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Chungking Express (1994: Wong Kar-wai: Hong Kong)


masterofoneinchpunch
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masterofoneinchpunch

Chinese title 重慶森林 (Chungking Forrest or Chungking Jungle).

This movie is both in my top 50 Hong Kong movies of all-time and my top 100 movies of all-time.  If you are trying to influence someone into Wong (Kar-wai, not Jing; yes, this is Hong Kong cinema joke) then this is a great film to start with. He is one of the most romantic of directors analogous to The Cure in music.  Love is often ephemeral and sometimes doomed, but never forgotten.  I have joked (somewhat seriously) that my life is a combination of Wong Kar-wai and Jane Eyre.  I certainly see the similarities with this movie and my life which also is one of the reasons I love this director.  I miss jogging though.

Chungking Express takes place in Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui of southern Kowloon (Wong Kar-wai grew up here) and Lan Kwai Fong where the food stand Midnight Express was located.  Chungking refers to the first episode and Express refers to the second.  So much of this was filmed at these places quickly and without permission (which is why it was done quickly; not uncommon with Hong Kong film).

There are two main love stories that overlap each other.  The first episode is with Brigitte Lin (in a blond wig reminiscent of both Gloria (Gena Rowlands) and Double Indemnity (Barbara Stanwyck) and an unseasonable trench coat reminiscent of Chow Yun-fat in A Better Tomorrow)* as a drug smuggler and recent lovelorn Cop 223, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro (though doesn’t it seem kind of hard to believe him getting dumped and not getting a date), in such an interesting set-up between the hardened criminal and the depressed jogging policeman. 

If you love someone, clean their shoes.  The scene with Kaneshiro and Lin at the bar is one of my favorites in the film.  It always impresses someone when you hit on them in multiple languages. Though having an eating disorder is not as impressive, especially when you are throwing up pineapple.  They both have the same deadline of May 1.  She has to escape Hong Kong and he has vowed to get over his lost love May on his birthday (really hard not to see this connection with the upcoming handover).

The second episode is with Cop 663, played by Tony Leung (Chiu-wai not Ka Fai) who would win the Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor for this, who just broke up with a stewardess (Valerie Chow) and Faye Wong as the quintessential manic pixie dream girl before that term became an expletive.  She is adorable in this. She is also the one who sings a cover of “Dreams” originally by The Cranberries.  And who would not want a crush breaking into their apartment and rearranging things? Which in real life was Christopher Doyle’s apartment and yes he was weepy about it being flooded.

The ending had me thinking of My Blueberry Nights – a film I like quite a lot even though it seems to be lesser favored among Wong’s filmography.  But you can find so many similar thematic elements in Wong’s movies.  For example, time (“One-Minute Friend” in Days of Being Wild, I love that scene), memory and unrequited love are constant themes in Wong’s works.  Prevalent here from the expiration date metaphors to the broken and the “almost” relationships.  With this movie coming out three years before the handover to China it also represents the expiration date of Hong Kong and the unknown of what will happen – a consistent theme is so much of Hong Kong cinema at this time.  This also reminds me of the Fight Club quote: "On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."

The cinematography is quite good here with the step printing (this aspect would be quite influential), Dutch angles and handheld shots.  Wong employed two choreographers here: Andrew Lau (who would later codirect Infernal Affairs) who shot the first episode (I believe he had to leave to direct To Live and Die in Tsimshatsui) and Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Rabbit-Proof Fence) who shot the second episode.  I love Wong’s use of voice overs and he has stated that he likes using them because people are more likely to talk to themselves than others.  That is true, I do talk a lot to myself with various narrators.

Quentin Tarantino with his Rolling Thunder company bought the rights (after first seeing it at a Stockholm film festival; this was the first film in the Rolling Thunder Video Collection) and you can see this on the Criterion version as well (the version I watched for this review).  It has a release of 102 minutes while the original Hong Kong release was 98 minutes.  Wong does love to tinker with his movies (reminds me of Orson Welles) so luckily there are only two different releases of this movie.

I find it interesting that this film was made on a break during the editing of Ashes of Time and released before that film.  I like this movie much more than the film where so much more time was spent on.  The third story of Chungking Express was dropped due to time constraints, but later made into the film Fallen Angels.  That is a worthy film to watch after this. Though you may think differently of Takeshi Kaneshiro and ice cream trucks.

* I have read Wong Kar-wai mention Gloria as an influence, but not Double Indemnity.  However, Lin really does remind me of Barbara Stanwyck in this movie as well.  And what is hilarious is that the wig was initially used fora Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire type character.

Resources:

Book: Planet Hong Kong (Second Edition: 2011) by David Bordwell: I learned from here that two weeks were shot in Brigitte Lin’s home but were never used for the film.
Book: Wong Kar-wai (World Directors) (2005) by Stephen Teo: this monograph is a must have for fans of the director and an influence on this essay. My review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/353656025  He uses the French word durée (time) a lot in describing this film.
HKMDB
Book: Once Upon a Time in China (2003) by Jeff Yang: An elongated capsule review. Has a few points wrong: this is not Brigette Lin’s last film, though it is close.  There is a little bit of law-enforcement related activity.
Book: City on Fire (1999) by Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover: “Wong’s characters maneuver through the consumer marketplace, extending the ideology of capitalism.”  Stokes book overdoes Marxist rhetoric throughout.
Online essay/interview: Poet of time: Wong Kar-Wai on Chungking Express (1995 originally with Tony Rayns)
Commentary: Tony Rayns (2008) on the Criterion release.
DVD: Criterion Release: “Moving Pictures” -- a Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle 1996 interview of an episode on British Television.
DVD: Rolling Thunder Release: “Quentin Tarantino Wrap Up:” a good short extra with Tarantino.
Short essay: “Electric Youth” by Amy Taubin.  This can also be found on the Criterion release.  She writes that this is the “Masculin féminin of the 1990s…”  I do feel a lot of Godard is a Law of the Instrument director for comparison (she also makes a rather forced comparison with Bringing Up Baby).  She weirdly writes that this was on the “the first films in which their respective directors focused predominately on characters who were ten years their juniors.”  Tony Leung is only four years younger and Bridget Lin is older than him.  There are two characters that fit this criterion, but that is two out of four. Such a weird thing to write.  She blames Miramax for not doing well at the US Box Office and then states it did well in Hong Kong which it did OK at best (7 million HK dollars; compare this to God of Gamblers 2 which did 55.5 million HK dollars).

Notes/Comments:
Differences in International and Hong Kong release here.
There are a whole bunch of reviews and essays that state this is postmodern.  I have read a decent amount of postmodernism and I am still not sure of the connection.  The film while flashy is still straightforward in its timeline as well in its voice over.
I hate when Criterion does not subtitle the English dialogue.
One of the most famous shots here (drinking in slow motion):

Extra:
Haruki Murakami’s “One Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” is an influence on this film.  Stephen Teo wrote in Wong Kar-wai that “The author’s influence on Wong is therefore exerted in two ways: first, in the monologues that reflect the conversational style of the author, and second, in the narrative as a recounting of memory.”  Tony Rayns talks about the writer’s influence on Wong as well in his Criterion commentary.
Live performance of “Dreams” by Faye Wong here.
“Things in Life” by Dennis Brown here.“California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas here.

Tags: Lan Kwai Fong, Tomokazu Miura, Tsim Sha Tsui, Yamaguchi Momoe,

Edited by masterofoneinchpunch
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21 hours ago, masterofoneinchpunch said:

This movie is both in my top 50 Hong Kong movies of all-time and my top 100 movies of all-time.

The same for me, I love this movie.

Ironically, the drug dealer in the first episode was a co-worker of mine (that was back in the early-mid 20's). He moved to Atlanta but we still keep in touch.

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On 9/17/2022 at 12:04 PM, thekfc said:

The same for me, I love this movie.

Ironically, the drug dealer in the first episode was a co-worker of mine (that was back in the early-mid 20's). He moved to Atlanta but we still keep in touch.

Is he even mentioned anywhere?  Is he on HKMDB?  Seriously, so many people do not know who that was.

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4 minutes ago, masterofoneinchpunch said:

Is he even mentioned anywhere?  Is he on HKMDB?  Seriously, so many people do not know who that was.

His name is Thom Baker, he didn't do much acting just bit parts.

He now does a lot of photographing.

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22 hours ago, thekfc said:

His name is Thom Baker, he didn't do much acting just bit parts.

He now does a lot of photographing.

Is he on a website or somewhere that links to his picture/info?  Seriously thanks for the info.  A lot of people have been wondering about this.

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20 hours ago, masterofoneinchpunch said:

Is he on a website or somewhere that links to his picture/info?  Seriously thanks for the info.  A lot of people have been wondering about this.

PM sent.

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I'll be the first to admit that I simply didn't get this film. It's not that I disliked it. I didn't. I just feel like a lot of it was lost in me and, therefore, I missed out on the universal love it's garnered over the years. I think I need to watch it again. Preferably with my phone in another room and zero distractions.

I've had an interesting relationship with Wong Kar Wai movies so far. In the Mood for Love is in my top ten movies of all time and I very much liked Fallen Angels and The Grandmaster. But I practically hated Happy Together. Perhaps this one was lost on me too.

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On 9/16/2022 at 11:49 PM, masterofoneinchpunch said:

This movie is both in my top 50 Hong Kong movies of all-time and my top 100 movies of all-time. 

Top 50 HK movies and top 10 all-time for me. Seen it 3 times if my memory serves me right, last time on the big screen. Of course it's also my fave WKW movie. 

A friend of sorts once told me he met Doyle in Cannes and he gave him the keys to the flat where Tony Leung's character lived in the movie. Said that was actually Doyle's flat in HK.

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On 9/21/2022 at 1:14 PM, Drunken Monk said:

I'll be the first to admit that I simply didn't get this film. It's not that I disliked it. I didn't. I just feel like a lot of it was lost in me and, therefore, I missed out on the universal love it's garnered over the years. I think I need to watch it again. Preferably with my phone in another room and zero distractions.

I've had an interesting relationship with Wong Kar Wai movies so far. In the Mood for Love is in my top ten movies of all time and I very much liked Fallen Angels and The Grandmaster. But I practically hated Happy Together. Perhaps this one was lost on me too.

If you liked Fallen Angels (which was supposed to be the third story of this film), I think you might appreciate Chungking Express if you rewatched it (and of course read my essay :D).  I actually like all of those.  Happy Together is depressing but well made.

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On 9/16/2022 at 2:49 PM, masterofoneinchpunch said:

And who would not want a crush breaking into their apartment and rearranging things? Which in real life was Christopher Doyle’s apartment and yes he was weepy about it being flooded.

 

8 minutes ago, Super Ninja said:

A friend of sorts once told me he met Doyle in Cannes and he gave him the keys to the flat where Tony Leung's character lived in the movie. Said that was actually Doyle's flat in HK.

Hee hee, I did mention this in the essay.

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1 minute ago, masterofoneinchpunch said:

 

Hee hee, I did mention this in the essay.

Sorry, once I've read This movie is both in my top 50 Hong Kong movies of all-time and my top 100 movies of all-time I rushed to comment, didn't wait to finish the essay. 

Finally a partial confirmation that the story I was told is true. If I ever meet Doyle, I'll ask him if he ever offered the keys to his flat to a tall, bald guy he met in Cannes.

On 9/16/2022 at 11:49 PM, masterofoneinchpunch said:

If you love someone, clean their shoes.

I absolutely love that scene. It was there when I first thought to myself WKW is the most romantic director alive.

On 9/16/2022 at 11:49 PM, masterofoneinchpunch said:

She is adorable in this.

Me rushing to comment again and not learning from my mistakes.

On 9/16/2022 at 11:49 PM, masterofoneinchpunch said:

She is adorable in this. She is also the one who sings a cover of “Dreams” originally by The Cranberries.

Fell in love right then and there and have been in love ever since. When I play Dreams I'm lost to reality.

Beautiful essay worthy of the movie. Couple of things I didn't know that will add an extra dimension to my next watch, thanks.

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