Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express” – 2016 HKIFF Review

From his arthouse auteur days as a pioneer of the Hong Kong New Wave revival to his Oscar-nominated film “The Grandmaster,” Wong Kar-wai has remained a maverick in all of cinema, not just in Hong Kong.  His exploration of personal journeys amid a juxtaposition of spellbinding cinematography and unsettling malaise has included the taboo (the ill-fated relationship of a gay couple in “Happy Together”), the philosophical (emphasized over martial arts in “The Grandmaster”) and the nostalgic (wondering what could have been in the sci-fi tinged “2046,” the title representing the year before the end of the “one country, two systems” principle between Hong Kong and China).

However, my favorite Wong film so far remains the first that I happened to get ahold of: his 1994 gem “Chungking Express” (重慶森林), released three years before the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to mainland China.  At the time, it was a contemporary, artistic view of young adults trying to find love and meaning on a murky path towards an even more uncertain future.  Now, more than two decades later, “Chungking Express” takes on an eerily prophetic tone, with elements on celluloid no longer existing in a present-day Hong Kong steeped in a fragile grip of identity and freedom.  Valerie Chow Ka-Ling and Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia have retired from the big screen, although the latter made a comeback following a 20-year absence on mainland China television last year.  The Midnight Express snack stand and the California Bar frequented by Tony Leung Chiu-Wei’s “Cop 663” character have been demolished, as have the Bottoms Up Club where Takeshi Kaneshiro and Lin first meet, and the Kai Tak Airport where her business deal goes awry.  That seemingly endless pile of canned pineapple tins consumed by Takeshi Kaneshiro?  Now well past their due date of May 1, 1994.

Ah, the pineapple: one of numerous off-the-wall touches dotting Wong’s two relationship observations that comprise “Chungking Express” (one has to look closely to observe the oh-so-close missed connections between characters on opposing sides of the film).  Although Cop 223/Qiwu’s (Kaneshiro) lethargic quest for companionship following a string of failed relationships is widely considered the weaker of the two stories, in 2016 it is the one that is more directly connected to an increasingly prevailing post-handover anxiety.  Qiwu last dated a girl named May, a relationship from which his psychological fallout leads to a pineapple-eating binge.  The expiration date serves as a humorous self-imposed deadline to see whether the demise of said relationship on April Fool’s Day, in fact, actually happened.  Playing out in parallel is the calculated Lin – known only as the “woman in blonde wig,” complete with sunglasses and a trench coat – who herself is searching for answers after a drug smuggling scheme goes awry.  She becomes the exhausted target of Qiwu’s misguided affections after a chance encounter in a bar following an unsuccessful search for those who ran off with her goods.  Although Qiwu is giddy with anticipation, the circumstances remain platonic thanks to their respective eccentricities and the clash of his exaggerated emotions with Lin’s film noir arc.

It was this segment that introduced the world to frequent Wong collaborator and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose shaky hand-held shots throughout the labyrinth of Chungking and (mostly) Mirador Mansions showed a seedier side to Hong Kong.  The buildings are located in the centrally located neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui, but to step inside them is to leave behind a luxury retail-soaked world and instead encounter a diverse group of individuals trying to make a living despite their status on the colony, legal or not.  This shared chase for certainty and identity between these nameless characters, Lin and Kaneshiro abruptly segue into another pair’s interactions – and the film’s permanent association with the song “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & the Papas.  The lovelorn figure of Cop 663 (Leung) is in a “maybe” relationship with an air hostess (Chow in a supporting role), but it doesn’t matter whether she is in Hong Kong or not: he’s still looking for something more but isn’t quite sure what.  Enter one of the most memorable characters in Wong’s repertoire, Midnight Express worker Faye (singer Faye Wong in one of her first films).  While the four lead characters all have their idiosyncrasies, it is Faye’s quirky naïveté and awkward attempts at communication with others that rise above them all.  These characteristics serve as covers for her keen perception that Cop 663, in fact, may be available; she just doesn’t know how to convey this, and the only way to for her to enter his heart is stealing her way through his stomach…and his apartment.  However, even at the conclusion of their story, when Faye plays hard-to-get by following Chow’s air hostess career path, it isn’t entirely certain where they will go – literally and figuratively.

Whether it be the future of a city or a person, as Wong accurately predicts, there are no easy answers – or in some cases, none on the horizon at all.  But with both stories concluding with a drop of optimism for all the characters involved, “Chungking Express” offers hope that, despite the surrounding haze of a rapidly changing world, the memories and interactions experienced by human beings – no matter how tenuous – can carry us through.

“Chungking Express” screens at the 2016 Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) screens on Sun., Mar. 27, in 35mm at 7:30 p.m.  Currently the screening is sold out, but check hkiff.org.hk for further updates.  The film is part of a HKIFF retrospective titled “In the Mood for Films – 25th Anniversary of Jet Tone Films,” honoring the company founded by director Wong Kar-Wai.