Chungking Express

“Does love come with an expiry date?” asks Cop 223, one of the characters in Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, while he eats from an expired can of pineapples and waits for his girlfriend – who has left him – to come back. It is one of the many charming, quirky moments in Chungking Express, a film that is a celebration of the highs and lows of urban life.

Marked by rapid camera movements, bright lights, quick sexual encounters, and an assortment of background music from all over the world, Chungking Express shows us a slice of life of characters that modernity often produces – persons without a trace of family, lonely, living alone, and often helpless in the face of their emotions which they express in whimsical ways. All this is told with loving humour, as if the director himself is intoxicated by the mood of the city, and is paying a tribute to it.

In another moment of strange humour, Cop 223, in his 20s, trying to cope with the loss of his girlfriend, says to himself, “we are all unlucky in love sometimes. When I am, I go jogging. The body loses so much water that there is none left for tears.” While the film moves forward, one realises that the director is not really concerned about the story, of which there is very little, but about the daily lives of its characters. The film is about their journeys, not their destinations.

While Cop 223 is busy eating pineapples out of expired cans, hoping for his girlfriend to return, he runs into a Chinese woman who wears a blonde wig, dark glasses and a raincoat. She is a gangster who has just been involved in smuggling drugs through South Asian immigrants. We hear her saying to herself: “Somehow I’ve become very cautious. When I put on a raincoat, I put on sunglasses too. Who knows when it will rain, or when it will turn out sunny?”


The stories of Cop 223 and the woman in a blonde wig are shot with a restless hand-held camera that shakes, races and swerves, as the mood of the situation requires it. At times, the restless energy gives way to smooth, harmonious moments, as if the film has decided to drop its quirkiness and just chill out with a cold beer.

The dark alleys of Hong Kong, the neon lights, the cultural diversity, the traffic and noise, and the artistically lit pubs create the space in which such characters live their lives. It is a culture in which most of us live, have grown up, whose troubles have marked us, and whose potentialities exist for us to take hold of.

The second story in the film touches on the same theme, but with a more cheerful, hilarious tone. We see another depressed police officer, Cop 663, whose girlfriend has also left him. He lives alone in his apartment, and in his loneliness, talks to the objects in his house, who he thinks are depressed with him. He tells his bar of soap, which is becoming thinner with use, to try and not be depressed. “You must get a hold on yourself, you’ve become so skinny,” he says.

At the end of his work-day, Cop 663 goes to grab a bite at a joint called Midnight Express. A girl working there – Faye, is the most endearing and memorable of all the characters in this film. She plays a song by the 60s band Mamas and Papas – ‘California Dreaming’ – over and over again, at high volume. “Why do you play that song so loud?” asks Cop 663. “So that I can’t hear my own thoughts,” she replies, swaying to the song while carrying out her chores at the eating joint.

Faye realises that Cop 663 is depressed, but unable to express her care for him directly, she decides to break into his apartment and clean it up for him everyday. Playing her favourite song, she replaces his towels, irons his clothes, makes his bed and even adds sleeping pills to his water bottle to help his insomnia – all in her dancing, fun-loving style.

Quiet, isolated, yet always happily dancing to California Dreaming, and doing crazy things just for fun – it is easy to start liking Faye’s character. She and the song California Dreaming become the chief motifs of the film.

Chungking Express has a fluid feel to it, scenes flow into each other, nothing is forbidden, everything passes, and life goes on. Even the tragic – and there is much of it – is told with a sense of loving humour. This is a charming, whimsical ode to urban life, in which the plot and dialogue seem improvised, and the director is more concerned about a certain way of telling the story rather than the story in particular. As the film critic Roger Ebert perceptively wrote, this is a film you will love if you love cinema itself.

A crazy film about crazy people.

~ by tdcatss on June 9, 2012.

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