While making Chungking Express, Wong Kar-wai showed absolutely no remorse for the flag-bearers of the conventional narrative form, in the process combining essentially an action flick with an out and out, whimsical and the sweetest of rom-coms.
When I was in the freshman year of university, I fell in love with a South-Indian girl. Love. I’m not sure how many of us truly understand the real meaning of the word, so it might be too misleading a word to start off with. Either way, I was definitely head-over-heels for this girl. Even obsessed to an extent, I would carefully notice every little of her movement both in real life, as well as in social media. On the days when she’d leave me on read, I would normally switch and play some heart-shattering John Mayer tracks, puff a cigarette, and cry virtual tears while scrolling through her pitch-perfect facebook account.
When I used to go out with her, it was as if the whole world outside would quieten up, silently occupying a less-important background space. Time would temporarily stop, making every single word coming out from her mouth oh-so lovely and exquisite. I used to carefully wrap those words in my heart, and go back to my hostel-room, where I usually played it on a continuous loop in order to extract and scrutinize every possible meaning it had carried with it. I guess I was indeed in love.
Heck, I was so swayed by my apparent “love” for her, that I even started watching Telugu films featuring her favourite actor, secretly hoping that she’d be more impressed by my devotion towards her. That, in the long run I believed, would be critical in getting me past the confusing “friendship” phase to that of the more romantic relationship I was aspiring for.
Well, of course, she did not find anything out of the ordinary in that. And with that, I painfully came to the realization that she might not have been really into me. I resigned to myself, and felt broken. Lost, and beaten, I was down in the slumps. Introspecting on all the reasons where I had possibly gone wrong, I came to terms with a rather strange revelation. Not exactly a revelation, but I found myself rather dumbstruck by the sheer stupidity of it. The “revelation” obviously was that I had binged and strangely enjoyed (at least, I tried to) watching those absolutely idiotic, non-artistic, mainstream, and commercial south-Indian flicks. It might not have been such big an issue for others. But for me, it equalled to the greatest of wrongdoings.
For I had always been someone who had prided himself on reserving an unique taste in the arts, especially in films. While my friends, and with them, the vast majority of the students, would go and catch the latest Avengers movie in the cinema hall, I would stay comfortably cooped up in my small 3-bedded hostel room watching a critically-acclaimed Taiwanese New Wave film on my laptop. This was something that I absolutely shouldn’t have done.
Now, when I look back at it, I realize how stupid and unpredictable love can transform you into. I cannot think of any logical explanation in defence of the great sin I had committed. I fail to understand even now on how I fell for that girl in the first place.
Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 feature Chungking Express is a film that deals with rather similar elements. A review by DirkH (all hail bizarre virtual names!) I had come across for the film on Letterboxd starts off,
“I love the stupidity of holding on to what has moved on.
I love the smallness of the biggest emotion we know.
I love the pain that doesn’t seem to leave but you know somehow it will. I love seeing love.”
Now, I won’t waste any precious time trying to explain about the emotion of love here; such an effort will at the most certainly be pointless. But what Wong Kar-Wai has done in Chungking Express is probably the only thing that has come the closest to unearthing it. And I’m quite sure that Quentin Tarantino thinks of it the same.
I don’t distinctly remember the first time I had seen the film. It was in college, and I had liked it. But as far as I recall, the first time wasn’t the most memorable watch. The second time though was a wholly different story. This time, the entire universe had seemingly joined forces with the most powerful of expressions to make me fall in love with Chungking Express. It was like being on one of those dates where the first meeting had been pretty ordinary, but the second time was when everything clicked, everything started making sense and everything got extraordinarily beautiful.
Even if you ask me now on what could have possibly made me go absolutely gaga over this cult-classic (I wonder why’s that?) Hong Kong Second New Wave film, I don’t think I will be able to come forward with a straightforward or simple answer. It’s a feeling that I have immense trouble putting into words. It is something that makes me go all rosy on the inside and enables me to empathize with this harsh, cruel world outside.
All I ever feel like doing after watching the film every single time is to go out again and stupidly fall in love with just about everything and anything around me. Especially in these days of constant monotony and stagnant visuals, it makes me want to break my heart, cry over it, all the while hoping for someone to mend it, mop my apartment and again hopelessly fall in love. It makes me want to live in a way I haven’t before.
That said, Hong Kong’s post-colonial status must first be understood in order to understand the film. Hong Kong, as in the film, is presented as an electric, feverish daze of a city with people overflowing its streets. The pace is frenetic, with life buzzing in on every possible corner of this “concrete jungle”. It feels like if he wanted to, Wong could have chosen and decided to narrate the story of just about any person out there. Of course in the end, he just happened to tell the stories of the two ridiculously handsome, yet lovelorn policemen.
As the city rushes through, the main characters, Cop 223 and Cop 663, feel as if they have lost the sense of time. Even when there are people just about everywhere they can possibly look, they cut a contrasting figure, and are presented as incredibly lonely and disconnected from the rest of the crowd around them. To understand this, one must look at Hong Kong’s past.
Hong Kong does not have any inherent identity by itself. It’s a country that has been in the middle of numerous wars, takeovers and colonization. During the time of filming, it was a British colony that was to be returned to China according to a treaty signed between the two countries, in less than three years. It is this uncertainty for the future, as well as its long obscure past that is found reflected in Chungking Express.
The film, if looked closely, presents deep-rooted political themes, and subtle symbolism along with it which can be further interpreted in various different ways. These themes include globalization, commercialism, and imperialism in the modern age. Chungking Mansions, one of the central motifs in the film, was a potpourri of vastly different cultures and national identities itself. Even the soundtrack of the film ranges far and wide, from Dinah Washington to Jagjit Singh, and The Cranberries to The Mamas And The Papas. It truly is as international a film can possibly get.
No wonder this was the film that Quentin Tarantino picked to showcase in the US through his newly formed “Rolling Thunder” distribution company. All of these elements combined rather beautifully to present an aesthetically and culturally rich global-city that soon became the go-to destination for many of its viewers, including me. I have since remained obsessed about the country (now more than ever), and still believe that if I cannot make a trip to Hong Kong during my lifetime, it’d be a life lived in waste.
Irrespective of whether I could make it to Hong Kong or not, I did manage to get over that south-Indian girl I was so desperately obsessed about, albeit self-admittedly, not in the complete. While I had been down in the dumps reminiscing about my good-old-days with her, there was another girl (this time she wasn’t south-Indian) who had made considerable progress in making her way towards my heart. It was only after when I had largely got over the south-Indian, did I notice this new girl.
She liked me. Still, I wasn’t very sure about what I should be doing, making no progress for quite some time in the process. Unlike Chungking Express, my meeting with her was no chance encounter. My heart swiveled between the south-Indian girl, whom I was struggling to forget, and this new girl who actually liked me for a nice change.
In between this confusion, I found comfort in eating pastries. I promised myself I would be having a pastry everyday until I could come to a firm conclusion ending this newly-found dilemma. And in between eating and reminiscing, I watched Chungking Express on infinitely many occasions.
When someone asks me about what I like the most about the film, I usually pretend to be in a deep thought in my head for about five long seconds, and then I say, “Of course it’s got be the cinematography”.
Chungking Express is a whole of two parts with quite a well-defined interval between them. While making the film, Wong showed absolutely no remorse for the flag-bearers of the conventional narrative form, in the process combining essentially an action flick (where Brigitte Lin’s blonde woman also acts as a tribute to the great Gena Rowlands) with an out and out, whimsical and the sweetest of rom-coms. These two parts not only gel together, but complement each other in ways one possibly couldn’t fathom. It is this which sets the foundation for the things to come.
That said, what’s most unique and avant-garde about this film is its cinematography. Andrew Lau shot the first part, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin, and the since-legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle shot the second part, starring Tony Leung and Faye Wong.
One of the earlier shots in the film features very haphazard, blurry and colourful frames, all shot using Wong’s soon-to-be trademark step-printing technique. This technique, which involves lowering the rate of the frames-per-second from the traditional 24-per-sec and simultaneously recombining it, lends it a stunningly unique affect, making it seem as the viewer himself is the part of the Chungking hustle and bustle.
More than the claustrophobia, spacing, and the feel it so importantly portrays, it largely displays the effect of time ranging in the film. This again can be connected back to the post-colonial Hong Kong and its wait for the shift in power that was to be taking place soon. An eerie musical piece accompanies this shot, making it such an amazing work of art in the process. The second part of the film is not so rushed, and includes a couple of scenes where step-framing was used, which again was done quite brilliantly.
Wong Kar-wai shot Chungking Express during a convalescence period following the completion of filming for his large-scale wuxia-epic Ashes Of Time. It was supposed to be light-hearted and easy to watch, with Wong Kar-Wai more often than not writing the scripts during the day of filming itself. Shot experimentally, in a very impromptu manner, it made sure to include all elements of a money-spinning film. Starting from the starry cast which included the then-pop-icons Faye Wong and Takeshi Kaneshiro, and a script which included the tried-and-tested template of cops and action, it was film that was bound to be successful.
No wonder it swept all major awards that year in Hong Kong, making decent money along the way. It also managed to grab the eyes of foreign viewers, including Tarantino and Harvey Weinstein, resulting in it becoming one of the early films from the far-East to make it to the US cinemas.
Any other time or occasion, and it is quite possible that Wong possibly wouldn’t have come up with or made Chungking Express. Thankfully, nothing like that happened. Had it not taken place, I have no idea about what I would be obsessing about in its place right now. With a little good health, I am hoping to watch Chungking Express every single night for the next 10,000 years.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that I finally made a decision regarding the two girls in my life. What I decided was to try and forget the south-Indian, and in the process open up my runway for the one who actually likes me. Oh, and she’s very pretty too. And so cool. Well, almost like Faye.