Chungking Express has two parts. First part is lonely young plainclothes cop Kaneshiro Takeshi counting down the days to his birthday, which is also thirty days since his girlfriend of five years dumped him. Simultaneously, sort of middle person drug trafficker Brigitte Lin loses her latest batch of mules (once they’re loaded up with the coke in luggage and person and at the airport, they run off when she’s buying the tickets). If Lin can’t find them, her creep boss (Thom Baker) will have her killed. Director Wong opens the film with stylized slow motion action; Kaneshiro running through the crowded Hong Kong streets after a suspect or something, almost bumping into Lin (who’s in a blonde wig, raincoat, and sunglasses—at night—all movie). Kaneshiro, narrating, explains he’s just come so close to Lin without meeting her and in two days, he’ll be in love with her. So presumably Express is going to be that story. And it is that story. Until it turns out Lin and Kaneshiro’s violent, melancholy romance is just a warm-up. A mood prologue.
The second part is Faye Wong and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Leung is a different cop, a little older, and in uniform. Wong works at the counter-only restaurant where Leung gets his coffee. And where Kaneshiro also gets his coffee. But there’s no crossover. Director Wong really did just do a warm-up. Because even though Kaneshiro is the narrator at the beginning, eventually Lin gets some. And her narration is the best in the film. She’s been a complete mystery—sort of unsympathetic but funny as she bosses her mules around, but still sympathetic because Baker’s clearly got some weird thing going on with her, which she might not even know about. You get to know her from her actions and behavior, not narration like Kaneshiro. When Lin does get the narration and makes a revealing statement or two, they send these shockwaves through the rest of the first story. She doesn’t get much narration and even though Kaneshiro gets a bunch, he becomes secondary. It’s clearly Lin’s story. Even though she never goes to the restaurant so has no crossover with kindly owner Chen Jinquan.
Chen gives romantic advice to Kaneshiro, who spends most of his time in the film at the restaurant waiting for his ex-girlfriend to call him. He has this great subplot about expired pineapple. He’s a complete sad sack and comically naive in his narration. Meanwhile, Lin’s sometimes mercurially merciless. There’s this fantastic contrast between their two stories. Wong has some of the same styles—the slow motion action sequences all work the same—but there’s some other visual distinction. Chungking Express is an exemplar of how narrative distance and style can work together while going at very different speeds. It’s awesome.
If Wong wanted, it could be neo-noir. But instead it’s a deliberate drama with Lin and Kaneshiro sometimes meeting in their orbits and how it affects them.
Back to Faye Wong and Tony Leung. Director and writer Wong gives them this third act story with the narrative distance changing to transition things along. It starts as an echo of the first story. Lovelorn cop, wise owner. Only this time there’s Faye Wong. She starts as a foil then becomes the protagonist. Not just of the story, but of the film. Director Wong went through the first part so we could see Faye Wong’s story, which almost entirely without narration as she starts stalking Leung. Comically and lovably, but definitely stalking. Director Wong always keeps this really light mood to Faye Wong hanging out in Leung’s apartment and messing with his stuff. He never breaks from the film’s sharp visual focus. While Express is a film about quiet, sometimes private moments between people, Wong uses the enormity of the city—artificially muffled, but still sharp-as the stage for those moments. That style—infused with bubbly—just further spotlights the film on Faye Wong. It’s jarring when director Wong changes the pace for the third act.
The first story takes place over two and a half days. There’s even a clock involved; the dates of the present action matter to the story and characters. Well, to Kaneshiro anyway. The second story is very loose in pacing, but also extremely precise. Director Wong only wants to give so much of the story at each point in the story. It’s a relaxed pacing, much different from the first story, much different from the beginning of the second story itself. Wong slows things down and lets the film enjoy itself. Faye Wong and Tony Leung are both really charming in the film. The first story is the neo-noir romance, the second half is the romantic comedy, and they’re almost exactly the same, stylistically. But without Faye Wong narrating even through her longer scenes. There’s more time without narration. A lot more. And there’s an entirely different sense of danger. It’s a wryly comedic one, done in a style where there’s no wry comedy. Because more than anything else—even a spectacular vehicle for Faye Wong—it’s this sad sack romantic drama about these two cops who can’t get over their heartache. And they don’t understand how their potential romances exist away from them. In very, very different ways, but it’s a definite echo. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative, beautifully edited as it plays out on screen narrative. Director Wong and his crew do… I don’t know, I’m running low on positive adjectives. The film’s technically breathtaking.
Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-keung. Great editing from William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung. The film wouldn’t work without them. Or the music. Frankie Chan and Roel A. García’s score is awesome. The use of popular music is awesome. And essential. It’s magnificent.
Wong’s the best performance, then Leung, then Lin, then Kaneshiro. Kaneshiro’s still great. Chen’s perfect as the restaurant owner. Valerie Chow’s good as Leung’s ex-girlfriend because Leung’s so much the second story protagonist for a while he gets flashbacks. For a movie where Leung’s always walking around in tighty-whiteys, there are also some lovely romantic scenes. Director Wong and the crew bring the sexy for the salad days flashbacks, bringing yet another style into the film, which Wong still keeps once Faye Wong takes over, even though the narrative content has changed.
So astoundingly good. Chungking Express is astoundingly good. I’m livid at myself for not seeing it sooner.
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Lau Wai-Keung; edited by William Chang, Kai Kit-Wai, and Kwong Chi-Leung; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau and Chan Yi-kan for Jet Tone Production.
Starring Brigitte Lin (Blonde), Kaneshiro Takeshi (Zhiwu), Faye Wong (Faye), Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Cop 663), Chen Jinquan (Manager of ‘Midnight Express’), Valerie Chow (Air Hostess), Thom Baker (Drug Dealer), and Zhen Liang (May).