Motifs and images are repeated, binding the plots together. Distance, time and missed opportunities are recurring themes. Zhiwu introduces his own and Cop 633’s stories with the same verbal equation, locating the protagonists in time and space: ‘At the high point of our intimacy, we were just 0.01cm from each other. I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man’. Cop 633’s relationship with the flight attendant is not resurrected because he does not read her letter, and the message she leaves on his voicemail is erased. A lonely Zhiwu finally decides to ask a girl out on a date, but by the time he gets round to it she has left with someone else.

The most enduring motif of the film is the expiration date. Each day Zhiwu buys a can of pineapples that will expire on the one-month anniversary of the end of his relationship. Even if his relationship has expired by the end of the month, the pineapples do not: he eats every single can, making himself very sick in the process. The fantasy relationship he embarks on with the blonde however will never finish; he swears to remember her all his life. The point Wong is making here is that even if relationships themselves expire their effects do not. The same is true for Faye and Cop 663: they alter each other’s lives just by having met; they may have a future together after the end of the film, they may not, but each has been profoundly affected by the encounter. Wong Kar Wei couldn’t have known how huge a success Chungking Express would be when he made it; his film however affects its viewers like his protagonists affect each other; Chungking Express is a film without an expiration date.


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