Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Wong Kar Wai Retrospective - CHUNG KING EXPRESS

CHUNG KING EXPRESS is a wonderful film from Wong Kar Wai. Originally released in 1994 to critical acclaim, it foreshadowed much of the thematic material of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and 2046 and some of the stylistic mannerisms of the disastrous MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.

The movie takes the form of two loosely connected stories set in contemporary Hong Kong. As in later films, Wong Kar Wai takes us into cheap diners in dingy, crowded cities. Bus terminals have lockers that are dented and covered in grafitti and the floor is strewn with litter. The protagonists live in cluttered filthy apartments with mould in the shower and subsist on canned food bought in grubby 7-11s. The great thing about this film is, however, that it doesn't judge any of this. Indeed, it rather revels in the accidental beauty of such scenes. The key to these films is to uncover the romantic leanings of the ordinary people who inhabit these locales - the people one might pass on the street and assume, rather patronisingly, were leading drab uninteresting lives. So, in sharp contrast to his later films, the characters in the film look "normal". They aren't dressed to perfection, hovering in a state of delicate beauty: girls wear normal clothes, but even when they dress up, it's in a rather grubby mac and blonde wig.

But there are other elements that form a straight line through to MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. The use of popular, almost cheesy, Western pop songs on almost continuous loop; the love of neon signs; a femme fatale; a camera that follows its prey with a voyeuristic, intimate glee; and in the first section the use of slow-mo and distorted vision to try and capture the frenetic pace of city life.

My preference is for the scenes where the camera is fluid but not "interefered with" in the style so irritating in the first scenes of MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS. And it's hard to know whether my weaker response to the first story is due to the shooting style. Still, even apart from that, the story is lyrical, compelling and beautiful. A lonely police officer (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is mourning a failed relationship, creating bizarre little rituals involving out-of-date canned food to focus his mind. He runs across a mysterious blonde, who turns out to be a drug smuggler. (Note the fantastically fast-paced, beautifully edited scene in which she suits up and organises the Indian mules.) As we come to expect in a Wong Kar Wai film, when the two finally meet their relationship is fleeting and muted - and is valued mostly for the memories it will generate.

The second story takes similar material. Another lonely cop (a very young Tony Leung) is mourning another failed relationship, in another cramped apartment. He strikes up a bizarre relationship with another quirky girl, who expresses a desire for intimacy by secretly cleaning his flat! It sounds bizarre and it is bizarre but it's never cheap or crudely funny. Rather, it's sweet, strange and wonderfully fresh. This is largely down to Tony Leung's superbly melancholy presence and a rightly award-winning performance by Faye Wong - the stand-out actor in this film. It just goes to show how important it is to cast actors and indeed locations that can make the most surreal and unabashedly romantic material seem real and natural. That is the key difference between a pantheon film like CHUNG KING EXPRESS and a disappointment like MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS.


  1. Have you seen Fallen Angels? I think Wong Kar Wai directed that after Chungking Express, but it's not as well thought of. I still really like it.

  2. I saw it a while back but I'm going to watch it again before I review it for the retrospective. From what I remember, I really liked it but that was before In The Mood For Love which raised the bar!