by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Chungking Express | Wong Kar-wai

March 26, 2020

“I didn’t know you never wake up from some dreams.” says Officer 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), one of many lovelorn characters in Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 cult classic Chungking Express. Shot in less than a month on handheld cameras, it was meant to be something of a palate cleanser as the director worked on his wuxia epic, Ashes of Time. The result is a playful romance, told in two sections, starring two young cops living in wildly different but overlapping versions of pre-handover Hong Kong. In the first, shorter section, Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a young and idealistic cop, is heartbroken over an April 1 breakup he first assumed was a joke. He spends the month buying cans of pineapple with a May 1 expiration date, exasperating shop clerks with his requests for outdated goods. Think of how the pineapple feels! Qiwu exclaims, one of many instances of lonely men identifying with inanimate objects. A cynic would find his sincerity cloying, but there’s something sweetly poignant to his anxiety around memories and feelings carrying a sell-by date. Eventually, he crosses paths with a blonde-wigged femme fatale (Brigitte Lin) who happens to be a ruthless drug smuggler. His earnest puppy-dog demeanor is straight out of a more conventional rom-com and completely at odds with her brusque approach to the world and the people in it. Yet, on their one night together, as she sleeps sideways on the hotel bed and he stays up alone to eat cheeseburgers and watch old movies, they seem like they’ve been together for years. 

A cynic would find his sincerity cloying, but there’s something sweetly poignant to his anxiety around memories and feelings carrying a sell-by date.

Set in Hong Kong’s bustling Central district, the movie’s second portion shifts gears completely. Qiwu and his counterpart, Officer 663, don’t seem to have much in common: Qiwu is never in uniform while 663 is almost always on duty, and Qiwu’s section takes place almost entirely at night, while many of 663’s scenes are saturated in bright, electric sunshine. But they share the same nondescript food stand, the Midnight Express, and it’s there that we’re introduced to the impish, ungainly Faye, played with inelegant aplomb by pop star Faye Wong. This second section revolves around Faye’s attempts to win 663’s affections as he pines for his stewardess ex-girlfriend, who leaves a note with a pair of keys at the snack bar. It’s not much of a plot, but Wong and his actors suffuse the storyline with such immense warmth and big-hearted tenderness that it’s almost impossible to resist. Wong and longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle capture some of the most charming breaking-and-entering footage in recent memory, infusing 663’s cramped apartment in the Chungking Mansions complex with whimsical vigor as Faye replaces his shredded dish towels and swaps his canned food labels. The film’s standout scene, set to Faye Wong’s Cantonese rendition of The Cranberries’ instantly recognizable hit “Dreams”, is a delightful homage to the kind of all-consuming feelings mostly reserved for teen comedies: the adrenaline rush of seeing your crush unexpectedly, or the butterflies that flutter when you lean in for a first kiss. 

Wong has said that he had no choice but to go handheld for this movie, as there is no space in Hong Kong for fixed cameras. It’s true: characters are constantly on the move, jostling one another or caught red-handed, and the camera adroitly captures this frantic, pent-up energy. Characters glide in and out of each other’s lives, creep in and out of each other’s homes, and find strange new ways to co-exist or disappear. The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin” plays with almost maddening frequency, but California as a place a refuge of sunshine and leisure proves elusive. Meanwhile, 663’s apartment is adjacent to one of Hong Kong’s many architectural quirks: the Central–Mid-Levels escalator, the longest covered outdoor escalator in the world. Of all the hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers that continually pass him by, it turns out Faye is the only one who can take him where he wants to go.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.