Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.
Today’s movie actually was more an accident than anything. I watch a decent amount of movies I don’t write about (if for some morbid reason you actually care about what I’m watching, I do keep a list both here and here) to fill in some of my cinematic gaps and just because … you know, I really love watching movies. So I had randomly watched In The Mood For Love (which is also a Criterion film, but I somehow totally forgot that at the time) and decided I wanted to see more Wong Kar-wai films. Dropping this one in my netflix queue, it arrives only for me to realize that it’s more than just a ‘for fun’ movie, it’s potential article fodder.
I wouldn’t necessarily run to include it, though, as I try to plan the Criterion choices a little more deliberately than that. That said, while watching today’s movie, I couldn’t help but think that I had plenty to say about it, and while I was idly thinking about flipping the table on my plans for director projects so I could somehow sneak Wong Kar-wai in, I realized I already had the perfect platform for talking about this movie. Let me tell you, that saves me a lot of extra work (for now, anyway) in planning a whole feature for one movie, though I’ve done more reckless things. And because I’ve totally driven this intro into the ground, let’s get right to the movie in question.
Chungking Express (1994)
Talking about Chungking Express requires me to disrupt the way I normally talk about movies, which involves a fairly linear plot synopsis for those of you who want some context without having seen the movie. That’s barely possible because Chungking Express is two stories, played one after the other, that are essentially the same story. I could talk about them in order, but it’s far more vital to the themes that I talk about them together, layering them on top of one another as Wong Kar-wai undoubtedly intends the audience to do in their memory after experiencing the heady, genre-defying narrative that plays out for us twice.
Set in Hong Kong, Chungking is the story of two lovesick cops. The first, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is despirate to reconnect with the girlfriend who broke up with him on April 1st, and he insists that he can win her back by his birthday on May 1st or he’ll stop trying and move on. The second concerns Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who pines for a flight attendant who he deeply loved but one day walked out never to return. Cop 223 deals with this by buying a can of pineapple, his ex’s favorite, with a May 1 expiration date each day to mark the passage of time. Cop 663, less inclined to whimsy, spends most of his time loitering around the food stand where he orders two of the same thing every night, in case his beloved comes back.
In Cop 223’s case this story takes on a parallel tale as he continually drifts towards the path of a mysterious, unnamed woman in a blonde wig and sunglasses (played by Brigitte Lin), a smuggler who is trying to escape the fallout of a bad deal and take revenge on the man who set her up. It starts out, in fact, with the story of this woman; the early parts of the movie are entrenched in the tropes of the gangster dramas that often drive tales of youth and loneliness and destructive desperation. On the reverse, Cop 663 catches the eye of the free-spirited Faye (Faye Wong) who takes it upon herself to reform his sadsack life by breaking into his apartment and brightening it up while he’s not there, slowly checking in on him in person to chart her progress. This side of the movie plays in its own genre, a riff on 30s/40s Hollywood screwball comedies, with a lightness of tone and a carefree disregard for the bleakness of the rest of the film that keeps encroaching upon the sides.
What’s really amazing about these two genres is how well they work when mashed together, and that’s entirely due to Wong Kar-wai’s deftness and understanding of these young people and their warring desires for connection and freedom. They live in a world of almost limitless possibilities, one of the most modern cities in the world, yet they’re deeply alienated and unhappy; the reality is that even in a city with millions of people his characters prove that someone can still feel alone. And in many ways it’s a specter of the world around them: Chungking Express is as much a movie about the chaos and culture clash of 90s Hong Kong, and though it’s never mentioned (because it’s never mentioned) by any character, the looming fate of being returned to Chinese control hangs over the entire landscape. These characters have the limitless potential of youth, but for how long? Cast in that light, the various degrees of ennui expressed by the characters seems absolutely justified.
Eventually on the eve of his birthday and the end of his quest Cop 223 finds himself in a bar with the mysterious woman as she hits rock bottom. Deciding to chat her up, he slowly gets her to give him the time of day until the two of them settle into something between a courtship and the comfort of strangers. She admits that she’s exhausted, and he takes her to a hotel room, where she promptly falls asleep. Cop 223, being a stand up guy, lets her sleep, taking off her well worn high heels and cleaning them for her before sneaking out in the early morning. That one act of kindness, as she wakes up to go get her revenge (something that might potentially lead to her death, and certainly take her well outside of the scope of the story) touches her, and she calls his pager to wish him a happy birthday, the one act of kindness he needed to let go of the past and move on. He shows up at his favorite food stand, and the proprietor tries to get him to fall for the new girl named Faye.
It’s here that the baton is passed to the two stories, and we already have an idea of how Faye’s story goes. Faye herself is a wild spirit, spending most of her time without a care in the world, listening to too-loud music. But Cop 663 is enough to shake her out of her complacency, and her efforts to cheer him up finally give her a tie to somebody that she seeming had never had before. As the two of them grow closer, Cop 663 begins to open up and heal, and on the night that he finally screws up the courage to ask her out, she stands him up to fly to California in an attempt to see the world, pulling back just when he finally reaches out, the eternal frustration of people too saddled with their own baggage to submit to happiness predicated on a reliance on others.
But what matters here, the thing that makes the movie greater than the sum of its already-great parts, is how those two stories are layers on top of one another. The crime noir stuff and the screwball romcom stuff manage to create a balanced yin and yang around which centers a very human, very relatable story. And it all works as a whole, sometimes sacrificing feeling consistent in the moment in order to create the right extremes in memory. Chungking Expressis the rare movie that’s constructed to come into its full bloom only after you’ve watched it, when you have the whole of it in your mind and can fold the mirror images on top of each other, watching how carefully they compliment with a controlled duplication of intent through wildly disparate means.
It’s that sameness of result, the happiness of moving on but the frustration of never quite getting the happy ending, that became a calling cart of Wong Kar-wai’s later romantic work, but here it’s in its purest and most wild form. Chungking Express, shot quick for very little money while he struggled with a larger action film he was making, has the wild abandon of guerrila film-making but the restraint of an artist who would otherwise never indulge in such a thing. It’s a heady mix, leaving to a movie that’s confident to let its tone slip from one extreme to another so long as the themes are constant. More than any other director, Kar-wai’s work captures that for all of the conveniences of modern life, the true struggles of being a human trying to relate to other humans are always and forever.