Chungking Express (chóng qìng sēn lín 重庆森林) was the first of Wong Kar Wai (wáng jiā wèi 王家卫)'s films to gain international plaudits but was actually made as a cinematic exercise to help him regain some perspective in the middle of editing a huge Hong Kong (xiāng gǎng 香港) epic: Ashes of Time. The film, a simple, straight forward character piece that reaches unexpected levels, rightly described as a love note to Hong Kong, tells two different and unconventional love stories connected by having cops and a fast food joint named Chungking Express. Made with a down and dirty feel which probably reflects the production itself as well as the intended style we are brought into the streets of Hong Kong and the bustling effervescence of this city as only Wong can describe, which makes it unparalleled to any other.
The Chinese title translates to "Chungking Jungle", referring to the metaphoric concrete jungle of the city, as well as to Chungking Mansions (chóng qìng dà shà 重庆大厦) in Tsim Sha Tsui (jiān shā zuǐ 尖沙咀), where much of the first part of the movie is set. The English title refers to Chungking Mansions and the Midnight Express food stall where Faye works.
The title is symbolic of the film's lively, anything goes sensibility, representing the pair of largely unrelated stories that make up its bifurcated narrative.
The first story, which takes place mostly at Chungking Mansions, focuses on a lovesick police officer, No. 223, Takeshi Kaneshiro (jīn chéng wǔ 金城武), pining over his ex-girlfriend May. The officer has taken to collecting cans of pineapple that expire on May 1, his birthday and the day on which he will give up on his ex.
Meanwhile, a gangster woman in a blonde wig, Brigitte Lin (lín qīng xiá 林青霞) has also received canned food of some import: sardines with the same expiration date, meaning she will be killed on that day. In the Chungking Mansion, a shopping center in Hong Kong where she is arranging her drug trafficking (of which the cop remains ignorant for the entire film), she and Cop 223 almost run into each other. 223's voice-over tells us that in exactly 55 hours, they will meet again.
Then later on in a bar, where he picks her up and takes her to a hotel room, where she promptly falls asleep. Wong treats No. 223's lovesickness with humor (as when the officer foolishly eats dozens of cans of pineapple in one sitting) and tender sensitivity (as when he polishes the blond-wigged woman's shoes before leaving the hotel), and he ends the segment with his typical mix of regret and romanticism. No. 223 is still alone, but he's free to keep looking for love.
Desperation and tragic romanticism sparks our interest in the first story of the film, but Wong doesn't focus on the search. Upon resolving No. 223 and the blond-wigged woman's relationship, he ditches their story for another through one of the film's centerpieces, the Midnight Express Indian Fast Food stop.
Beginning at a restaurant called the Midnight Express, Chungking Express's second half focuses on another police officer, No. 663, Tony Leung (liáng cháo wěi 梁朝伟), himself the victim of a recent breakup, ignores Faye (wáng fēi 王菲), a waitress at the restaurant who falls madly in love with the officer in secret and takes up sneaking into No. 663's apartment during the day to redecorate and "improve" his living situation. When No. 663 discovers Faye in his apartment, it kicks off a typically Wong's romance: aching, beautiful, impermanent. The film has a frantic energy, and although (particularly in the second part) very little seems to happen - it does so beautifully.
The first story rambles but the second one is a delicious romantic comedy. Together, the two stories depict hope for love and happiness in the lonesome city of Hong Kong.
It's from the characters, whom we immediately connect and relate with, we learn the modes of isolation, desperation, and improvisation. An excellent cast includes the brilliant male leads Tony Leung Chiu Wai (liáng cháo wěi 梁朝伟) and Takeshi Kaneshiro (jīn chéng wǔ 金城武), both of whom you will recognize in other films and actress Brigette Lin (lín qīng xiá 林青霞) in the blonde wig which is a very popular actress at that time in Hong Kong, also took part in Wong's another movie "Ashes of Time (dōng xié xī dú 东邪西毒)".
The film also marked the debut of superstar singer Faye Wong (wáng fēi 王菲), who steals many scenes as a love-struck waitress and somehow manages to make an obsession reminiscent of fatal attraction into something adorable. Faye’s character is the movie’s highlight. Cop 688's secret admirer, is practically the definition of elfin. She is very much a creature of the late twentieth century, with a shortened attention span and a listless path through life. She listens to loud rock music, always "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas, so she won't have to think. Faye Wong as an actress is totally engaging and totally believable in this role.
These actors bring a heart and soul to a film which relies on our empathy with the characters to turn their self-pity into the undying love it always feels like to the person involved.
"California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & the Papas, is played numerous times as it is the favourite song of Faye Wong's character. The music will stick in your head for at least a week after viewing this film.
Wong made the film during a two month break from the editing of his wuxia film (wǔ xiá diàn yǐng 武侠电影), Ashes of Time. during the troubled production of Ashes of Time, which was supposed to be Wong Kar-Wai's third film, Wong said, "While I had nothing to do, I decided to make Chungking Express following my instincts.", and that "After the very heavy stuff, heavily emphasized in Ashes of Time, I wanted to make a very light, contemporary movie, but where the characters had the same problems."
Originally, Wong envisioned the two stories as similar but with contrasting settings: "One would be located in Hong Kong. That is, Hong Kong Island and the other in Kowloon (jiǔ lóng九龙). The action of the first would happen in daylight, the other at night. And despite the difference, they are the same stories." the director took some time off, sat down and did it with a fast-paced, highly improvisatory shooting schedule, writing pages of the script during the day and shooting them at night.
He kept on writing and developed a third story. However, after filming the first two stories, he found that the film was getting too long so he relocated the third segment, about a love-sick hitman, to an entirely different movie titled Fallen Angels (duò luò tiān shǐ 堕落天使) (1995).
Wong had specific locations in mind where he wanted to set the action of the film. In an interview, he has said: "One, Tsim Sha Tsui, I grew up in that area and I have a lot of feelings about it. It's an area where the Chinese literally brush shoulders with westerners, and is uniquely Hong Kong. Inside Chungking Mansion you can run into people of all races and nationalities: Chinese, white people, black people, Indian." This is the setting for much of the first story.
The second half of the film was shot in Central, near a popular fast food shop called Midnight Express. "In this area, there are a lot of bars, a lot of foreign executives would hang out there after work," Wong remembers. The fast food shop is forever immortalized as the spot where Tony Leung and Faye Wong's characters met and became attracted to one another.
Dialogue The film uses voiceover to express the thoughts of the two male leads,which is the note for Wong’s movie.The dialogue exchanges are memorable, long lasting, and illustrious. The make up of the exchanges are done masterfully, it is as if you are watching a celebrated tennis match. The ball elegantly goes back and forth in a well mannered, concise behavior. To Wong, love isn't something you can talk about. Words are inadequate, empty, inevitably reductive. Love is something you see, sense, feel, and Chungking Express is one of Wong's purest evocations of its excitement and heartbreak.
"It is an inevitable episode for each living creature to suffer from the prevalence of pain for being lovelorn. And to kill the pain, I habitually go out for a wild running, cherishing the belief that the sweat pouring from my pores will exhaust the water that might be streaming down my face."
"Starting from sometime, all things existing in this wild world, like Sam-ma, canned meat and even plastic wrap, have been labeled with a date of expiration, and that has triggered my diffidence in the permanent validity of anything on this planet. "
"Wearing sunglasses but wrapped up in raincoat is seemingly a ridiculous habit but I have every reason for defending it as you will never be sure when rain is pouring down and when the sun is going to shine upon you. "
"She bid me farewell right on April Fools’ Day. The uniqueness of that festival convinced me that her departure was just a trick on me and she was coming back to me within a month. May loved pineapples and since the very first day of her parting, I compelled myself to make a daily purchase of a tin of pineapple that was to expire on May 1st, my birthday. I just talked myself into believing that our romance was hitting its terminal if May was not making her return after I have piled 30 cans of pineapple back at home."
"Where do you want to go?" The flight attendant asks. "Wherever you want to take me."
The camera (handled by co-cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau) moves constantly and sometimes gives in to jarring step-printing or strange slow, fast motion, but the moments are appropriate. It's those sequences that convey the interior, exterior experience of each character. A chase or the noiseless isolation of sudden heartbreak, creates a hazy, dreamlike world that, through stylistic techniques like copious use of slow motion and step printing, heighten the tension of the officer's romantic desires. The style is alternately contemplative and breezy. It's like the French New Wave with a dash of MTV sprinkled in.
There are a couple of chases, as well as a payback moment midway through the film, but the scenes play more like transitions instead of necessary plot development. What's more important are the character's inner lives. In Chungking Express, the standard genre character is fleshed out and humanized, and their inner struggles take on tremendous meaning. Wong Kar-Wai has created a Hong Kong cop thriller that's about the cops and not the thrills.
There are also a lot of scenes in Chungking Express which hold your attention and make the story more credible as a whole. Perhaps not coincidentally, these scenes are often those which feature the least gimmicks to them, the ones where the actors can simply work. The scenes where Takeshi tries to pick up Brigitte by asking her if she likes pineapple in five different languages, Tony berating his dishrag for not having enough absorbency, or especially the small scenes of Tony and Faye meeting up in a local market and awkwardly flirting, are both funny and powerful in a quiet way. It is in these scenes that Chungking Express transcends typical romantic movie territory.
The individual is at the center of Wong Kar-Wai's movie. Everyone has their own private way of coping with loss and alienation, and how each character does it feels both uniquely odd and strangely familiar. One can identify with the characters or they can find their individual quirks absurd. That's probably one of the unique joys to Chungking Express, that the characters' quirks can affect each and every viewer differently. The moments in the film are opaque and seemingly unconnected, but beneath that the viewer just might find something revealingly personal and achingly real.
And, probably most affecting of all, it's a marvelous demonstration of love in and of the cinema. Chungking Express seems to tell us that love and its chances could be just around the corner and out of sight. As much as the film explores the frustration of heartbreak and unrequited love, it also hints at the promise of something magical.
As in In the Mood for Love, Wong repeatedly finds the perfect visual and aural complements to his characters' romantic rapture, as in the stunning slow-motion shot of Faye watching no. 663 drink a cup of coffee, or the screwball comedy of Faye's apartment-cleaning sequences, or the ways in which Wong uses the Mamas and the Papa's "California Dreaming" (over and over again) to express the lovers' tumultuous relationship.
The issue of deadlines is an interesting one. Not only is Kar-Wai exploring the ways in which humans relate themselves and others to time, but he's also expressing a specifc anxiety of the people of Hong Kong in the mid-nineties.The danger was that everything had an expiration date, canned food, freedom, even love. Not coincidentally, the password for 223's answering service in the film is "love you for 10,000 years."
Awards and Nominations
• 1994 Golden Horse Awards
o Winner - Best Actor (Tony Leung Chiu Wai)
• 1995 Hong Kong Film Awards
o Winner - Best Picture
o Winner - Best Director (Wong Kar-wai)
o Winner - Best Actor (Tony Leung Chiu Wai)
o Winner - Best Editing (William Cheung Suk-Ping, Kwong Chi-Leung, Hai Kit-Wai)
o Nomination - Best Actress (Faye Wong)
o Nomination - Best Supporting Actress (Valerie Chow Kar-Ling)
o Nomination - Best Screenplay (Wong Kar-wai)
o Nomination - Best Cinematography (Christopher Doyle, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung)
o Nomination - Best Art Direction (William Cheung Suk-Ping)
o Nomination - Best Original Film Score (Frankie Chan Fan-Kei, Roel A. Garcia)