Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) feels like a dream. The film starts with a chase scene through the streets of Hong Kong, filmed in a low framerate slow-motion that both distorts the image and time, a common practice throughout the rest of the film. Characters often do obscure things, such as eat 30 cans of pineapple in one sitting, or simply accept obscure things, such as a friend breaking into their apartment to rearrange or even replace items, without being noticed. Love is a central theme in Chungking Express, as it is in many of Wong’s films, and for these characters love distorts reality, much like a dream.
This film features two stories told in sequence. Both are about lovesick cops who frequent a snack bar called Midnight Express and find new love interests that are very different from themselves. While you can call each cop the protagonist of his respective story, you can easily change perspective and call their love interest the protagonist of that story. Dualism is a prominent theme in this film, both within each story and in the fact that there are two similar stories told from different angles.
The first story features Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a detective (from the look of him), who, at 25, seems too young for such a career, and a woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who as a drug smuggler seems pretty fed up with her career. Starting about one-third of the way in, the second story features Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who has also recently broken up with his girlfriend, though his apathy suggests that he thinks she’ll be back, and Faye (Faye Wong) a new worker at Midnight Express, who expresses her interest in 663 by breaking into his apartment periodically, blasting music with only goldfish to dance with her.
By the end of the Chungking Express, the second story seems like the main course and the first just an appetizer (to use a food analogy – food is another prominent topic in this film). It is almost twice as long and has a more well-rounded story with a proper conclusion. While the two stories do have some overlap, I was expecting the less-significant first part to somehow tie into the conclusion of the second. It didn’t, instead largely departing the film by the 42 minute mark. While both stories are very well-made and enjoyable in their own right, the first one seems unnecessary to the overall film due to its less profound impact.
Perhaps what stands out most in this film is its soundtrack. If you enjoy “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas the first time Faye plays on the boom box, you’re in luck because she plays it about five more times before the films end. The same goes for “Things In Life” by Dennis Brown and a Cantonese cover (by Faye Wong) of “Dreams” by The Cranberries. With only a couple other songs, the soundtrack his little variety and a lot of repetition but it works well in the dream-like atmosphere that Wong has created.
Despite repetition in many aspects of Chungking Express, it does not tire you out. In fact, it’s worth watching twice. Wong’s attention to detail when creating this film allows you to spot things you may have missed the first time and the sometimes non-linear narrative will make more sense. I may even watch it a third time.