Friday, June 14, 2013

Film #97: Chungking Express (1995)

Original (Cantonese) Title: Chung Hing sam lam

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Initial Release Country: Hong Kong (China)

Times Previously Seen: none

Semi-Rapid-Fire Summary

In 1990s Hong Kong, young police officer #223, He Qiwu, is battling loneliness in the wake of a lost love. His girlfriend has broken up with him just a few weeks prior, and he tries to deal with it by leaving voice messages for her on a daily basis. He has also given himself a deadline of 30 days, which he counts using expiration dates on can of pineapples, within which to hear from her. He tells himself that if he does not hear from her, he will abandon his hope of a reconciliation.

When the 30 days is up, Qiwu devours all of the cans of pineapples and heads to a bar to drown his sorrows. After several drinks, he spots and comes on to a beautiful woman in a blond wig. Unbeknownst to Qiwu, the icy woman is embroiled in a drug smuggling double-cross and is in the bar for some quietude. Still, she eventually succumbs to Qiwu’s persistent overtures and brings him up to her hotel room. Any amorous hopes that Qiwu may have are dashed, though, as the woman promptly falls sound asleep, leaving him to eat room service food and watch movies on the hotel television.

Qiwu tries to move past his former love with booze and some pick-up moves.

The day after, Qiwu has left the woman in the hotel room, and he seems on the verge of mentally moving past his ex-girlfriend. However, he receives a birthday message from her, perhaps giving him some shred of hope.

At a short-order restaurant frequented by Qiwu, another police officer, #663, is battling his own romantic breakup. Between getting coffee and food at the restaurant, he reminisces over a romance with a beautiful flight attendant. He copes by simply doing his duty as a cop and making humorous observations to the inanimate objects in his apartment, many of which belonged to his ex.

Taking notice of 663 is Faye – a somewhat flighty young woman who works the counter at the restaurant. Very secretively, Faye’s interest in 663 grows. In a turn of events, she ends up with a letter and apartment key from 663’s ex. Rather than passing them along to the dejected officer, Faye keeps the letter and uses the key to explore his tiny apartment while he is away at work. At first, she simply looks around, but eventually she begins to clean and care for the dwelling. This seems to be the only way that the socially awkward young woman can try to connect with the object of her infatuation.

Cop #663, lost in his own thoughts as the love-struck Faye gazes on.

After a few weeks of her clandestine care-taking, Faye is caught in the apartment by 663. Though shocked, the man is not critical. In fact, he allows Faye to stay a while and the two fall asleep on his couch. The following day, 663 and Faye plan to have an actual “date” at a nearby restaurant and bar. However, Faye stands up 663, leaves her job at the restaurant, and actually departs Hong Kong altogether. In a perhaps not-coincidental turn, she becomes a flight attendant in order to see the world. One year later, Faye returns to find that 663 has bought and is renovating the restaurant. The two talk a while, though we cannot be sure whether they will have any kind of future together.

My Take on the Film:

Chungking Express is a good movie that certainly shows a lot of skill from a then-young director. It’s quirky, thoughtful, and stylish in places. I can’t say that I was blown away, though.

In telling the story of the two lonely police officers, we get some very heartfelt slices of life in the hyperactive East Asian metropolis of Hong Kong. The stories of He Qiwu and Cop 663 are ones that come across as very authentic, and you can’t help but feel for both men. They seem to represent two of presumably countless other people in the vast city that can’t seem to find the romantic connections that they crave. The ways that they deal with their loneliness are quite different from one another, but show them both to be very sympathetic in their humorous attempts to cope with their dilemmas. It all has a feel rather reminiscent of the French New Wave films of Godard and Truffaut from the 1960s. In particular, Band ofOutsiders has the same genuine playfulness mixed with a tragedy that, admittedly, is more palpable.

Only being loosely connected to one another, the movie comes off as really two shorter films, stitched together only by the short-order food stand that they both frequent. The first story, that of Qiwu, I found to be the more engaging of the two. Qiwu is love-struck and pines away over his ex-girlfriend by marking off the days after their breakup by buying cans of pineapples, all of which will expire 30 days after his April Fool’s Day dumping. He tells himself that he will give his ex until May 1st to allow him back into her life. It’s a funny little system that reflects the little ways that we lie to ourselves in order to cling to past happiness. In Qiwu’s case, though, it clearly doesn’t work very well, as he falls in love with the mysterious woman in the blonde wig. The evening of unsatisfied amore in the hotel room is another slightly comical yet sad moment in his life. You end up feeling for him, though in a very realistic rather than classically romantic way.

Qiwu's loneliness is cast in a rather humorous light, through his pineapple can counting system.

The tale of Cop 663 is one of a different sort. It has its own feel, but it has some of the same lighthearted wistfulness of Qiwu’s story. 663 is a slightly older man who seems more controlled and world-weary than Qiwu. Tony Leung, who is phenomenal in this as well as Kar-Wai’s later film In the Mood for Love, has the amusing quirks of consoling his household goods while seeming oblivious to some of the most obvious things. Faye’s initial quiet interest in 663 is charming at first, but for me it lapses into disturbing stalker behavior – something akin to a more eerie version of the title character’s antics in the playful French film Amelie. I don’t know that this was Kar-Wai’s intent, but it is the impression I came away with. Nevertheless, the story certainly held my attention, even if I wasn’t left completely satisfied at the end.

Aesthetically, the film is rock-solid. Thanks to excellent camerawork, the film conveys Hong Kong as a vibrant, ever-churning mass of bodies, buildings, and colors. Some of the scenes in Qiwu’s story use an impressionistic, herky-jerky style of editing that I’m not a fan of, but it didn’t distract. A lot of the movie is simply enjoyable to look at, something that is also further honed in In the Mood for Love.

663's observations of and to the various inanimate objects in his apartment add a really warm, amusing layer to his seemingly passive demeanor.

One little nuisance has stuck with me since I watched this movie several days ago. In 663’s story, Faye is obsessed with the song California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas. The song is played no less than four times within a forty-five minute span, and it wore me out. Ever since I watched it, I can’t get the song out of my head, it was so firmly jack-hammered into me by the movie. I don’t care how appropriate a song is in a film story or even how good a song it is, no tune should be played this many times in any movie. It just wears thin.

Will I watch this movie again? I doubt it. I would, however, recommend it as a good one.

That’s a wrap. 97 shows down. 8 to go.

Coming Soon: Ulysses’ Gaze (1997)

I’ve had a hell of a time even trying to find a copy of this one. I have to be skeptical of a “masterpiece” that’s not even in print, in this day and age when everything you could imagine is at your fingertips. Maybe I’ll be surprised…

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.