Chungking Express

People do silly things when the one thing they’re thinking about is the one thing they don’t want to think about. And people make odd bargains with themselves when circumstances spin out of control. They think they’re dealing with God (or the universe) when all they’re doing is passing time. Chungking Express is about two men who lose women and get fairly silly about it, because they’re in a bad way and they don’t know what else to do.

The film is told in two stories, with the most tenuous of connections: both men buy food at the same lunch counter, a dive where the owner is always trying to get them to shell out for more. After all, it’s not that expensive. Their stories unfold, theirs and the stories of the women who come to matter to them, but cannot replace what they’ve lost.

The first story is about Cop 223, whose girl May dumped him on April 1st. He’s been calling her house to talk to anybody but her, and purchasing canned pineapples with the expiration date of May 1st – if, by then, she doesn’t come back to him, their love will expire with the pineapples. The woman who becomes the eventual object of his undying affection is a blonde-wigged drug dealer running for her life. Well, sort of. They spend the night in a hotel room, where she immediately falls asleep and he eats a lot of food.

The second story is about Cop 663, whose stewardess girlfriend flies off without him. However, it’s not he who is sad – the items in his apartment are. So he tells a bar of soap to pull itself together and to not lose so much weight, and he adjures a damp and dripping rag to stop crying. His new lady (a lovable Faye Wong) is a waitress at the lunch counter. She has stolen the keys to his apartment, and, during the day, she sneaks in to spruce it up.

The stories don’t develop in any expected way. In fact, they barely develop at all. Plot isn’t what’s important, the tedium of life is – as are all the little details that go beyond observation. So I like the little moments where the movie makes me smile and laugh. Like when Cop 223 berates the shop clerk for throwing out expired cans, and begins what seems to be a heartfelt speech (probably loaded with meaning); and the clerk cuts him off, showing he has just as much to complain about as the cop does.

I believe a number of reviews (particularly Ebert’s) have the film wrong. It is not a wholly intellectual exercise, where we are trying to pick out what elements of genre have been subverted and how our expectations are being contravened – that’s film school crap. It is wrong to call the film essentially Godardian. Godard is an intellectual filmmaker because he has no heart. He does not love people, so he cannot make characters that anyone loves. The only thing his movies reveal (to me) is that he loves his ideas and himself, and he hates others, especially his audience.

Kar-Wai Wong does not hate us. He isn’t interested in punching us on the nose for having the gall to expect entertainment, or even likeable people. He doesn’t see the need to put his characters through the soul-deadening plot requirements that kill so many Hollywood movies.

As a result, Chungking Express is like a little bird: though it flies, it never strays too far from the tree1. There’s some magic to it, and some loveliness. You’ll be glad to have seen it, I think, but it won’t occupy too much space in your mind. It’s like a light Hollywood film, only a little sweeter and a lot more human.

1Yeah, I know birds migrate (even the little ones). It’s a tortured metaphor, and probably a little fey. But, if it makes you feel better, you can imagine I’m prancing about in a tutu while I write this. See? That image is like a hatchet to your brain – I’m being Godardian.

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