Criterion Reviews: ‘Chungking Express’

I have to admit that my first encounter with Chungking Express years ago was a confusing one. I was just getting into films, my experience with cinema was limited to mainstream Hollywood films and I had never seen anything like Chungking Express. I restarted my computer twice because I was sure the frame rate was my computer’s fault and not part of the film. Coming back to it years later with an appreciation for Wong Kar-wai’s other films and fresh eyes feels wonderful.

At first it feels like Chungking Express is two films merged into one. Two heartbroken police officers and two women who could not be more different; both standing on the edge of falling into tropes of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl but never falling in. Cop 223 describes their crowded neighborhood in Hong Kong as somewhere where you’ll never get to meet most people you walk by but you might end up being friends with some of them. And like that, the characters in two stories never meet, never go beyond 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) brushing arms with Faye (Faye Wong) as the film shifts its focus from one character to the other. Yet the connections aren’t hard to draw. For three of the characters, obsession in different forms is the common ground. 223 eats cans and cans of pineapples that his ex-girlfriend loves, while Cop 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) talks to his furniture as companions in his grief over his own ex-girlfriend’s leaving. That leaves Faye, whose obsession with 663 finds form in cleaning his apartment and changing his old household items and clothes with new ones. Faye looks into the future while The Mamas and The Papas’ “California Dreamin” plays in the background. Brigitte Lin’s mysterious drug dealer character in a blonde wig and a raincoat has the most individual storyline compared to the rest. Hers is a revenge story of its own, like a film noir that accidentally found itself on the set of a romantic comedy. It’s oddly fitting, like 223’s description of the crowded place they are inhabiting, this mysterious woman’s story is one of the millions that neither 223 nor us would get to know if the film didn’t choose to show it.

Many of the characters that pass by on the streets are blurred, their faces are rarely shown in clarity. There’s so much going on to an confounding degree that though I knew frame rate wasn’t my computer’s fault this time around, it felt like Wong Kar-wai’s camera was overwhelmed by everything and just had to stop for a second and breath in the flashing signs and the food smells and never-to-be-known faces. I hope if Chungking Express “has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years.”

Criterion Reviews is a series of short 500-word reviews of films released every week by Criterion Channel until the channel officially launches on April 8th. Reviews will be published every Saturday/Sunday. Don’t forget to sign up for the channel and support them!

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