tongue-tied lightning

Chungking Express (Kar-Wai, 1994)
December 10, 2008, 4:44 PM
Filed under: film


In an essay Amy Taubin did recently for the Criterion Collection she suggested that the first half of this film is Wong’s take on noir or the classic gangster movie and that the second is his take on screwball comedy.  There is an argument there and it would certainly explain part of why I love this film so much, as I consider noir and screwball my two favorite genres, at least in the classic era.  She also makes extensive comparisons to Godard’s Masculin-Feminin, another of my favorite films.

This is really a film about chance meetings and how people come together, or don’t.  It is also a film about men and women’s inability to understand each other.  The first section is about Cop 223.  His girlfriend May left him on April Fool’s Day.  Everyday he buys a can of pineapple at the convenient store with an expiration date of May 1 1994.  When the pineapple expires, if May doesn’t return to him, so too will their relationship.  The other major character in the first section is aptly credited as “Woman in blonde wig.”  Played by Brigette Lin, she is in control of a drug-smuggling operation.  I found this section of the film heartbreaking.  Cop 223’s method for coping with his heartbreak is to give it an expiration date, and then begin the grieving process.  There is something sad about this willful ignorance.  He walks by her house and reminisces.  Wondering if he’ll ever climb out her window again.  Cop 223 and the woman in the blond wig have a chance meeting in a bar.  He is eager to fall in love again, she wants nothing more than to be left alone. They spend a chaste night together in a hotel, criminal and cop, each unaware of the other’s profession, and then they go their separate ways.

As effective as the first section is, it is greatly overshadowed by the second.  It focuses on Cop 633, brilliantly portrayed by Tony Leung.  He also breaks up with his girlfriend, but a waitress at a diner he frequents is falling in love with him.  The waitress is portrayed by asian pop-star Faye Wong in her first film role. (echoing, Taubin suggests, Chantal Goya in Masculin-Feminin) She is amazing, like Goya in Godard’s film, it is impossible to watch her and not fall in love.  Unlike Leung, she exhibits no restraint. She dances around the diner with California Dreamin’ playing loudly on the radio.  She tells Leung someday she will move to California.

My favorite parts of this section include a lonely Tony Leung talking to objects in his apartment, and Faye Wong sneaking into it, with keys his ex-girlfriend left for him at the diner, to rearrange and replace things.  Leung is oblivious, when he realizes the bar of soap is new, he tells it it’s unhealthy to put weight on so fast, and just because his girlfriend isn’t there anymore, that is no reason to let itself go. It is pure poetry.  Kar-Wai makes heartbreak and falling in love tangible feelings. Through Christopher Doyle’s beautiful cinematography, the repetitive soundtrack, and Leung’s externalizing his thoughts and passing them on to his possessions, we are made to feel what the characters feel  We long for what they both long for, for them to be together.

Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love is frequently praised for it’s portrayal of love.  Though I don’t like it as much as most, it is undoubtedly a great film.  However I find the relationship doesn’t affect me as much as Wong and Leung’s relationship in the second half of Chungking Express.  Perhaps because the characters are closer to my age. Maybe as I grow older I will grow to prefer that film, but for now, I prefer Chungking Express. To watch it is to have your heart broken and to fall in love.


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Cop 223/He Zhiwu is my favorite Kar-Wai character. I like how loose his are is from Chunking Express to Fallen Angels. I don’t like it nearly as much as Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild or Fallen Angels but it tends to an absorbing experience all it’s own. It simply lacks the pull of Kar-Wai’s stronger works, and the tonal shift in the film’s second half always throws me off balance.

Comment by soulvakispacestation

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