'If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years ...' Thus Chunking Express announces itself as concerned with both the mundane (processed food expiry dates) and the numinous (time and memory). Chungking Express is a mixture of the shiningly real world of objects and the (childish) wonder of love young enough to ache but old enough to add a little world-weary style. It is fast, hip and very, very cool. Hardly surprising then that Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder company acquired this for US release, and many critics applauded its postmodern approach and stylistics.
Wong Kar-wai was born in Shanghai, mainland China, in 1958. His family moved to Hong Kong in the early 1960s. In 1980 he graduated in Hong Kong as a graphic designer. He began a career in television production, graduating to 'AD' on a host of low-budget and low-quality series, while working on his own screenplays. Building on his production and writing experience Wong Kar-wai has scripted as well as directed his features. However, possibly in reaction to the tight restrictions of television, his cinema work has been characterised by a formal freedom based not least on the lack of any detailed screenplay.
In 1988 he directed his first film As Tears Go By. There are clear parallels in the subject matter and energetic visual style (as well as existential levels of violence) with Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. However, like Scorsese's film, the milieu and visual world of the movie are unique (and uniquely Wong Kar-wai's).
The film was a huge hit in Taiwan and allowed Wong Kar-wai to collect together the young and smart actors of the 'new' Hong Kong cinema and make Days of Being Wild (1990) - a prime example of what David Bordwell has memorably dubbed 'avant-pop' cinema.
Wong Kar-wai is certainly a product of the (government-sponsored) production boom of the late 1980s and of the 'end of Empire' feeling of 1990s Hong Kong. Nonetheless he has his own visual signature (undoubtedly contributed to by the work of his cinematographer Christopher Doyle). He also has his iconographic actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai. His recurring themes are memory, rootlessness and the significance of random situations. He often makes use of repetition as a plot and visually arresting device. It is no exaggeration to see Wong as the Chinese Nicolas Roeg (who also enjoys playing with the icons and iconography of popular culture including Jagger, Bowie and Garfunkel). Of course Wong Kar-wai's films leave a rather sweeter aftertaste than the British master of the disjointed and diffracted.
Wong Kar-wai's style and choice of content could so easily slip into postmodern shallowness. But despite/because of its tangential approach, Chungking Express actually reveals insights into something (even if that something is rather shallow in itself). It is about the very meaninglessness of the 'postmodern'. It is about the end of history and it is about the end of hyper-capitalist Hong Kong, about to be handed back to be ruled from the 'Communist' mainland (Wong Kar-wai's next film - 2048 - deals with a future Hong Kong after 50 years of Communist rule).
Chunking Express is 'about' two love-struck cops and their obscure objects of desire. One female icon is a heroin dealer in deep trouble with her bosses after the cargo disappears, the other a seriously weird waitress who inadvertently gets hold of the keys to her admirer's apartment and reorders his life for him. Chunking Express is also 'about' moving pictures. It is impressionistic, constructed of splashes of motion, colour and sound.
The stories do not combine in any traditional sense. Indeed one follows the other but they do chime and rhyme with each other. The first story centres on Cop 223, who has broken up with his girlfriend of five years. He purchases a tin of pineapples with an expiry date of 1 May each day for a month. By the end of that time, he feels that he will either be rejoined with his love or that it too will have expired forever. The second story is of Cop 663 dealing with his break-up with his flight attendant girlfriend. He talks to his apartment furnishings until he meets a new girl at a fast food restaurant ('The Midnight Express').
The film's claim to postmodern status (even pre-eminence) has not been made by the director. He just called it a 'road movie', admitting it was made quickly from fragments of ideas while production of Fallen Angels was stalled. Nonetheless, possibly because of the production circumstances, there are clearly elements within the film that speak of the dreaded 'po-mo'. Most notably there is the use of insouciant bricollage in the structure, design - indeed in the diegesis - of the film. The sense of real/unreal and the any thing-goes atmosphere is heightened in a Scorsesean manner by popular culture cross-referencing especially in the soundtrack. Chungking Express utilises Hong Kong versions of Western pop music: 'Dream Person' (a cover of
'Dreams' by the Cranberries) and 'Know Oneself and Each Other' (a cover of 'Know who You Are at Every Age' by the Cocteau Twins). The singer on these cover versions is Faye Wong. Chungking Express was Ms Wong's first foray into screen acting. Thus - in a postmodern coup - she is on the screen as 'Faye' whilst accompanying the action on the soundtrack. The musical driving force of the film is 'California Dreamin" by the 1960s American band the Mamas and the Papas. The choice of song not only comments on and adds energy to the story; it also hints at the desirability and all-pervasiveness of American pop culture.
Chungking Express has been followed by Happy Together (1997) -lauded at Cannes - and Fallen Angels (1998). Wong Kar-wai's style has continued to develop and mature - as has his profile as darling of the critics - with the release of the masterful, achingly bitter-sweet In the Mood for Love (2000). The film reaches new heights in the juxtaposition of unbearable emotional restraint and sumptuous visual élan - all power to cinema as an international language.
Some Things to Think about and Consider
• Does Wong Kar-wai's style betray his TV background? Is it possible to see his 1990s work as a series of 90-minute soap operas?
• In what ways did Wong Kar-wai's visual style change when he moved away from action thrillers?
• 'For those of us not semiotically attuned, it is like looking at one of those 3-D pictures and seeing only two dimensions' (Fonoroff review in 1994). (How) could you convince Fonoroff of the other dimension to Chungking Express? A hint - David Bordwell finishes Planet Hong Kong (2000) thus: 'Deeply indebted to popular tradition, committed to a conception of light cinema, his confection nourishes all filmmakers who dream of movies that are at once experimental and irresistibly enjoyable' (p. 289).
• 'Experimental' and 'enjoyable' are all well and good -should 'key film texts' be 'light'?
• Are Hong Kong and Taiwanese films really contributing something new to the world of moving pictures?
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