Prologue: As I often write second– or third-take
pieces on films that I’ve changed my mind about across the years, I usually
have no compunction about republishing on this website reviews of mine with
which I later came to completely disagree. The one below, however, is one I’ve managed
to repress even from my own archive for almost 25 years, until the original
file recently swam up from an old hard drive. When I wrote it at the beginning
of 1996, I had scarcely heard of Wong Kar-wai, and seen no other of his films;
I was solely reacting to (or rather, against) the prevailing hype around him.
Wong’s career has subsequently proved uneven (and I am still unconvinced that Chungking Express ranks among his very best), but my personal turnaround to the positive came in
1997 with Fallen Angels and several terrific films that followed
it, especially the underrated 2046. (November 2020)
I’d read and heard far too much wild acclaim for this
film before seeing it. Writer-director Wong Kar-wai (Days of Being Wild, 1990) is the new kid on the block of the
international film circuit: Asian cinephiles, those with a taste for
experimental narrative, and Quentin Tarantino have, in quick succession, got
behind his career.
Chungking Express is certainly
nothing like either a typical Hong Kong action-fantasy or a standard mainland-Chinese
art-cinema piece. Its terrain is somewhere between Pulp Fiction (1994), Reality Bites (1994) and a MTV-style, post-post-Nouvelle
Vague movie. From the advance word, I expected something dazzling and
revelatory – and, inevitably, I was disappointed.
It is a languid ode to slackers in love, told across
two stories. In both parts, Sensitive New Age Cops mope and whine about their
loveless lives. But the lazy lure of romance beckons in this eternal Hong Kong
night – a blurred world of neon, fast food, mobile phones and easy crime.
Wong’s women could have walked straight out of a
Tarantino film. In the first story, a mysterious crook who never takes her
sunglasses off (Brigitte Lin as “woman in blonde wig” – a clear nod to tough
Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ Gloria ) alternates between firing her gun (for never entirely clear plot reasons)
and conking out in bars and hotel rooms. The guy she intersects with, a cop
named He Qiwu, is played a little too easily for laughs by Takeshi Kaneshiro.
Whatever charm and inventiveness this film possesses
is mostly restricted to its amusing catalogue of small, behavioural tics. These
wilting, lovestruck police guys have a hundred odd rituals they use to cope
with rejection and get through the hard times, including strenuous running and
(most hilariously) talking sweetly to various inanimate objects (soap, a giant teddy
bear, a glass of beer, a wet rag ... ).
In the film’s best section, Faye gets the opportunity
to sneak, each day, into the apartment of the man she craves. Slowly and
fastidiously, she completely rearranges every aspect of his domestic life – and,
for a long while, he doesn’t even notice. This is a comic premise for a modern
love story; Éric Rohmer could have worked wonders with it.
Express is a great deal less than the sum of its interesting bits: flashes
of clever plotting, endearing characterisation (Faye Wong’s constantly
inventive, often danced gestures are a joy to behold), and an intermittently engaging
visual sense. (Wong and his collaborators, however, really overdo the groovy step-printing
technique.) It is an extremely repetitious and bloodless film, and its
laborious, two-part structure (in which the second half is much better than the
first) yields few rewards, over and above a couple of whimsical carry-over
motifs (like the expiry-dated food cans). The maddening on-a-loop reprise of
three songs in particular – “Things In Life” by Dennis Brown, “California
Dreamin’” by The Mamas and the Papas, and Faye Wong’s (close) Cantonese cover of
“Dreams” by The Cranberries – tested my patience. Cinema as jukebox, indeed!
Perhaps I was misled in expecting Wong Kar-wai to be a
new Francis Ford Coppola or Leos
Carax. This is not a spectacular or virtuosic showcase for his talents; rather,
it is in the whimsical, shambolic tradition of films by Aki Kaurismäki (La Vie de Bohème, 1992) or Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, 1993). But I found
Wong’s slacker movie simply too slack, posturing and lightweight for its own
© Adrian Martin January 1996