During the problematic production of Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai made this low-budget film within a two-month break by “following my instincts,” he said.
This instinctive urge had him improvise everything from script to production design, liberating Chungking Express from conventions, and rendering it Wong’s most emotionally provocative piece – a herald to his other cerebral paintures of quixotic longing which defined the Wongian style.
Feature films are typically written according to certain cinematic rules such as the absence of jump cuts and no breaking of the 180 degrees. These principles govern the Hollywood film factory that churns out commercially successful movies that are often structurally and visually identical.
But such rules do not apply to Wong. It seems that rules, to him, are more meant for breaking.
Chungking Express is assembled from the director’s own disparate ideals on emotions. There is no precedent to steer a film based primarily on emotion; thus, there is nothing “standard” about Chungking Express because it is a commodity born out of uniqueness.
The first half of the movie takes place mostly at the Chungking Mansion, a disordered slum-like quarter where people of assorted ethnicity intermingle. Takeshi Kaneshiro acts as Cop 223, a socially awkward loner still infatuated with his ex-girlfriend, May, who left him on April fool’s day. He deceives himself into thinking after he buys up all the tinned pineapples that expire on May 1st, also his birthday, the month-long ‘joke’ that his ex-girlfriend pulled on him will resolve. But his one-night encounter with a femme fatale played by Brigitte Lin makes him understand the fleeting and transient nature of love.
The second half focuses on an equally faithful man Cop 633, played by acclaimed actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Unable to get over his relationship with an air stewardess too, he visits an outdoor fast food restaurant, Midnight Express, almost everyday to seek comfort amidst the familiarity. There he meets a quirky young employee named Faye (played by Faye Wong) who immediately falls for him and does the most incredulous break-in to seek breakthrough in their passive and sparkless relationship.
The two bifurcated narratives are thinly connected, yet due to its dialogue-driven nature, flow seamlessly like an untried journey to explore the concept of old and new love.
Beginning with a mystifying narration, “At our closest point, we were just 0.01 cm apart. Fifty-seven hours later, I fell in love with this woman”, the film later transited into its second segment with a dialogue that corresponds this narration - “At our closest point, we were just 0.01 cm apart, I knew nothing about her. Six hours later, she fell in love with another man.”
Just like this, the two stories are all of a sudden, oddly connected.
And if it weren’t for a very understated and brief encounter between protagonists from the two segments, one would really miss the point of non-linearity in Wong’s portrayal of life.
Life is not like a book, where one chapter simply follows another, it is more akin to a series of interweaving from one special moment to another, denoting the causal chain of interaction which connects, more often than not, parallel lives of every individual who barely keep track of strangers whom they brushed past on a daily basis till an encounter became more momentous.
Space is hardly a linear concept too. Within very constrained areas such as the kitchen of Midnight Express and Leung’s house, you see a variety of shots that barely focus on the protagonists at times. But these lax and highly explorative cinematic spaces played truer to the concept of realism, deriving more from our eyes than the camera’s eyes.
To be honest, I have never been a fan of Christopher Doyle’s stylised cinematography. His work always felt too excessive and mechanical to me. But when combined with Wong’s avant-garde directing, and especially in this film, Doyle’s images became alive amid the dazzling, dreamlike metropolis, like a switch turned on.
The bravura blurs of light and colour, plus the copious use of slow motion and slow shutter speed set the upbeat yet obscure tone of the movie. Together with the intentional play of camera techniques, they amplified audiences’ awareness, sitting them on the edge of on-screen and off-screen intensity. Therefore, it becomes harder to ignore the feelings felt through the characters, especially since these existential questions begging our response had been there all along. Leung’s overwhelming self awareness which led to zero awareness of his surroundings in the film, also suggests that we as the audience occasionally carry a redundant consciousness during film-viewing.