Wong Kar-wai’s international breakthrough from 1994 screens in a new 4K restoration at UW Cinematheque on April 16.
Wong Kar-wai’s seminal Chungking Express (1994) feels as dizzying as young adulthood, a stage of erratic shifts between the euphorias and sorrows of reality. Countless directors, authors, playwrights, and painters have tried to capture the anguish of one’s twenties, but none quite accomplish what Wong does in his poetic unraveling of Hong Kong’s ’90s markets, repurposed residential complexes, bars, and late-night snack stands.
Related by that common geopolitical backdrop, Chungking Express, screening at UW Cinematheque on April 16 at 7 p.m., depicts the effects of unrequited love on two policemen, Cop 223 (Kaneshiro Takeshi) and Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai). Cop 223, or He Qiwu, laments being dumped by his girlfriend May in comedic tirades about memories, pain, and pineapples. Cop 663 finds himself enduring debilitating loneliness and talking to household objects when his girlfriend, a flight attendant, suddenly breaks things off and resurfaces in a new relationship. Both eventually begin to feel the stirrings of romance again toward the end of their stories—Cop 223 with a nameless woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) who’s a mysterious drug dealer, and Cop 663 with Faye, an eccentric food service worker (Faye Wong).
The narrative structure exploring the two men’s lives is unusually compartmentalized, divided in such a manner that creates the impression one is watching two short films rather than a single, cohesive feature. The first portion, focusing on Cop 223, could be defined as a crime-comedy film. In the dizzying opening scenes, Cop 223 races through underground Hong Kong to chase a criminal, and ultimately attaches himself to a female smuggler, oblivious to her conflicting occupation. When Cop 663 becomes the protagonist in the second part, a sudden flip turns the film into a romantic comedy, with all of the genre’s quirky, blush-worthy mishaps.
Initially, the switch is jarring, but it showcases Wong’s firm grasp on the art of filmmaking. He has mastered the rules to break them. Wong simultaneously separates and conjoins the seemingly “incompatible” genres of Chungking Express. In the larger lexicon of his career, too, the film stands as a clear directional marker. As Amy Taubin notes in her “Electric Youth” essay for the Criterion Collection, Chungking Express‘ “first story harks back to the genre action elements of Wong’s first feature, As Tears Go By (1988), while the second section prefigures the romantic yearnings of [Wong’s] later films.” Transcending the past and the future, viewers witness firsthand the artistic transformation of a creator who would go on to gain international recognition as an auteur.
However, the two halves of the film are undoubtedly interconnected, both visually and philosophically. On its most basic level, the universality of an unrequited love experience thoroughly ties it together. The narration and monologues of both Cop 223 and 663 brilliantly portray the nonsensical reflections of someone dealing with heartbreak. Cop 223 buys pineapples that expire on May 1; once they go bad, he’ll officially give up on getting his girlfriend back. He proceeds to eat all 30 cans in one sitting. Cop 663 also turns to material items, but instead personifies the cleaning supplies and stuffed animals his ex left behind; he comforts a wet towel as it “cries” and comments on a used bar of soap’s “weight loss.” The mind copes in the ways it can, even when outsiders see melodrama and panicked reasoning. Wong’s writing perfectly encapsulates the peculiar circumstances.
Of course, the physical sensations of such an event are transmitted through Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. Chungking Express itself could fill a film studies textbook, given its extensive use of a variety of techniques easily recognizable to audiences. Doyle follows the action with a handheld camera, creating an unsteadiness that mimics the reality of Cop 223’s and Cop 663’s headspace. Additionally, frequent blurring, freeze frames, and auditory match-cuts viscerally translate physiological rushes of adrenaline and emotion. By effectively using such foundational aspects of filmmaking, Chungking Express becomes all-inclusive and sweeping, a piece of art that many will see themselves in.
With his directorial decision to simultaneously disobey and obey the prescribed rules of filmmaking, Wong forcefully staked himself into the foundations of the cinematic canon. Though the first section’s protagonist spends his on-screen time musing about the various expiration dates of life, Chungking Express is a film that will never have one.