Wong Kar-wai is one of those directors whose films many self-proclaimed cineastes will put on their year-end best-of lists, regardless of their quality. Like Jean-Luc Godard in the ’60s, Wong seems to be infallible, even when putting out films that are merely average (such as 2007's My Blueberry Nights). However, he is still responsible for some of the most indelible images in recent cinematic history. When Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai discretely walk side by side in an alley in In the Mood for Love, it's not only one of the most sensual scenes in the past 20 years, it also looks gorgeous. And no matter how confusing 2046 or Ashes of Time Redux are, there is no denying both films are visually stunning.
Perhaps Wong’s most beloved film is one he made on the fly in 1994, as an attempt to make some quick money while embroiled in the first version of his historical martial arts epic Ashes of Time. Shot in only three months, Chungking Express spoke to the desires and anxiety of a Hong Kong audience that knew Britain would be handing their island back to China in just three short years. Something about this story of young adults overcoming heartbreak and trying to connect with another person resonated with audiences, and the film won many awards at the Hong Kong Film Festival. But when Miramax and Quentin Taratino acquired the rights for American audiences, they never quite figured out how to market the film, despite the cult following it has attracted over the years.
The idea of duality that Wong explores in later films appears in the storyline of Chungking Express, which is comprised of two stories set around a late-night snack bar. Both involve police officers who have been dumped and are still reeling and the unattainable women they subsequently fall for. But nothing is ever simple in a Wong Kar-wai film. These two, somewhat basic stories are gussied up with interesting camerawork, rich visual textures, and a timeline that jumps ahead at will.
Each section is an exercise in a different film genre. In the first, starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Wong tips his hat to film noir. Kaneshiro is a down-on-his-luck detective who still can't believe his ex-girlfriend isn't coming back. He decides to give her a month, buying canned pineapple with a May 1st expiration date (her name is May, and she liked pineapple) each day until his birthday. Lin is a blonde-wigged (in a nod to Gena Rowlands in Gloria) drug runner who has problems of her own after botching a deal. Both characters are in tough situations: Kaneshiro can't see his way out of his depression, and Lin needs to escape the country before she's murdered. After Kaneshiro eats all 30 cans of pineapple (which, according to Amy Taubin, “transfer his heartache to his tummy”) and vomits up the contents, he meets Lin and tries to win her over. Both walk away from a chaste encounter in which she sleeps while he eats four chef's salads, rubs her legs, and cleans her shoes with enough confidence to move on.
But, after 40 minutes, Wong lets this story vanish. In a schizophrenic passage that moves us from one segment to the next, from noir to romantic comedy, we once again meet a cop (frequent Wong star Tony Leung) buying chef's salads for a girlfriend about to dump him. At the snack bar, the cop meets Faye (Faye Wong), who falls in love with him. In this section of the film, Wong uses the same song over and over (as he does in later films) to create a hypnotic effect. Faye listens to “California Dreamin’” at top volume, and soon the tune becomes lodged in our own psyches. Later, when Faye secretly obtains a key to the policeman’s apartment and begins to surreptitiously clean it, we hear a Cantonese cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams." But the cop is too disheartened to notice, even when Faye transfers the labels on his sardines to cans containing higher quality fish.
None of the characters in this film has the wherewithal to breach the divide and engage the object of his or her affection. All four actors are attractive and effective, especially Leung and Faye Wong, who Wong frames as a latter-day Grant and Hepburn duo. There is a great scene in which Wong, while cleaning Leung's apartment, crawls joyously over his bed with a magnifying glass. When she reaches the pillow and finds a long black hair, she lets out a screech that denotes a sudden shift from giddiness to sadness at her inability to connect with him.
Perhaps the best quality of Chungking Express is the chaste innocence of its characters. Each of the cops are lovesick and lonely: One calls up woman he knew from the 4th grade to look for a date, and the other talks to bars of soap to stave off loneliness. Even kissing would seem out of place in this universe, where the most delicious type of love lives inside our heads. Although he has made numerous important films since 1994, Wong has yet to return to a theme as innocent or vivacious as he explores in Chungking Express, in which the unrequited is infinitely more erotic than any sex scene could ever be.