Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chungking Express

"Chungking Express" aka "Chung Hing sam lam" aka 重慶森林 (Kar Wai Wong, 1994) One of those little miracles that happen in a film-maker's career. Wong Kar-wai was making a historical epic that bogged down and to clear the cob-webs and stretch his film-making muscles made a quick, contained film that exceeded all expectations. "Chungking Express" as it is known in the West* contains 2 1/2 linking stories (a third became Wong's later "Fallen Angels") of split-second encounters between characters, and except for two extended shots of a night sky, are completely contained in the boxy locations and tunnels of the locales. The first features Brigitte Lin as a drug-runner/hit-woman, bedecked in noirish blond wig and sunglasses (at night) who gets stung in her own sting under the unsuspecting nose of detective He Qiwu—Badge no.223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who encounters her, contrary to both their jobs, in a bar where they're both drowning their sorrows; he, over a relationship that he's finally admitted is over, she, over her deal gone wrong.

Qiwu hangs out at the Midnight Express fast-food stand, where the owner keeps trying to set him up with his waitresses, but he's never fast enough before another man steps in. He's just too late to start dating
the new waitress, Faye (Faye Wong), as she's just developed a crush on another regular customer—a traffic cop, known only in the film as no. 633 (Tony Leung). He's just broken up with an airline hostess, and not getting over it. So Faye sneaks into his apartment and starts changing...everything, and he's so pre-occupied that he doesn't register the stuffed animals that have appeared, the different food in his cupboards, the more colorful decor—all he knows is...he's getting happier.

Time is a problem for everybody passing the Midnight Express. For the smuggler, the longer time goes by, the less control she has over her shipment. Qiwu has broken up with his girlfriend and is giving it exactly one month before he will admit it's over.
633 will let time pass him by unless Faye steps in and speeds things up a bit (and she is always shocked if he happens to do just that).

And Wong plays his own tricks with time, not just by compressing it with some stylish editing tricks, but also elongating it in the first section in moments of high action, chases and fights;
the actions become a blur and bodies and lights turn into cartoonish in-betweening streaks of speed that allow for a better handle on what's happening than just depending on jerking hand-held shots at the blistering pace of life.** Music plays a major role with key songs punctuating the stories reflecting mood (from reggae to ballad-rock to lounge) but also the polyglot of cultures combining in "The Mansions."

"Chungking Express" is a favorite of mine, as I first encountered it in theaters after a divorce and it's themes of coming to terms and revivification—and that life isn't a series of highlights and benchmarks, but a on-going process of becoming—touched me at a vulnerable time. To re-connect with it again (albeit, disguised in a rather incongruous "Quentin Tarantino Presents" formatting—his commentary on it is slightly annoying, but his enthusiasm infectious) is like bumping into an old friend you hadn't seen in years ("You remember that time...?)

* The Chinese title actually translates to "Chungking Jungle;" the Western title is a split between the name of the locations—The Chungking Mansions, the setting for the first half of the film and "Midnight Express" a fast-food stand that serves as a fulcrum for the film.

** A fascinating combination of the skills of the director, cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Wai-keung Lau and editors William Chang, Kit-Wai Kai, and Chi-Leung Kwong.

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