This post contains spoilers for Chungking Express
Chungking Express, written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, is one of my favourite films, and here are a few reasons why:
* The set up is brilliant – all you need to know about where the film is going is covered in the first two and half minutes. Wong Kar-Wai then goes crazy and follows this with an almost completely inconsequential two minute phone conversation. The general screenwriting rule about phone conversation is – don’t do it! But in Chungking Express, as it forms part of the film’s theme of loneliness and disconnection, it works.
* It has four voiceovers! Four I tell you (guaranteed to get all script readers the world over frothing at the mouth with the imminent onset of madness)! The two cops in the film – #223 and #633 – have a voiceover each. However, not to be outdone, the mysterious drug dealer who #223 sidles up to into in a bar, and Faye – the bonkers waitress who rearranges #633’s flat without his knowledge – both have their own voiceovers. And what’s more, it works.
* The use of music throughout is positively demented. Specific pieces of music are used to announce the arrival and reappearance of key characters, so much so that by the fourth time you’ve heard California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and Papas you’re laughing out loud (although it has to be said that prolonged exposure to this song has been scientifically proven to turn people into head swivelling psychopaths).
* It isn’t afraid of being sentimental. This is from a book called Nonconformity by Nelson Algren:
Q: What is sentimentality?
Algren: Oh, it’s an indulgence in emotion. You want men and women to be good to each other and you’re very stubborn in thinking that they want to be. Sentimentality is a kind of indulgence in this hope. I’m not against sentimentality. I think you need it. I mean, I don’t think you get a true picture of people without it in writing.
I think this passage sums up the whole film.
* The cinematography - by Christopher Doyle - throughout is extraordinary. The chase sequences in the first half are thrillingly impressionistic riots of neon. There’s a scene in the snack bar where Faye has forgotten to pay the electricity bill, which means the whole place is lit by candlelight – it looks extraordinary – more an accident than by way of design I suspect, but who cares when it looks this good?
* It tackles a subject you seldom see in the movies – loneliness – but does it in such a way that is original and funny without losing one iota of charm or poignancy. Both #223 and #633 deal with their loneliness in different ways. #633 talks to the objects in his apartment - this is what he says to a well used bar of soap: You've lost a lot of weight, you know. You used to be so chubby. Have more confidence in yourself. #223 obsesses about the sell by date on tins of pineapple as a way of coming to terms with the break-up of a relationship, which culminates in a cracked discussion with a harrassed shop clerk.
* The whole film teeters on the brink of a weird kind of incoherency, probably as a result of Wong Kar-Wai writing it as he went along (it was written and filmed during a break in production from the epic Ashes of Time). Vast swathes of it appear to be improvised, but it’s directed and edited with such a strong hand, you barely notice. Also, the two halves of the film are connected, but only in the most tenuous and random of fashions - does this matter? Not really. Chungking Express isn't hung up on providing a neat knot of resolved plot lines at its conclusion, and so feels fresh and original as a result.
Too bad that Wong Kar-Wai followed this up with a series of films that seem less and less consequential. Fallen Angels certainly has its moments, but perhaps would have been better off as the third part of Chungking Express (which was apparently the original intention). In The Mood for Love put me into a week-long coma, and as for 2046: I literally cannot bring myself to watch it, as the title reminds me too much of Code 46, Michael Winterbottom’s disastrous excursion into sci-fi. So, hey, I’m shallow: but I knew that anyway.