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Every so often a filmmaker finds himself needing to make a movie quickly, with the issue of what movie to make being a secondary concern. Using a hiatus in the filming of a larger epic, Wong Kar-Wai came up with his 1994 Chungking Express, script to finished film, in a matter of only a few weeks. The resulting hit movie is as loosely structured as something from the French New Wave. Wong Kar-Wai unapologetically changes styles partway through, and he doesn't worry about tidy resolutions or making a serious moral case.
What distinguishes Chungking Express is its freshness and honesty. It seems a snapshot of a particular time and place, in this case a certain shopping bazaar in Hong Kong, a few years before the colony reverted to Mainland Chinese control. The scope is no wider than the interior states of a couple of quietly lovesick Hong Kong cops who frequent a take-out food court. The story, such as it is, is divided into uneven halves. Part one begins in the style of a crime thriller, with a mystery blonde in a raincoat and dark glasses (top-billed Brigitte Lin) prepping to smuggle a shipment of drugs. When she runs through the market packing a pistol, the footage is step-printed to create a jerky, artsy effect.
In just a few minutes the shaky-vision effect is mostly gone. Just as the mystery blonde catches up with some double-crossers, our attention shifts to a beat-walking Hong Kong policeman, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Qiwu interacts briefly with the mystery blonde, unaware that arresting her would probably make his career. Then he goes back to obsessing over his previous girlfriend, and narrating his melancholy thoughts on the subject. Qiwu rings up old flames, without success. He jogs to excess, telling himself that if he sweats enough, he won't have enough water in his body for tears.
The friendly owner-manager of the food stall "Midnight Express" (Piggy Chan Kam Chuen) calls He Qiwu by his police ID number 223. The older man doubles as a casual matchmaker, but Qiwu balks at dating the food stand's new hostess, and she gets away from him too. "You have to act more quickly than that," scolds the take-out manager. To be free of his obsession, 223 buys a can of pineapples, his lost girlfriend's favorite food, every day for a month. If canned pineapples have expiration dates, he reasons, romance must have an expiration date as well. He scours the grocery bins for cans with stamped dates all in the same month.
The unhappy 223 shakes himself free of the blues when he runs into the mystery blonde in a bar. She resists his advances but her hardboiled attitude fascinates him. The woman gets stone drunk and Qiwu carries her back to his apartment to sleep it off. The experience functions as therapy for both of them.
Chungking Express abruptly shifts to the love life of a second street cop who also can't make lasting contact with the opposite sex. Cop 663 (star Tony Leung) talks to inanimate objects around his apartment. He asks the washcloth why it isn't as absorbent as it used to be, and tells a bar of soap that it's losing weight and should take better care of itself. 663 walks his beat in the market district and becomes another frequent customer of the Midnight Express. There he meets Faye (Faye Wong), the stand's new late night hostess, who entertains herself by playing The Mamas and the Papas' California Dreamin' incessantly. Faye shoots coy looks in 663's direction and waits for a first move that never comes.
663 has a brief affair with an airline hostess but almost immediately loses interest, a development that he translates into his inner poetry: "I thought we'd stay together for the long haul, flying like a jumbo jet on a full tank. But we changed course." Faye learns about the stewardess but has an odd way of getting 663's attention -- she breaks into his apartment to find out what he's like. Faye spends her afternoons rearranging things, playing with stuffed animals (adding one of her own) and in general indulging in an infantile fantasy ... until 663 comes home early one day.
Chungking Express's structure is as loose as an untied shoelace, but its romantic through-line is clear and direct. We scan the pair's faces for clues and are rewarded by Faye's child-like reactions and 663's plaintive narration. The unusual story finds its way to an ambiguous but satisfying ending when Faye turns out to be doing some 'California Dreamin' of her own, and suddenly disappears from 663's life. That leads to a love lesson about absence and hearts growing fonder. Chungking Express is a comedy in a "subdued screwball" style, an offbeat, hesitant tale full of heart and humor.
Chungking Express is one of the first Criterion Collection titles to be offered in simultaneous DVD and Blu-ray versions. The HD transfer simply glows. Christopher Doyle's precise and expressive cinematography is an excellent example of on-the-fly work well suited to a director's vision. Our focus is directed to the character details over visual motifs or pictorial affectations. The movie was an international art house hit, and released in the U.S. under Quentin Tarantino's distribution banner, Rolling Thunder. A hip soundtrack helped make it a date movie for progressive film lovers.
Director Wong Kar-Wai has supervised a 5.1 soundtrack mix. Tony Rayns' audio commentary illuminates the director's career as well as that of the movie's four stars. A 1996 TV program interviews Kar-Wai and cameraman Doyle in the film's Hong Kong market location. Doyle's own flat was used for 633's bachelor apartment; the movie was so popular in Japan that tourists blocked Doyle's door, asking to take pictures with him. Miramax's trailer is also included; it sells the film as an action thriller.
Criterion disc producer Curtis Tsui enlists critic Amy Taubin for an insert essay, Electric Youth. Taubin relates Chungking Express to the local tension around the impending reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese territory. She also suggests an interesting parallel between Wong Kar-Wai's film and Howard Hawks' screwball classic Bringing Up Baby.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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