PRINT March 1996


THE ETERNAL CITY OF YOUTH beckons anew: romantic urban ciphers (cops, gun moll, stewardess, fast-food gamine) bathed in neon reflections of themselves, style as metaphysics (sunglasses at midnight), gaiety and sorrow entwined in a hungover reverie. That’s the mood of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, the 1994 Hong Kong movie-cum-international-sensation that finally opens this month in America under the banner of—who else?—Quentin Tarantino. Wong, though, goes in for cerebral Pop abstractions instead of brain-splatter pulp. A dazzlingly adroit synthesis of art cinema and MTV, Chungking Express has a deadpan cosmopolitan energy that conflates successive New Waves—Godard’s and Debbie Harry’s. (In Wong’s most recent film, Fallen Angels, 1995, a feverish extension of this masculin/féminin mystique, currently making the festival rounds in the West, there’s even a tough cookie called Blondie.) The cheerfully lost (well, maybe just misplaced) souls adrift through Chungking Express listen to their interior monologues as if they were soundtracks. Which they are: the movie repeats the 1966 Mamas and Papas hit “California Dreamin’” so often it becomes a sleepwalker’s mantra.

Chungking Express presents life as a radiant blur. Wong’s visual trademark (in collaboration with cinematographer Chris Doyle) is a look of hyperreal clarity broken with interludes of sensuous, pixilated slow motion. Unfolding in Hong Kong’s overdeveloped underbelly, the cramped social space bordered by the fleabag Chungking House hotel and the bustling Midnight Express food stand, the film sketches two virtual love stories that almost but don’t quite overlap. In one, a forlorn plain clothes cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) tries to romance a mystery woman in a bar (Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia), unaware she’s a drug dealer whose confederates have double-crossed her. The second has a take-out counter girl (the endearingly gawky Faye Wong, an updated Jean Seberg by way of Amanda Plummer) stalking an impassive uniformed cop (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), sneaking into his apartment to rearrange it like some housekeeping poltergeist. (Since he credits inanimate objects with a mind of their own, he never suspects a thing.) But plot here is merely a cursory formality, a means of ruminating on the arbitrariness of signs and relationships, the tricks desire plays on itself, the present as déjà vu.

The first policeman measures the transience of time and love by the expiration dates on pineapple cans—feeling like a discarded one himself, he calmly devours 30 cans of pineapple and then goes out drinking, reasoning that “alcohol’s good for digestion.” The second gives pep talks to his soap, pining for a stewardess he’s lost touch with. These yearning cops are pet-shop boys peering at a shimmering aquarium Hong Kong—the local equivalents of West End girls float past, out of reach but never out of mind. Wong calls Chungking Express “a road movie of the heart,” but it’s a road that keeps turning back on itself: even as life is happening, it’s experienced as memory. A convenience mart will look as lush and enchanted as an oasis, but it dissolves any sense of place in the process. The movie’s appeal is partly that, like a Circle K store, it could be set anywhere: this city of sensibility might as well be Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, New York. In the same way, the swirl of images and sensations is so thick it tends to obscure how pleasantly familiar all Wong’s pop and cinematic free-associations are. Have Jean-Jacques Beineix’s playful Diva, or even Robert Longo’s ominously blissed-out video for New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” been forgotten so soon? Combine the two and you have the essence of what Wong is doing in Chungking Express: boiling down a couple of decades worth of hip archetypes to a smooth, wonderland veneer.

It’s a marvelous formula, but the solemn press buildup (“It must be blindingly obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that here is a supreme stylist of the cinema”) will leave a lot of people scratching their heads when they discover that beneath its technique and elliptical form, Chungking Express is a lighthearted comedy. (As they will, unless they mistake charm for subversive chic.) The movie treats its existential baggage nonchalantly, serving up melancholia with a smile. Yet to read Wong’s press clips you’d think this was a visionary come to save Hong Kong film from itself. Wong and Chungking Express are being hyped as though they were the antitheses of action director John Woo and of HK’s glut of what are disdainfully referred to as genre films. Never mind that quite a few of those pictures are more audacious and suggestive than Wong’s work so far; what cineastes mean when they hail Wong as the greatest director to come out of Hong Kong is that he’s the most Eurocentric, the most taken with the high masters of auteurism. Even so, a look at Clara Law’s 1992 Autumn Moon shows that he’s hardly the lone “serious” Hong Kong director. Moreover, Law’s beautifully modulated film anticipates many of the central themes (isolation and youthful longing in a commodified world) and devices (contrapuntal voice-overs, the outsider who filters life through a video camera) of both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels. Next to Law, Wong’s treatment of this material looks far less personal—he seems a swoony prankster trying out attitudes before a mirror. (This is most apparent in how the two handle sex: Wong is coyly voyeuristic, Law gives us visceral, disruptive physicality.)

The notion of Wong as a figure far beyond the crass confines of genre is misleading. Rather, and more interestingly, his movies treat “art film” as genre. He instinctively translates art tropes into pop signifiers, the inverse of the way Woo worked in his great, obsessive death-opera Bullet in the Head, 1990. From the start, Wong has blurred the gap between straight genre pieces (the neo-Martin Scorsese gangland of the 1988 As Tears Go By) and private fixations (trauma as nostalgia in 1990’s Days of Being Wild). Chungking Express strikes a lovely, sanguine balance between the poles; Fallen Angels goes off the deep end of self-obsession. (It’s crammed with so many allusions to his past work, it’s like a noisy greatest-hits medley).

As loath as some critics are to admit it, Wong’s esthetic is a logical outgrowth of the Hong Kong reanimator mode: fusing wildly disparate styles and taking them to sublime extremes. It’s much easier to wax rhapsodic over Wong’s formalist panache if you’ve never seen the wondrously unhinged Naked Killer, an HK B-movie of such elegantly deranged perversity and gleeful psychosexual mischief it explodes every convention it careens over. Lin’s trench-coated, revolver-packing dame is fun in Chungking Express (the world-weary Marlene Dietrich tone when she demands “whiskey” is glorious), but the conception is anemic next to the complex, Jules et Jim–in–Vietnam changes that director Tsui Hark rang on it with Anita Mui in A Better Tomorrow III. Likewise, Wong’s avant-garde action sequences (darting smears of frenzy and chaos, slowed down but not enough for the eye to fully register everything) in Fallen Angels and especially in Ashes of Time, 1992, bowl the uninitiated over, but they’re really just minor refinements of the imagery of mainstream Hong Kong pictures like the science fiction Wicked City and the martial-arts fable The Bride with White Hair. (Wong’s movies borrowed the leads from those films too.)

Purity in movies finally breeds a puritanism of the senses, but Wong is too fond of enchanted junk-shop milieux to succumb to abstinence. What’s rewarding in Wong’s oeuvre, what’s alive in it, is lack of artistic purity. It’s no accident that Ashes of Time, an austere, dreamily ironic swordplay epic, is at once so anomalous and so utterly characteristic of Hong Kong film at its most satisfying: where else would someone combine Akira Kurosawa and Alain Resnais to make the equivalent of The Seven Samurai at Marienbad (and have this constitute a genre, albeit a genre of one)? After all, Chungking Express’ best sequence has Leung Chiu-Wai fooling around with air hostess Valerie Chow to Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes,” tenderly landing toy planes on her sweat-coated back—a scene inspired by Wong’s childhood memory of a Pan Am commercial.

Chungking Express is in fact an advertisement for itself, but its characters are so good at killing time you hardly notice the film doesn’t quite get around to delivering the goods it seems to promise. Fallen Angels, originally conceived as a third story for Chungking Express and now expanded into a full feature, is instead a commercial for Wong. With its showy wide-angle close-ups and punch-drunk hand-held camera moves, it’s more a frantic resumé than a movie. And there’s no way any parodist is going to top Michelle Reis’ latex-miniskirted, chain-smoking, strung-out-on-love routine here: clutching a cigarette even when she masturbates (a scene Wong digs so much he has her repeat it), Reis is the ultimate fantasy of supermodel self-abasement.

The one truly fresh thing in Fallen Angels is Kaneshiro, returning as a crazier variant of his sweet, oddball cop in Chungking Express. Now he’s a mute ex-con who breaks into closed shops at night and benevolently accosts passersby into becoming his customers/victims. Here Wong does extend the spirit of Chungking Express: Kaneshiro is a present-day version of Marcel Carné’s Baptiste haunting a Chungking Boulevard of Crime, in search of love and the perfect gesture. As such, Wong’s alter ego isn’t so far from the desert exiles of Ashes of Time. Perhaps he’s looking for the one Lin played there, she who was nicknamed “Defeat-Seeking Loner.” They were made for each other.

Howard Hampton writes for Film Comment.