Chungking Express 重慶森林 (1994) – Hong Kong
Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 Chungking Express, what with twenty-four frames per second (sometimes doubled), soft film grain, and crisp little rips and shreds of the running celluloid in between cuts, is a magic of cinema history to behold. It tailors its content for the uber film aficionado, creating plots that prove an awareness for the process of making films, letting us in on the sly magic of fictional characters and extravagant stories made of ordinary occurrences, an audience full of spectators and adoring fans right there behind its fourth wall, watching. If you’ve not seen it nor read its long line of praises, especially from Quentin Tarantino, get yourself to the nearest dealer, online or off, and buy this masterpiece. You’ll do us both a favor to know of its stories.
A Fetishist’s Delight
From the lit cigarettes, the pocket change for pay phones, said pay phones, pagers, Mickie-D’s, Coca-Cola paper cups –coffee and soda pop in a sponsor’s kind of a plugin, familiar and refreshing– , and chef’s salads; the one uniform of a cop, jeans and shitty red tie, and another’s, of black slacks and matching black patrol cap; these are the things that tie the scenes, props for hands to play with, to crease, flick and drink, hold the frames, draw us inward. These aspects of film, the details, are for cinephiles what Apple’s computers are to design geeks, sleek and sophisticated, satisfying. It’s fetishism, those tiny ticks of a character or characters conforming to trope and mold, their habits and myopic routine, purposefully included so that we may appreciate and adore, swoon-bait for an audience of the dark, already salivating. You know you love it, those qualities of imagination and movies. You know you do.
Not that this film could be spoiled, per say, the events of a Seinfeldian plainness, at their base dull and uninteresting, I refrain from explaining too much of the plot(s) and detail. What Wong does though, of that drollness, the uninteresting, is elevate it to the clouds of cinema myth, fabricating an extraordinariness with exaggeration of their journeys to reach for the stars, of love and cinematic romance, perfection and meeting timely deadlines, even though we know it just cannot be, not really. That’s important, the awareness for unreality but still going with it. It’s why we love being a spectator so much, so that we may participate in an alternate-reality of make-believe, one perhaps better than a reality here on Earth.
Know that there are two narratives wrapped into one neat package, a smooth handing over of narrative focus in its middle, all revolving around, really, a one street corner, a hole-in-the-wall food hut of sorts serving American rotisserie-style convenience foods, hot and fresh — maybe gyros. The time? It’s right around March and April, close to May of 1994 in Hong Kong, and things are so busy, the characters especially, wanting, urging, for change in their lives.
Qiwu, aka Cop 223, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, is our first to introduce one of the two mini-stories. He is in pursuit of the blonde wig woman, played by Brigitte Lin, also wearing a long tan raincoat, devilishly old-fashioned. Though not in the capacity of law enforcer, undercover agent that he is, Qiwu lingers around for her at a bar, waiting for the stars to align, a desperate love attempt, makeshift, after an already failed one a month prior. It’s his birthday, and he’s expecting. Rather than for love though, he desires just a moment of togetherness, mutual conscientiousness, parallelism. She is a criminal though, and we cannot help but giggle, along for the ride as this lawman drools for what he cannot have. He is talking in neo-noir voice over, a Hong Kong Deckard to an Eastern Blade Runner. Even the film’s score and its accompanying record tracks, bluesy jazz numbers, then mostly motown oldies revitalized for an up-beat cadence, to add movement to an already frenzied shooting (of the first half though only), impressionistic, is all style. Those sounds hint at an internal moodiness, mise en scene with melodramatic, angsty undertones, for Qiwu, even for the disguised woman, dealing with enough already, as you will see.
Then there’s Tony Leung’s character, of Cop 663, and the second narrative. He’s in love with a flight attendant. She likes him, but not nearly enough. He wants her to know he cares, and so he waits, waits at his small apartment, on the job, and at the food hut. But still nothing. There’s a letter that she leaves for him, on a day off it seems, for him to read at the food stand, and he doesn’t want to read it, anticipating quite the downer of relationship messages. A young woman working there, Faye, played by Faye Wong, likes him even more, watching, like us, from a distance. She knows what the letter says, and, because of it, she wants him still. It’s touchey and melodramatic, but, done with such steady awareness, it pulls us in with success.
That’s the gist though, for both of them. See? Not much save for the details which you just have to notice yourself, the crazy glue of aesthetics to hold the pieces together in an artful manner, to understand.
It’s easy to assume those finer details of persons and places isn’t interesting, especially if you’ve not seen it, still. But, you would be wrong.
Characters are so simple, relatable; demonstrated in a writer’s style, a sort of dirt-roots refining — think the hero’s journey (Joseph Campbell); what with three acts and many stages — linearity. They are creatures of habit, with little homeplace worlds all their own, to prepare, to ready themselves to break free and then explore moments in filmic time, to be at a stand still, always young and adorned with makeup and a willing crew. It’s so good.
What else can I say of this film, of the type of person I am to adore it so much? Note: I am not asking because I cannot think of things to write on. No, I ask because my containing my excitements for this film is, now, more of an obsession, hence my referring to film fetishisation, my choice in words also fluffy, like the narratives, too stylized, plain at their base but special (*maybe 🙂 ) because care is within the craft.
My first viewing experience with Chungking Express involved my watching it three times, one after the other, in a row. I’m that type of person, to take advantage of the digital era’s technological upgrades, digital remotes and stuff, if you will. Because I can stop and pause a movie, get up out of my chair, go to the bathroom, get some coffee, and them come back, recharged and refocused, after reflecting on the film, especially the good parts, those that ask for reflection. And, what should take four hours or so, watching a one film of about an hour-and-a-half’s duration (remember: I watched it three times) the process consumes some seven or more. I’m that type of person, to watch a good scene over and over and over again, stop it, and then chew a little bit more; to savor it.
–sigh– I can only recommend it so much. Watch it. Notice the colors, the props and other objects that the frames include, details, small and large. The motion too, notice that, as characters and their backgrounds are divided and toyed with, especially the references and playing of time, sometimes leading us to believe the few lead characters are different, infinite even, to the rest of the world, filmic and not. We’re not talking of a Goddard mix-and-match-iness here. It’s just different, and I love it. I hope you do too. (:D)