Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Film for Lovers: Chungking Express

Last year's original Film for Lovers feature covered four English language films and one trilingual Thai release featuring a script split between Thai, Japanese, and English dialogue. Save for the Thai film, all of the aforementioned drowned the viewer in their warmth and humor in a lovely way - not to say that Last Life in the Universe was lacking in warmth or humor, but that it had more going on beyond that as well.

Today, we leave Dublin for Hong Kong in Film for Lovers 2010's second film, a work presenting a more complex look at love and human connection, in acclaimed auteur Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express.

Originally released in China in 1994 and eventually in North America in 1996 - as you could easily guess from the clumsy approach they took to the English language trailer - Chungking Express has since been celebrated as one of Wong Kar-wai's very best.

A more literal translation of the original title would be Chungking Forest, though either language's titling technically works. The original Chinese title refers to Hong Kong as a metaphoric concrete jungle. Both titles refer to the Chungking Mansions: a 17-story building in Hong Kong's Tsim Sha Tsui district infamous as one of the cheapest places to find accommodations in the region, as well as home to numerous small businesses. The English title also refers to a main character's workplace in the second half of the film.

Chungking Express is particularly interesting in that rather than telling a single central story, the film is actually split in half in telling two separate - and barely connected - stories of love in Hong Kong. Each follows a different police officers and their respective romantic encounters with two different women.

The first story follows the Taiwanese He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), Cop 223. The film begins with his girlfriend, May, dumping him on April 1st. This cold-toned story of dejection and moving on follows Cop 223's questioning of his future with May. He buys and eats a can of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1st each day and tells himself that by the expiration date's arrival, he and May will either be back together or their love will too expire forever.

Elsewhere in the seedy Hong Kong underground, an unnamed woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) attempts to survive following a drug smuggling operation going wrong. Eventually, the mysterious woman crosses paths with Cop 223, who reaches out to her, attempting to once again open his heart to the possibility of love. Naturally, I won't spoil how it ends, but the ending leads directly into the beginning of the second story.

The second story centers around the unnamed Cop 663 (Tony Leung), who, like Cop 223, is wrapped up in the aftermath of a painful breakup. While he still has eyes for his flight attendant ex (Valerie Chow), the new girl at the local Midnight Express snack bar, Faye (Singer, songwriter, actress and model Faye Wong, who pretty much dominates the movie in an amazing way.), quietly becomes enamored with him. She spends her time watching him while listening to The Mamas & the Papas' "California Dreamin'" over and over on the radio.

Faye begins gleefully breaking into Cop 663's apartment during the day while he was off at work and redecorating bit by bit, seeking to brighten his outlook by brightening his living situation.Cop 663 eventually realizes she's into him and asks her out on a date. And once again, I won't spoil the ending.

The two stories end up serving a wonderfully complementary function in the overall film experience, initially dropping the viewer into a chaotic, turbulent, dreary ocean with some rather jerky, Godard-esque camera work. Beneath the surface of this sea that makes up the first half of the film is a vast expanse of raw nerves as Cop 223 hopes against all realism that he'll get back together with his ex, while the mysterious woman simply struggles to get by. The two halves of the film unite in their shared central theme - the bonds between people. Cop 223 looks to the struggling woman to help pull himself out of his quiet despair, while the woman seeks respite from her own crisis.

Following this frigid dunking, Chungking Express draws the viewer back out into the warm sunlight as we watch a young woman's love blossom and the joy she finds in making a secret project out of her drawing Cop 663 back into the sun's rays himself. Despite their deceptive simplicity, the two stories are catapulted to new heights by their juxtaposition, bringing the viewer from the sharp cold to a joyful warmth and experiencing all sides of love with the film's characters.

Asian cinema on the whole differs sharply from western cinema in so many ways, and culturally, love is expressed differently - particularly in pop culture - in Japan, China, Korea, and elsewhere than it is here in the west, where we love to layer on the schmaltz and disingenuous connections. Here in Chungking Express, we have budding relationships, simultaneously simple and complex. Once again, we don't have over-the-top professions, nor that all-important triumphant moment where the lead couple kisses and the end credits roll. Many, many films from Japan and China tell love stories that show no more than an embrace between the lovers. And that restraint in no way detracts from the love expressed - instead, it asks the viewers to engage with the films on a more cerebral level. And Chungking Express is by all means a cerebral film that takes multiple viewings to develop a full appreciation of. In its celebration of human connection, these two dejected men and the women who change their lives, Chungking Express is an experience that stays with you.

Plus, you even get a montage scene with a Faye Wong cover of The Cranberries' "Dreams!"

No comments: