• Chungking Express stands as one of the finest works of cinema in the 1990s. It is WKW’s greatest work to date in 1994 (it would take one of the greatest films of all time, In the Mood For Love, to outdo it a few years later). Unquestionably, it belongs in discussion with Goodfellas, Breaking the Waves, Pulp Fiction, Boogie Nights and a few others.
  • the film was shot in just 23 days, apparently while WKW was on break from shooting Ashes in Time (also 1994)—which is the bigger budget, A-film, epic.
  • It begins with the voiceover of Takeshi Kaneshiro (cop 223). WKW is interested in not only love, but a certainly kind of love—a melancholic pervading mood. Both cop 223 and cop 663 (Tony Leung) are getting over their past romances when they run into (this chance is key in WKW’s world) Faye (Faye Wong) and simply the Woman in the Blonde Wig (Brigitte Lin) respectively. WKW is interested in randomness (cop 223’s voice-over noting how close he physically came to both women). He brushes past both female characters. This sort of drunken (or lovesick) prologue features WKW’s genius, dizzying visual style. He uses a handheld camera (with the work of two cinematographers- Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau Wai-keung), askew angles, rapid editing, tight spaces, and this distinct, shockwave of a wow, fusion of slow and fast motion– I’ll get into that later.

Brigitte Lin and Takeshi Kaneshiro in the first of two stories

  • All four actors have voiceovers (passing the baton like Goodfellas does a little before, but so do films that would come after like The Thin Red Line), WKW spends a little more time on the Tony Leung/Faye Wong story (and I think their achievement is a little greater as well) and that is the segment shot by Christopher Doyle.

Cutaways to melancholic poses, often off mirrors, at low or high angles, often at night, holding cigarettes or with a splash of neon from the Hong Kong streets. Cutaways to a clocks as well—all part of the formal cue/editing mix.

  • Speaking of formal cues, Chungking Express has WKW’s trademark repeated use of signature songs. The “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown is used 4x- and seems to signify the Brigitte Lin character.

Again, the idea of chance- the two women pass on the street at the 17-minute mark, never to meet. At the 18-minute mark Leung shows up, but it is another 20+ minutes before we are even aware he is a significant character in the film.

Idiosyncrasies aplenty, the cop 223 Kaneshiro character is obsessed with expiration dates- a stunner of a composition as WKW uses the convenience store as a frame within the frame at the 19-minute mark.

  • Much of the prologue, the action sequences, and a few choice moments throughout the film (a few highlights below) spanning both directors of photography, are these distorted, melded-speed sequences. WKW is able to distill the foreground, isolate it, and slow it down to basically a freeze frame, while letting the background fly by at a rapid speed. He’d often do the opposite, with the background in a freeze, and the foreground a whirlwind blur of color and lighting.

the effect is almost a cartoon-like or Caligari-like expressionism

the aesthetic is repeated often

it captures both the film’s undeniable energy and the bewitching sadness

  • WKW can make a CD jukebox look luminous, one of the many kaleidoscopic and hypnotic sequences.
  • Night shooting, loneliness, the jazzy, almost Blade Runner-like score—Frankie Chan & Roel A. Garcia – a brilliant piece of music here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEjZupA1Qkw

a kaleidoscope, or prismatic

canted angles

the film has inspired a generation (probably more than one now) of filmmakers from ‘Barry Jenkins to Xavier Dolan

  • Around the 40-minute mark (it is roughly 100 minutes long overall) the new story starts and we get the third and ultimately the fourth narrator. This is a significant film in the history of bifurcated efforts (Full Metal Jacket is another in 1987, Waves seems like a very significant film here in 2019 as well). I am certainly not surprised it is not a 50/50 split with the two stories in Chungking Express. WKW is not exacting, he is not Kubrick or Wes Anderson- there is a great deal of improvisation here- closer to the early French New Wave auteurs. From DP Christopher Doyle, “We shot it fast and in a way that has a big energy to it. It was ad hoc and improvised in many situations. We were shooting in the middle of the busiest part of Hong Kong.” https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/interviews/christopher-doyle-shooting-chungking-express
  • Faye’s theme- “California Dreamin” by The Mamas & The Papas is used 6X, I believe WKW tells the stories about the cops, but the music (at least the two pop songs used most heavily) are tied to the women. Some of the seminal moments from the film simply capture Faye Wong dancing. It is a special performance. Leung’s achievement is on the same level. The scene where he comes by and asks her out (the owner of the snack bar calls him a “smooth operator”) is a movie-star moment. He’s Cary Grant or Clark Gable.
  • It is impossible to do it justice it in a screenshot- but at the 56-minute mark WKW achieves one of the great shots/scenes of the decade. In the foreground there are the passing pedestrians on the street. The film stock is sped up for them. The background is capturing Leung and Faye Wong in slow-motion. There is a great piece on that shot here. https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/221-how-wong-kar-wai-turned-22-seconds-into-an-eternit/

both hyper-stylized and understated (two people standing, one drinking coffee)- one of the most important moments in 1990s cinema

  • Another blurred blending of speeds segments is at the 89-minute with Leung’s character putting the coin in the jukebox. There is another with the rain in the foreground- with the slow-motion the rain becomes like a fog—immaculate.

the effect of the style is so brilliantly tied to the melancholic mood

  • I do wonder if the film is better without the sort of happy ending epilogue, but it is just a question/idea- I wouldn’t want to touch this thing
  • A masterpiece