There are several things you can count on in a Wong Kar-Wai film. There will be difficult romantic relationships. The alienated male leads will spend a lot of time brooding and not quite connecting with their love interests. Women are lovely, mysterious, mercurial, and may vanish like a puff of smoke in the night. There will often be repeated visuals and music, and important plot points may happen entirely offscreen. In Wong's weaker films this can lead to meandering, repetitive narratives and frustrating, ambiguous endings. However this gives his best films, like "Chungking Express," a unique rhythm and lyricism that heightens the atmosphere of his troubled love stories.
"Chungking Express" is made up of two tales about young police officers recovering from recent breakups. In the first, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) resolves to wait a month for his girlfriend to come back to him. During this time, he has several encounters with a mystery woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), who might be in trouble with drug smugglers. In the second, Cop 633 (Tony Leung) attracts the attention of a girl named Faye (Faye Wong) who works the late shift at a snack bar. She gets ahold of the Dear John letter left by his flight attendant ex (Valerie Chow), along with a key to the cop's apartment. This lets her break in occasionally, to make some improvements to his living situation.
Love in "Chungking Express" is like a bad habit that's hard to shake, a nagging impulse that drives the characters to express their feelings in strange and indirect ways. Cop 233 buys and eats a can of pineapple with a May 1st expiration date every day for a month, a ritual act that might somehow prove his devotion to his absent girlfriend. Faye listens to the American oldie "California Dreamin'" on an eternal loop, until the song becomes emblematic of her growing obsession. Sadly, the object of her affection doesn't get the message, too busy holding imagnary conversations with his household objects. Wong Kar-Wai's visuals keep up the theme, creating patterns with variations on the same images and the same locations, over and over again.
Yet the film never feels overly structured and never loses a sense of spontaneity. It's bursting with color and energy, capturing the urban bustle of Chungking. Many of Wong's other films are dreamy and languorous, but this one never seems to slow down. The camera is frequently moving through the blur of the crowds, or following the cops as they chase down criminals, or keeping up with Faye on one of her cleaning sprees. The elusiveness of the woman in the blonde wig is due in part to the nature of the city, where one can be lost in an instant in the teeming mass of humanity. And when Cop 233 does approach her, it takes greetings in four different languages to find a common tongue. The characters are predominantly youthful and impulsive, who don't so much subvert romantic conventions as rewrite the rules and make up new ones to suit their own tastes. The original title of the film literally translates as "Chungking Jungle," reflecting the wildness of the characters' lives and emotions.
And then there's the cast, which features a lot of Hong Kong favorites. Nobody suffers through heartbreak like Tony Leung, Wong Kar-Wai's favorite leading man. And then there's the almost goofy charm of Takeshi Kaneshiro, in one of his earliest roles. However, I think it's Faye Wong who steals the picture, with her tomboyish looks and larcenous ways. Her character is the one I think of when someone brings up the manic pixie dreamgirl archetype, but Faye's kind of madness is appropriate for the odd relationship that develops between her and Cop 633. You get the feeling that Faye has to resort to such extremes as breaking into the poor man's apartment and replacing his towels, because he's so depressed he doesn't even notice at first. Would it be possible to attract him by any normal means?
I've seen nearly all of Wong Kar-Wai's films, and they all seem to revolve around unrequited love and longing. The sensuous "In the Mood for Love" is probably his masterpiece, but "Chungking Express" is the one I like the best because it's the most hopeful and funny. Sure, the relationships may not work out, but the characters are just beginning in life, and they're in a big, vibrant city where a new opportunity for happiness may be around the next corner. There's still plenty of time for them to grow and learn and experiment and fall in love again.
Or as the mystery woman tells Cop 233, "People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow."
What I've Seen - Wong Kar-Wai
Days of Being Wild (1990)
Chungking Express (1994)
Ashes of Time Redux (1994)
Fallen Angels (1995)
Happy Together (1997)
As Tears Go By (1988)
In the Mood for Love (2000)
The Grandmaster (2013)