Chungking Express (1994)

 “We split up on April Fool’s Day. So I decided to let the joke run for a month. Every day I buy a can of pineapple with a sell-by date of May 1. May loves pineapple, and May 1 is my birthday. If May hasn’t changed her mind by the time I’ve bought thirty cans, then our love will also expire.”

‘Chungking Express’, directed by Wong Kar-wai in 1994, is a Hong Kong romantic drama. The film tells two stories: one about a policeman who has been dumped and finds friendship with a drug smuggler, the second about another policeman who also loses his girlfriend, but finds love with an eccentric and flighty waitress. It’s a witty, stylish movie, similar to the French Cinéma du look movement, full of quirky cultural references and off-beat editing. Here it is the approach of the director that makes the movie distinctive. Kar-wai approaches his films in a chaotic, spontaneous way, the basic characters in place, but the script evolving through the performances. With another director this might create a disconcerting product – audiences tend to prefer to the structures of traditional narrative forms, genres and performance codes. Here, the actors are naturalistic whilst the stories are elliptical, the two frequently blurring into one another without directly crossing over. The effect is a genuinely engaging movie with likeable characters. The extras that Kar-wai adds to the movie: the pop-music soundtrack including the repeated use of the Beach Boys ‘California Dreaming’ tap into a preoccupation with America that permeates the rest of the film, notably the desire of the enigmatic waitress, played by Faye Wong, to escape her life in Hong Kong and to head west. Wong’s performance is a highlight of the film: her character is like a force of nature and you get the impression this is as much a part of the actress as the person she is playing. It’s a distinctive, kinetic and riotous movie with a collection of strong performances and rich characters.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it predates Kar-wai’s more famous ‘In the Mood for Love’ (which is still waiting on my list), but I get the impression that the director’s style and approach is one that is inextricably linked to his films. Watch in a double bill with one of the French Cinéma du look movies – maybe ‘Subway’ or ‘Les Amants du Pont-Neuf’.

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