A Love Letter to ‘Chungking Express’

With the works of Wong Kar-Wai recently treated to a new 4K restoration, no time is better than now to fall in love with the director’s dreamlike world. Tommy James breaks down his favourite: the lovesick classic Chungking Express.

I remember watching Chungking Express for the first time in film class. It was a scratchy DVD rip, with larger-than-life pixels blurring the lines between a mid-2000s YouTube video and an 8-bit arcade game. Suffice to say, I did not like it. The minimal plotting across separated narratives left me feeling cold and detached—too obtuse for my naïve mindset.

So why would I write about a film I do not like? Well, a year or so later, I was studying at university. As with most people, it was a major transitionary period of my life: new housing, new locations, new everything. Difficulties settling down aren’t uncommon. Specifically, as a youngster trying to settle into a new lifestyle and eventually a career in the film industry, I struggled with my personal identity. Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be?

I did know, however, that my past self was not my current self. It wasn’t exactly a spiritual revelation, merely an act of growing up—but I was eager to uncover Chungking Express again and decipher why I could not hack it the first time. Not a low-poly rip this time: a legitimate release. Booting up the disc launched a playback loop of Chungking Express sequences in my mind, as if my brain was directly fed the film reel. Weirdly, much of the film was embedded into my mind; evidently, the visuals were more hypnotic and visceral than I had remembered.

And I loved it. I adored it so much that I revisited it three more times that year, each return offering more for me to appreciate. While Chungking Express is a multi-layered experience, these thematic strands often evolve or deviate from the fundamental motif—identity.

As previously mentioned, I struggled with my identity due to a mixture of acceptance and isolation. My time at secondary school was horrific. I was victimised by teachers and students, and gaslit into believing their verbal and emotional slander. This was exacerbated by my sensitivity and other instances of bullying. I morphed between different personalities depending on the group situation—some days I would grow thicker skin, but lose healthier parts of my character. Ultimately, I carried a lot of adolescent trauma into adulthood which has unfortunately evolved into generalised anxieties and self-doubt. The shape shifting of my identity left a scar, and the impossible task of pinpointing who I really am.

I began to realise that it was distance from my childhood town which prompted this re-evaluation of my identity. That’s where Chungking Express comes in. Perhaps it is odd how an implicitly political film from the 1990s resonated with my maturing psyche. If anything, it’s a testament to the power of cinema, exhibiting how fluctuating cultures during the bureaucratic upheaval of Hong Kong can relate to an adrift student in England.

With that in mind, it’s crucial to establish some context behind Chungking Express, particularly the motivations.

In the early 1990s, uncertainty and anxiety loomed for many Hong Kong citizens; over 150 years of colonisation via the British Empire was due to be passed under Chinese control come 1 July, 1997. Kar-Wai and Co started production for Chungking Express after the grueling two-year shoot for Ashes of Time, a misunderstood film and box-office flop. With their insecure careers in the balance, Chungking Express was either their swansong revival or nail in the coffin. The crew adopted a proper ‘on the road’ lifestyle—scenes were penned the night before or morning of the shoot—so production was a choppy endeavour, underlying the emotions of the team and viewer.

But how does that translate in the film? Chungking Express is a split narrative, one where the first narrative dovetails the second through a chance encounter. Our first character, Cop 223, is reeling from heartache, intent on finding new love immediately. Oh, and eating pineapples before they expire. He falls for a woman in a blonde wig at a bar, unaware that she is a drug smuggler, which launches the “will he find out?” portion of the plot.

Our second story features another heartbroken Cop, 663.  His ex-girlfriend, a flight attendant, left him so he seeks comfort at his local café where, every day, he is served by waitress Faye. She becomes infatuated with him, intercepts a spare pair of his apartment keys, and proceeds to ‘spice it up’, again launching the “will he find out?” narrative.

Reflections, refractions, and mirrors accentuate the feeling of contemplation. Beats of both plotlines act as echoes, and visualise themselves through sequences of rumination—Faye, for example, observing herself on an escalator as she ascends, or rather the skewed refraction of Cop 663 in a convenience shop window, masked by the rainfall. These reflections accentuate duplicity, and mimick the duel mindsets of our characters; identity becomes slippery. Both revelatory and conflicting, it heightens the distanced headspace of 1990s Hongkongers.

It becomes more apparent, when a seemingly innocuous can of Coca-Cola can invoke emotions of yearning and diaspora, that you are dealing with a deft picture. It is not the physicality of Coca-Cola, or McDonald’s’ yellow arches, or The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” litany, or the expiring pineapples I mentioned earlier, but rather what they represent. Cop 223’s collection of pineapple cans are set to expire 1 May, his twenty-fifth birthday, and a month after his girlfriend, coincidentally named May, split with him. His reasoning? If she does not call him before then, the relationship will expire. The cans, therefore, become a tangible association of the onrushing future—the looming uncertainty.

“When did everything have an expiration date?” he mutters. The neon McDonald’s’ sign, Coca-Cola branding, and tinny repeats of “California Dreamin'” are now a sell-by date for Hong Kong’s Western departure. The momentum of such positions these objects as constant reminders of political chatter, objects of impending ambiguity. Yet, the comfort from these commodities comes in the form of identity: they represent a cultural hybridity, both the United Kingdom’s ownership and the United States’ lifestyle.

The amalgamation of clashed cultures celebrates a beautifully messy identity. Although the political background is uniquely specific, those universal emotions of identity, solitude, and uncertainty are immensely cathartic to me. It taught me not to shake the falsities I adapted, but to learn from them, and celebrate where I am today.

This, in particular, is why Chungking Express still hits so hard over twenty years after its initial release. If an urgently political and thoughtful film can relate to and sympathise with a lost youngster on the other side of the planet, well, that’s a testament to the power of cinema. And now, with the release beautiful Janus Films’ restoration, audiences new and old can experience the delicate ambiguity of Wong Kar-Wai’s masterpiece in 4K.

Words by Tommy James

‘The World of Wong Kar-Wai’ is available to pre-order on Blu-ray Box Set on the BFI Shop.

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