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25 Years Later: Chungking Express

15 September 20 words: Charlie Alexander and Michael McCarroll

Contributors Charlie Alexander and Michael McCarroll revisit Chungking Express, 25 years after the UK release of this Hong Kong classic...

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai
Running time: 102 minutes

Asian cinema is currently experiencing its, arguably, second renaissance in the west thanks to the excellent, Oscar-winning Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. For many, this was their first foray into Korean - let alone Asian - cinema. As the back catalogue of amazing and original films from East Asia is dauntingly extensive, those thirsty for more can be left at a loss as to what to dive into next. 

An unpredictable and erratic collection of stories, Wong Kar-wai’s neon-soaked adventure Chungking Express, manages to cram melancholic and charming romance against suspense driven action in a story that centres around the seedy underbelly of the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong. With style and grace, we are guided along a bizarre and multifaceted narrative that seems estranged from any film prior; jumping from story to story Wong Kar-wai perfectly captures the chaotic speed of life in the mega city. Love, vengeance, murder and dreams are explored through his trademark pacey but art-house style. Celebrating its 25-year anniversary this month, it is essential, accessible and downright stunning in every aspect; a film that needs to be watched.

Told in two segregated parts, Chungking Express tells the affectionate story of two despairing and self-wallowing policemen on the bad side of a break-up. Takeshi Kaneshiro plays Officer He Qiwu, an infantile yet beautifully quirky lover-boy who turns to tinned pineapple as resolution to his aching heart. Wandering the energetic and crazed back streets, he crosses paths with a fiery and enigmatic woman in a memorable blonde wig and sunglasses who changes his life forever. Similarly, in a different part of the city, Officer 663, played by the legendary Tony Leung, has recently ended his relationship with his flight attendant girlfriend. Now talking to teddy bears and soggy-dish-cloths to relieve his inner pain, Officer 663 mirrors He Qiwu in his bizarre quirks and oddities - Wong Kar-wai’s choice to make both our protagonists so frivolously charming heightens our investment into their wonderfully unique stories and is a charging factor in the success of the film as a whole.

Due to his bold snubbing of the typical narrative arc, Wong Kar-wai manages to focus primarily on the beauty of the moment

Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau’s diverse cinematography brings so much vibrancy and life to the screen. Through a combination of audacious camera work and a psychedelic colour palette, they personify the streets of Hong Kong, making it a character of its own and, although the narrative seems to move at unprecedented speed, the glowing streets remain the constant backdrop for each and every quirk of this tale. Due to Lau’s captivating use of guerrilla filmmaking, the setting evokes a claustrophobic essence; leaving you trapped in the grit and danger that dominates the opening half. You are right there in the thick of the city, the culture, the crime. Adversely, Doyle’s visuals are hypnotic but through a contrasting scope; gliding fluidly through late night bars, absorbing the moody reggae that blasts out of jukeboxes. Doyle’s more indulgent aesthetic perfectly compliments the ever dreamy Faye Wong as she slowly falls into a lustful obsession with Officer 663.

Quentin Tarantino has admitted being subjected to tears whilst watching Chungking Express, not due to any particular moving scene but solely due to his pure love for it, and upon watching it for a third time this continues to make perfect sense. Director Wong Kar-wai has created a love letter to the part of Hong Kong he grew up in. A multi-cultured, spirited and crime-ridden mini metropolis where you could hear a million different stories. Due to his bold snubbing of the typical narrative arc, he manages to focus primarily on feelings and the beauty of the moment. So potent with melancholy, each defined but completely contrasting character offers new found accessibility and intrigue; unhinged but indisputably lonely people in search of catharsis. Leung and Kaneshiro are excellent as the self-wallowing, dejected cops; their personal narration offering another level of intimacy towards them. When He Qiwu falls out of love, he jogs. “The body loses water when you jog, so you have none left for tears”. Mirrored by the infectious soundtracking, the film as a whole is a punchy and irresistible experience; universal fun that can be appreciated by all. 

Revisiting this film after a few years was a refreshing and exciting adventure. It takes familiar themes like love, loss and memory, and approaches them in a completely different way. The whole experience is a kaleidoscope of colour, humour, unending charm and violence without being gratuitous. In the modern, corporate age of cinema, it is important to return to the original directors who shot movies because they wanted to tell a story that meant something to them. Chungking Express epitomises what cinema is here for; strange and quirky stories that unlock a personal sentimentality you didn’t know existed within yourself. 

Did you know? The name of the film refers to the Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, the urban area of Hong Kong where Wong grew up. “Express” is a nod to the Midnight Express food stand which appears in the film.

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