July 2, 2009

Asians on Film: Chasing the Metaphysical – 'Chungking Express'

"On the streets of Hong Kong, a mysterious woman, a young cop, and an innocent dreamer are about to meet where romance and mystery collide."

I recently revisited the 1994 Hong Kong film, Chungking Express, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai (one of my favourite filmmakers) on Criterion Collection Blu-ray. The film consists of two stories; both involve Hong Kong cops who suffer through heartbreak and heartache. Part one is called "Chungking Mansions", which takes place in the titular area of Hong Kong with a gangster subplot. Part two, "Midnight Express", involves a late night western fast food stand and its goings-on.

So, while I have seen Chungking Express many times and have always held it in high regard, it never truly spoke to me the way Wong's later masterpiece, In the Mood for Love (my all-time favourite film), did until now. Thanks to the incredibly in-depth audio commentary by Asian cinema critic, Tony Rayns, I now feel I truly understand the film, personally and academically, as well as artistically. Rayns does a terrific job dissecting and supplementing Wong's on-screen work.

I identified more heavily with this second story, "Midnight Express", as its themes upon reflection and analysis, are more solidly materialized and thus more effective and mesmerizing. It perfectly expressed for me the current state and situation I find myself in, mindfully and thematically. Tony Leung as Cop 663 and Faye Wong as his admirer sort of dance around each other in a very unromantic, unsentimental, yet thoughtful way as Cop 663 gets over being dumped by his stewardess girlfriend.

The theme of flight is constantly reoccurring. Rayns comments on a couple scenes, addressing a clear absence of sex despite a notable expectation of it, which reveals a thematic element of intimacy. Wong proves himself as a notable writer and director with his well-placed motifs and breakneck pace. The film was shot and produced quickly over a few short months in between making his period action epic, Ashes of Time. This kind of immediacy in filmmaking gives a very personal style of storytelling.

Another theme heavily prevalent is identity as characters adopt one another's effective identities. Faye, more or less, takes the place of Cop 663's ex-girlfriend, even adopting her profession, while Cop 663 has replaced Faye in her role. The strong desire for change is heavily mitigated by the urge for the familiar, more of the same, but still looking for something different and new, divorced from the baggage of the old that is responsible for the present state of angst.

The stories are all about loneliness and the fleeting nature of romance. Characters suffer, change, and recover, but as things change, the more they stay the same. Nothing and no one fundamentally changes, no matter how much they try, and that is all right. Human relationships are always full of the same constant uncertainties and frustrations, no matter what. Wong Kar-wai in this side project of a film, managed to craft a truly effecting drama that has become highly influential and memorable. Does love have an expiration date?

The film's closing dialogue:
- "Where do you want to go?"
- "Doesn't matter. Wherever you want to take me."
A perfect ending.

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2 reactions:

TERRI said...

I was planning on renting this the other week, and can't remember why I decided not to. But now you've got me wanting to see Chungking Express for sure.

Rick said...

I obviously highly recommend it.

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