Volume 2, Number 3 -- March, 1997
Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express" is a trip worth taking
by Tony Han
With the Academy Awards right around the corner, I felt the teasing allure to jump on the bandwagon and make my predictions for the major categories. But I would digress. There's almost no reason for such an endeavor. Since I mostly agree with the nominations already, I feel no reason to pit my opinion of cinema and its charms against that of the Oscar committee. Besides, my only interest is in Best Picture, which will go to The English Patient [see review]. And, in the Best Actor category, if Geoffrey Rush does get Best Actor for his part in "Shine", then it supports the theory that Best Actor/Actress will more likely go the person who portrayed a mentally or physically handicapped character. Beyond this, the rest of the awards don't interest me. However, will I be planted in front of the television for this event? Perhaps after an incapacitating amount of drinking. But, I digress...
Let us leave the theaters for this review and pop in a video for a quiet evening. What brand and vintage of video would I recommend? Skipping the video releases of the blockbuster monstrosities, I'd like to introduce you to Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express". Released domestically by Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures, I found the film surprisingly charming (surprising because, though I enjoy what he's written, I don't think I agree with all of his choice of films). "Chungking Express" does not follow the typical vein of Hong Kong films that have recently become popular in the US; the hyper-action flicks that use more bullets than World War II. Rather, it's a quirky, existential, romantic film with dialogue, though subtitled, that harkens back to films in the forties and the fifties -- sweet and idealistic.
STATE TO BE IN WHEN VIEWING THIS FILM: Definitely sober, preferably with a date. It's not a movie to watch after a rowdy night on the town. Though there are action sequences in the film (just a few), these scenes are not shot with a violent intent so much as it tries to capture the chaotic atmosphere of it's setting, Hong Kong. The movie is actually two short stories connect by chance meetings of the main characters, both about the pursuit of love by two police officers. For what it's worth in the States, some of the most popular Hong Kong actors/actresses/entertainers are in this film: Briggitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung, and Faye Wang. Lin and Kaneshiro take the first skit, Lin playing a drug smuggler on the lamb and Kaeshiro the cop who, after getting dumped, bumbles into her and falls in love with her. In the second verse, Faye Wang is a cafe girl who falls in love with and raids the life of Tony Leung, a cop (yes, he was recently dumped, too) whose oblivious to her invasion and spends most of his time talking to inanimate objects.
While most of the other Hong Kong films being released in the US spend most of its time being 'unrealistic' and archaically sentimental, Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express" is modern and classically romantic (or as close as a Hong Kong film can get). He uses an accelerated, choppy editing technique to 'speed' past the action sequences which are important, but secondary to the focus. The same technique is used in the film to portray two scenes in which Tony Leung is waiting... and waiting. Faye Wang, the cafe girl in the second skit, covers a Cranberries' song beautifully to the point where you're more surprised that the lyrics are in a different language. Regarding more information about this film, Tarantino give more commentary at the beginning and the end of the video (some interesting, other's condescending), which I will not retrace.
It's easy, after viewing the barrage of Hong Kong mobster flicks that are circulating about, to assume that the Chinese couldn't write a decent script if it was given to them. Their expertise is in violence. The characters are typically flat and predictable; the dialogue cheesy and/or moronic; the theme's and story lines variants of masculine bonding and cops-and-robbers. Wong Kar-Wai seems to have taken all of these rudimentary facts of Hong Kong films and went the other way. Though some may disagree, I think that much of the dialogue of the male characters (which is mostly what the film revolves around), are universal in it's clumsy, romantic idiosyncrasies and general male idiocies. Kaneshiro's character, after being dumped on April Fool's, considers the whole thing a joke, so buys a can of pineapple (his girlfriend's favorite fruit) a day, each to expire on May 1st. On the deadline date, when his girlfriend does not come running back to him (duh), he's left with 30 cans of pineapple and only his dog to share them with. This moronic, yet romantic notion is typical of being a guy (at least the one's that I know) and we're all desperate to escape these characteristics.