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Foreign Film Friday: Chungking Express

April 2, 2010

Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express

“At the closest point, we’re just 0.01cm apart from each other. 57 hours later, I fall in love with this woman.”

Thus begins Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 Chungking Express, a film that, at its closest, is just 0.01cm from our own feelings of love, loss, loneliness and longing.  Through two distinct Hong Kong stories, both of cops grieving past loves and grappling with how to begin again, the film succeeds in painting a telling picture of a very different tale, that of its city’s impending handover from Britain to China.  Through the small and labyrinthine worlds of these four characters, Wong Kar-Wai provides the viewer with a window into the psyche of a city on the brink of a break-up, mourning its past and questioning its future. Chungking Express artfully depicts a world in which time is and space seems to collapse in around the characters as they struggle to find solidity.

The film is set in and around the disorienting world of the Chungking Mansions, a residential building widely known as the gathering place of much of the city’s ethnic minorities.  Filled with a disorienting labyrinth of down-market shops, restaurants and guesthouses, it serves to paint a vivid picture of claustrophobic inner-city life, where everything is fast and loose. The film opens with a chase scene, immediately plunging the viewer into a chaotic blur of lights, noise and crowds.  The characters are never alone and yet, always lonely. Their alienation is mirrored in the transient nature of their world.  Architecture is flimsy and the boundaries between interior and exterior are blurred.  Shops are open to the street, fast food restaurants abound; selling food that fills emptiness, but never satiates.  Nothing seems substantial or immutable: there is no refuge and very little privacy.  Even when cop 223 is in his apartment, the space is so claustrophobic that as he sits, he is forced to stretch his feet out the window.  No space is truly sheltering and everything shows signs of decay and imminent dissolution.

Time is also unraveling.  Scenes speed up and slow down. Flip clocks snap at the heels of the characters, severing the past from the present.  In a world surrounded by packaged goods and fast food, cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) laments: “Somehow everything comes with an expiry date. Is there anything in the world which doesn’t?” For his relationship, time has run out.  Similarly, for the blonde woman (Brigitte Lin), with whom he ultimately falls in love, time is running out.  The sunglasses and the trench coat that she always wears do not succeed in protecting her from the element of Time.  Dennis Brown’s Jamaican reggae tunes croon languidly from the jukebox in her lover’s bar: “It’s not everyday we’re going to be the same way”.  This becomes painfully apparent as the bar owner’s new lover emerges from the back room, wearing a wig identical to the blonde woman’s own.  Both Brigitte’s character and the cop are clinging to the past- her through her wig, and he through his daily purchase of canned pineapple (his girlfriend’s favorite), always with the same expiry date.  “Knowing someone doesn’t mean keeping them. People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow” the blonde woman remarks upon meeting the cop.  It is only at the end of her story, in the casting off of her wig, that she symbolically frees herself from the past and opens herself up to like something- and somebody- else tomorrow.

Time and space figure as prominently, if differently, in the second story.  Connections are narrowly missed, or made unexpectedly.  Unable to bring themselves to communicate with one another, the characters commune more deeply with objects.  Cop 663 transposes his own feelings of grief onto mundane items in his apartment; coaxing his soap not to let itself wither away, and his soaked rag not to cry. Interior space becomes synonymous with the interior lives of the characters. Faye’s desire to spend time in cop 663’s apartment -his physical world- can be read as symbolic of her desire to inhabit his psychological world.  This, ultimately, is paralleled by his adoption of her musical preferences.  As each of the four characters let go of the elements with which they mourn the past, they find hope for a new solidity waiting for them in the present.  With their longing for life as they once knew it expired, each character discovers the possibility for renewal.

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