Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Suddenly, the "Hong Kong style" is in. Not only are director John Woo and actor Jackie Chan both releasing English-language films early in 1996 (Broken Arrow and Rumble in the Bronx, respectively), but the number of Hong Kong titles obtaining widespread American distribution is on the upswing. Two of those films, Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, are being released by Miramax under Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder imprint. Depending on how they are received, this could open the floodgates, at least temporarily, since no one knows what will happen to the Hong Kong film industry next year when the country reverts to Chinese rule.

Those expecting Chungking Express to offer a "typical" Hong Kong film experience (kung fu) are in for a surprise. While much of the camerawork is kinetic, the film contains very little traditional action. This is basically a character-based motion picture fueled by thematic explorations instead of a fast-moving plot. Wong uses Chungking Express to examine the similarities and differences in the ways human beings communicate.

In any given day, each person comes into contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of others. Many are simply men and women we pass on the street. There's no interaction other than the occasional meeting of eyes. Consider, however, that each face conceals a life's tale. How many of those stories are similar, and how many are truly unique? This is the focus of Chungking Express. Wong believes that, while every person's narrative has a percentage of singular elements, there's always a certain commonality that falls under the broad umbrella of the "human experience." Aspects of life break into often-repeated patterns, whether the subject is a Hong Kong gangster, a Russian farmer, or an American businessman.

To illustrate his point, Wong brings us two disparate tales. The only connection between them is a Hong Kong snack bar. They are not intertwined, yet the parallel course of love and loss charted by each underlines the primary theme. The first centers on a young policeman, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who desperately misses his ex-girlfriend. After they were together for five years, she walked out on him, and he is keenly aware of the hole in his life. So, to ease the pain, he decides to fall in love again -- this time with a blonde beauty (Brigitte Lin) who crosses his path. Of course, Qiwu isn't so much attracted to her as he is to the basic idea of being in love.

The second story introduces another man (Tony Leung) who has been dumped by his girlfriend. Faye (Faye Wang), one of the girls who works at the snack bar he frequents, becomes attracted to him. After obtaining a key to his apartment, she starts sneaking in while he's at work. His remarkably poor powers of observation allow Faye to clean the place and even do some minor redecorating without his noticing. Of course, it's almost guaranteed that at some time he will come home unexpectedly to find the young woman inside.

The loneliness of both male protagonists is palpable, and the females are each seduced by the lure of American culture. The object of Qiwu's desire dresses like a femme fatale out of a '40s movie and spends much of her time in a bar where everyone speaks English. Faye talks about moving to the United States and is forever playing her favorite song, "California Dreamin'." While the two stories are separate, the crisscrossing of themes and common elements can confuse inattentive movie-goers. Chungking express requires unflagging vigilance.

Like John Woo, Tsui Hark, and other directors who learned their craft in Hong Kong, Wong infuses his films with style and energy. His hand-held camera is restless, always moving and shifting. The action sequences are punctuated with unusual shots and stop-motion jumps. By filming Chungking Express in such rich, vibrant manner, the director uses visual images to underscore his themes. Once the viewer gets past bouts of confusion (the film demands more than one viewing), the result is a uniquely memorable look at the ties that bind all people, as presented through two deceptively simple stories.

Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994)

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cast: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung, Faye Wang
Screenplay: Wong Kar-wai
Music: Frankie Chan, Roel A. Garcia
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English dubbed Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1