Urbanity and Identity in Chungking Express

Luke Magar dissects and decolonises the classic drama, Chungking Express.


Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express presents two loosely tied stories of unrequited love which besides themselves, mediate a kaleidoscopic journey through Tsimshatsui, and Central on Hong Kong Island, exploring themes of identity and urban disconnect. The first episode features Takeshi Kaneshiro as cop 223 (Qiwu), recently suffering from heartbreak on April 1st, the levity of the date leading to his denial and offbeat coping routine of collecting tinned pineapples that expire on May 1st – a symbolic countdown of his love. This is until his chance encounter with Bridgette Lynn – the drug dealing femme fatale in a raincoat and blond wig, who is caught up in a drug deal gone awry, running from her own symbolic countdown of the soon to be expired sardine can imposed by the operation manager. The second story features Faye Wong as a waitress at the midnight express, and her burgeoning infatuation with another police officer (Tony Leung), cop 663, who is also suffering from a break up. Shot in a period of little over three weeks, it has an irresistibly quirky and indulgent style evocative of Godard, but beyond its stylistic parallels, Chungking Express is a film deeply influenced by and about Hong Kong, its urban space, and the mundane interactions within it.

 

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 11.47.04
Still from Chungking Express (1994)

 

Unsurprisingly, WKW is (problematically) praised, particularly by western critics, for his aesthetic and seeming singularity within the wider asian film industry for his indulgence and attention to the minutiae of the process than the cohesive wholeness of narrative, much like the late auteurs of European arthouse cinema (see Jean Luc Godard, Jacques Demy etc). However, rather than a tacit continuation of European art house cinema, much of what WKW applies in Chungking Express and his wider work (although arguably more refined) are found in the broader Hong Kong cinema – the myriad of camera angles, manipulation of film speed, multiple exposures and eccentric lens filters have all been staples of traditional HK genre films for a while (see The Bride with White Hair, Heroes Shed No Tears). As such, it is important to debunk this appraisal of Wong – particularly in relation to popular HK cinema and its directors (John Woo) – for his seeming homage to the late European art house directors. Rather than being acknowledged as a development within the broader Hong Kong cinema, Wong is praised for his Eurocentricity.

It is important to consider the socio-political and cultural lieu where the film resides, to get an insight into the heavily stylised and seemingly apolitical melodrama we are first presented with. Sitting between Britain’s colonial past and the ever encroaching influence of mainland China, Hong Kong has long been a site of conflicted identity. The problems of such an identity was particularly acute in 1984, when the British government (which had taken Hong Kong from China in 1841) conceded the island colony back to the Chinese in 1997. Poised delicately between the two empires, Hong Kong cinema has unavoidably become a field where crises of identity are implicitly set up and played out to various ends because of this uncertainty. This tensity was compounded by the passing of the 1987 Film Censorship Bill by the Chinese Government, which although repealed later (to an extent), made acute the pre-existing concerns over an autonomous and forward thinking film industry. Subsequently, the narrative and action simmer still, indulged completely in the present – projecting and emoting, but doing little to address any causality and effect beyond the now. Indeed this ever encroaching surveillance and finite expressive freedom is implicitly teased by cop 223 – Qiwu, and his obsessive search for pineapple tins that expire on May 1, a playful date of expiration for his love and perhaps for the creative freedom of Hong Kong cinema itself. Beyond this, Wong also comments on materiality – “is there anything in the world that doesn’t expire… swordfish expires, meat sauce expires, even cling film expires,” asks Qiwu, in his sadness, questioning whether love, in all its fragile nuances, has a place in a city gripped with disposable consumer culture. Interestingly, Faye Wong from the second story, also makes an appearance in the first story, occupying a space less than a few frames but occupying it nonetheless. Clutching a stuffed Garfield toy, we see her leave a shop in the background, meters apart from Bridgette Lynn, the mysterious drug dealer. Besides the Easter-egg-like novelty, this brief scene serves to underline WKW’s emphasis on urbanity and time – that in such a dense, contested place, there are multiple lives, each as complex as the next, all happening at the same time, spatially distinguished by measures “less than 0.01 cm.”

Besides pursuit of romance, urbanity and identity are deeply embedded in the two stories. Beginning with the stuttering seduction of the white man (who we presume to be the operations manager of the drug ring our protagonist is involved in) by his Asian employee, the former only reciprocating the affection when she adorns a blond wig. Denis Brown’s “Things in Life” plays in the background,  making feelings of coloniality and conflicted cultural identity bitterly palpable. Next, we are swept to a scene of cop 223 chasing presumably lawbreakers – his beige jacket trailing in the wind, darting through scores of traffic. Chris Doyle, Wong’s long running cinematographer, tracks the action in visceral detail through a handheld camera, enquiring hungrily at faces, through sewage grills, imprinting the film with a sense of voyeurism and translating the smothering density of activity to the screen. Doyle also saturates the scenes in cold melancholy tones and cyan shades despite the abundance of bright neon advertisement and endless activity. In particular, the use of the step printing and under cranking techniques, whereby the scene is shot in a low frame rate, than doubled or tripled in speed during the editing process, and projected it back at the regular 24 frames per second, adds a duality to the movement captured. It is used to a particularly melancholy effect in the second story, where Tony Leung’s unnamed cop is slouched drinking and playing with something off screen. Behind him, faceless scores of passers by enter and leave. A solitary saxophone bleeds in lament. The characters and the action here are suspended in a nebulous state of animation and suspension, whereby what we see is clearly frantic, and yet the rate at which we receive them is always delayed. Compounded further by the subtle blurring of the background – the neon streaks and the relentlessness of megacity commerce, it forms a dreamy, elliptical blur, which serves to detach and disembody cop 663 from the action we are presented. Beyond this, framing and camera techniques are also used to instil a palpable contradiction of isolation within a city teeming with sensation. Characters are regularly framed within frames (a technique Wong uses to haunting effect in In The Mood for Love), whereby they are situated firstly in front of the camera frame but also inside a secondary, smaller frame – typically doorways and windows. Often the characters in the same frame are separated by in-set frames. Perpetually contained within and by small apertures, this technique serves to distil feelings of isolation and disconnect despite the claustrophobic proximity of modern metropolitan life in Hong Kong.

The choice of the spaces portrayed in the film is of particular importance in Chungking Express. WKW largely ignores the grand skyscrapers and malls that dominate western imaginations of Hong Kong as the “pearl of the orient.” In exchange, we are offered dilapidated shop fronts, suspect motels and run down fast food shops, largely bypassing, and drawing a distinct parallel with the white collar metropolis. While it may be spatially tangible, this glamorised version of Hong Kong is rarely encountered by the working class that inhabit the space in Chungking Express, such is the socio-economic stratification. And on the few occasions where outward, global settings are presented – the airport in the first story, and the restaurant “California” in the second, they take on a vacuumed state of placelessness (particularly when contrasted with the friendly informality of the ad-hoc food stall where cop 663 and the other officers have lunch). The airport presents a bleak site for our mysterious drug dealer where she loses her Indian smugglers, and the restaurant takes on a fruitless site of missed connection for both 663 (Tony Leung) and Faye. As such, the choice of presentation and omission of the urban spaces in Hong-Kong underpin WKW’s critique of modern Hong Kong and the unequal, disparate spaces that have developed.

Obsessed with the idea of their obsessions, and mired by regressive routines, our protagonists fall further and further away from the people of their pursuit. From cop 223’s regimental collection of expired pineapple cans to Faye’s dreams of California – it serves to detach and deny them the intimacy they desire. Set inside the suffocating boundaries of Hong Kong that is always in flux, the characters are presented with the most minimal of identity, going little beyond nicknames and badge numbers, such is the impersonality of the landscape they inhabit. However, despite the ephemeral, impersonal, nature of urban living, WKW still leaves room for optimism. Whether it is a brief pre-recorded birthday wish or an imaginary boarding pass, small gestures and brief moments of vulnerability still bewitch and beguile, offering fleeting windows of hope for romance in a seemingly hostile, urban landscape.

Chungking Express, 1994 [film]. Directed by Wong Kar-Wei. HK: Jet Tone Production.


 

Luke Magar is a  second-year BSc Geography student. He can be found at http://seurir.tumblr.com/

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