“At our closest point, we were just .01cm apart. 55 hours later I was in love with this woman.”
Wong-Kar Wai’s Chungking Express proved to be his breakthrough movie internationally. Kar-Wai’s previous film, the elliptical Days of Being Wild (1991) won him acclaim, but was a box-office failure. Chungking Express contains certain genre elements; a femme fatale, a cop, a drug dealer, but Kar-Wai is more concerned with romantic longing.
Filmed in and around the Chungking Mansions, a huge residential building in Hong Kong that also contains bars and fast food joints and serves as a meeting point for the city’s ethnic minorities, Chungking Express tells two stories, both about cops and their love lives. Cop No 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) becomes infatuated with a mysterious blonde haired woman (Brigitte Lin) he nearly bumps into when chasing a criminal. Cop No 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) begins a flirtation with an eccentric fast food worker (Faye Wong).
Wong Kar-Wai made Chungking Express while taking time out from his martial arts epic Ashes of Time (1994), a troubled production which went over budget. Chungking Express is the antithesis of the expensive and elaborate Ashes of Time. Together with his cinematographer Christopher Doyle Kar-Wai shot Chungking Express fast and on location. This seemingly improvised style of filmmaking recalls the French New Wave. Doyle makes extraordinary use of artificial lighting in the cramped interiors of the Chungking Mansions.
Wong Kar-Wai gives a sense of time moving on, with shots of clocks changing throughout the film, and occasionally speeding up the film so passers by move rapidly past his protagonists suggesting they are out of step with everybody else. The first segment sees Cop No 223 ruminating in voiceover about the break-up of his relationship, loneliness, and the possibility of finding love while he is still young. The first story is noticeably shorter than the second, which makes sense given Kar-Wai intended Chungking Express to be a three part movie.Kar-Wai would eventually film this final storyline as the full-length feature Fallen Angels the following year.
As entertaining as the first story is it pales in comparison to the second as Faye (Wong) falls for Cop No 663. Bizarrely, her attraction leads her to break into his flat at every opportunity and to become increasingly hard to get. The boyish figured, wide-eyed Wong is astonishing. It may be that Kar-Wai felt he might as well shelve the third part and concentrate on Wong and her will they/won’t they/what is she doing? jousting with Tony Leung’s bewildered beat cop.
Funny, affecting, and rapturous, Chungking Express is the perfect starting point for those unfamiliar with Wong Kar-Wai’s work. Despite being about urban loneliness and heartbreak the film is directed with a lightness of touch that offsets the melancholy. It aches with the possibility that something magical might just be waiting around the corner.