For me, Hong Kong is the most cinematic of cityscapes. By night it can feel like wandering through the neo-noir labyrinth of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER (although rumours that the author spent his evenings whilst working out there hanging round streetside noodle bars in a dirty mac pretending to be Harrison Ford are unsubstantiated). By day it has all the colour and vibrancy of Wong Kar-Wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS.
The film takes its name from Chungking Mansions, the warren of electronics shops, fast-food places and cheap accomodation that rises out of the Kowloon waterfront like the city blocks in Mega-City One (although for the ultimate example of “everything under one roof” check out the images of the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City). Its original title translates from the Chinese as “Chungking Jungle”.
In Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong, lonely beautiful people (only in cinema do these two words naturally coalesce) wear sunglasses at night, their paths intersecting only in ephemeral, teasing ways. For, as seemed especially fashionable at that time in the mid-nineties, CHUNGKING EXPRESS is really two stories connected not so much by plot (there is a bridge scene between them where an outgoing character from the first story literally brushes past an incoming character from the second), but by tone. Both stories are an ode to unrequited love.
In the first story, a cop referred to mainly as “223” (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is in a bad way after his girlfriend leaves him on April Fool’s Day. Every day he buys a tin of pineapples (her favourite fruit) with an expiration date of 1st May: his birthday and the day on which he decides he will forget about her and move on. He gives his hopes of reconciliation the same expiry date as his growing collection of pineapple tins. The film was made about three years before the transfer of sovereignty ended 150 years of British colonial rule. Though no reference to this impending event is made, the idea of countdowns and expiry dates is a recurring device.
Somehow everything comes with an expiry date. Swordfish expires. Meat sauce expires. Even cling-film expires. Is there anything in the world which doesn’t?
In the second story pineapples are replaced with towels. I struggle to think of a better portrayal of intense loneliness in film than “Cop 663” (Tony Leung) talking to a wet towel. The almost-but-not-quite-sickeningly-cute Faye Wong (described by one critic as the Chinese Jean Seberg in A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (1960)) plays the snack bar waitress whose infatuation with him leads to her breaking into his flat each day whilst he’s at work to clean and redecorate completely unbeknownst to him. Each of these stories has a policeman and a woman at its centre, yet not only do the characters from different stories not overlap, the characters within the stories barely interact either.
On Hong Kong island in the area known as the mid-levels there is a series of outdoor escalators snaking its way up the hillside (top tourist tip: careful planning can lead to the world’s laziest pub crawl as you don’t even need to walk between bars. Getting pissed and climbing a mountain at the same time without expending any effort whatsoever really does feel like man’s ultimate victory over nature). “Someone should use these in a film,” I thought at the time. Of course I was pre-empted by Wong Kar-Wai, as the apartment inhabited by Tony Leung’s character overlooks this very escalator, although it actually belonged to cinematographer Christopher Doyle who would let the crew invade his living space each day to film the segment. CHUNGKING EXPRESS has as its origins something of a guerrilla project. It was made during a break in the troubled production of the more epic ASHES OF TIME (1994), and it was made quickly and with a heavy reliance on improvisation. Doyle uses the abundance of natural lighting sources around central Hong Kong and plenty of hand-held camera shots to create a spectacle of colour and energy. Those more familiar with Wong’s slow-burning masterpiece IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000) might be surprised by the pace of this earlier work but it’s precisely the idiosyncracies and DIY aesthetic that gives CHUNGKING EXPRESS its charm. The film drew many comparisons to the spontaneous style of the French New Wave, and Godard in particular.
Originally a third story, concerning a lovesick hitman, was intended to conclude the film, but Wong eventually created a follow-up, FALLEN ANGELS (1995), to house the story. To me it’s an entirely different film and one I don’t much care for: a Hong Kong of moody anti-heroes set to a stereotypically “dark nineties” trip-hop soundtrack. It has none of the substance of CHUNGKING EXPRESS, which is pure cinema joy to watch from start to end.