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New Asian cinema meets the French new wave.
on 4 March 2006
Chungking Express is a film about time and coincidence... a continuation of the themes and images developed in the director's first masterpiece, Days Of Being Wild, and a precursor to the ideas and cinematic ideologies that will carry through to his greatest films, In The Mood For Love, and 2046. Unlike those two projects, which seem completely internal in the way in which they blur the emotional points-of-view of their characters - by slipping between the various narrative layers - the basic set-up here is simple... two Hong Kong cops, consumed by melancholic romanticism, wander through a labyrinthine city like Ghosts, haunted by their individual, though ultimately quite similar memories of lost love. Their paths cross on two separate occasions, but never intervene. Instead, the two stories are presented separately, one after the other, with each story presenting various echoes of a theme that ripples throughout.
The style of the film is very much indebted to the style of the French New Wave of the early 1960's, with Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle making great use of the available lighting and mobile, handheld cameras, to capture the action in a very fast, very kinetic kind of style. Thus, those only familiar with Wong's more recent films (which benefit from larger budgets and longer periods of production) might be surprised at how ramshackle and idiosyncratic this earlier work is... with Wong pretty much devising the whole film during a break in post-production on his epic historical piece, Ashes of Time, and apparently writing most of the scenes in the afternoons, then hitting the streets to film them that same night. As a result, the film moves at a breakneck pace and never once pauses to analyse it's inaccuracies or indeed, inconsistencies, which, at the end of the day, isn't really a problem... instead, like Godard, it's all part of the film's charm.
The first story of the two is probably the most exciting... tipping it's hat to Godard's À bout de souffle and Cassavetes's Gloria, with it's story of a lovesick cop trying to come to terms with a recent break-up, whilst simultaneously falling in love with a heartless hit-woman. Like most of the film, but more so than the second story, this segment never stops to take a breath, instead, we are continually propelled into the dingy underworld of the Chungking Mansions, with Wong and Doyle's camera (all hand-held intimacy and stroboscopic distortion) bobbing and weaving through crowds of people; snaking it's way around a labyrinth of market places, airport terminals and back street bars; and offering up a never-ending kaleidoscope of colours, speeds, movements, actions, and bursts of garish violence. The story hinges around a chance meeting - the use of the clock is an important visual reference point and the central character's obsession with tinned pineapples with an expiration date of May 1st - though it's easy to miss this within the melange of action, violence, and moody noir.
The second segment still has a fairly fast pace, but seems more relaxed and intimate in comparison to the first, with that great theme of Wong's - unrequited love - being established in the bizarre (though utterly charming) relationship between a recently heart-broken cop and the counter girl and the local Midnight Express take-away. This segment is much more playful than the first, with a nice integration of character, and a lighter tone, which is perhaps why most people consider it the most memorable segment of the two. For me, there are enough similarities and stark coincidences linking the two segments to make them work, with Wong as a director showing us his ability to switch from something as claustrophobic and action-packed as segment one, to the relaxed, charming, almost-comedic tone of the second. There's still the Godardian influence, only here it's more Une Femme Est Une Femme than À bout de souffle, whilst the use of music (trading the cool European synthesisers and multi-cultural mish-mash of sounds, in favour of the bouncing pop of the Mammas and the Pappas and a Cantonese cover of the Cranberries song, Dreams) helps to make the whole thing that little bit more enjoyable.
Overall, Chungking Express is a likable, frantic and somewhat off-the-wall (though I hate to use that expression) combination of noir-references, new-wave romance, and an experiment into the way that cinematic narrative can be developed... all captured with beautiful, stylistic flair by Kar-Wai and Chris Doyle. The performances from the four main leads are all exceptional, with Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung-Chiu Wai essaying the two love-struck cops, while Cantonese pop-star Faye Wong and the beautiful, bewigged, Brigitte Lin, portray the respective objects of their affections. Like the film it's self, the characters all have a charm and individuality about them, hinting at a deeper character with depth and back-story, even if we don't necessarily get to see the whole picture. Again, this is another trademark of Wong's... as the film really amounts to an accumulation of scenes, characters and moments that can be picked-over by the viewer and discussed until some greater sense of meaning becomes clear.
The ending of the film refuses to pander to the conventions of traditional Hollywood filmmaking and is all the better for it, with Wong instead further illustrating his theme of coincidence and dislocation - with the allusion to California, replayed by a character sitting in a bar called California - really highlighting the central notion of two entities existing at the same time, without any kind of awareness. Certainly, with its brisk-pace, seesawing plot and likable characters, this could be called the most accessible Wong Kar-Wai film - perhaps the best place to start for those new to his work - but of course, beneath all the new-wave references and self-consciously chic scenarios, this is still a pretty deep film about the nature of time, regret, memory, love, loneliness and, of course, the need to belong.