The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar Wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Anything goes in Wong’s gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” into tokens of romantic longing.
Chungking Express (1994) film notes by Tova Gannana for Far Away Entertainment
The women in Chungking Express (1994) wear sunglasses. The men wear ties. Characters voice their thoughts in narration. They speak to inanimate objects, write notes on paper napkins, send voice mails to an answering service, and wear pagers. All are in communication or trying to be. They have many things to say and no time. They eat their meals on the street or don’t eat at all. They drink whiskey, doubles, black coffee and cola. Everything is plated or wrapped to go. They frequent restaurants without white tablecloths, bars and clubs shrouded in curtains and lit in neon. They clean windows and countertops. They wear pink latex gloves. They say they are jogging, really they are running their hearts out in the rain. The four main characters may as well be one, related in their fear of being lonely or left. They are individuals in a city. Their nicknames disguise them, make them anonymous.
Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) smiles easily, eats constantly, and pines for May, the woman who recently dumped him. Cop 223 is undercover, never in uniform.
Woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) is a drug smuggler who loses her drugs. She has hired Indian men living in Hong Kong to act as drug mules. She outfits them in tailored suits, custom shoes; their wives pad their stomachs to look pregnant. Woman in a blonde wig channels Sterling Hayden if he were to channel Marilyn Monroe. Her disguise, a belted trenchcoat and white satin heels, has become for her what is real, “If I put on a rain coat I wear sun glasses too.” Her lips are dark red. She smokes, shoots a pistol, pushes men around, kidnaps a child for a short while, drinks whiskey, and meets by chance Cop 223 in a late night bar. He is about to turn 25, and his girlfriend May has not returned. In mourning, he wants to comfort someone who like him needs to be comforted. Woman in a blonde wig knows her days are numbered. The drug mules have vanished with her cargo at the airport.
Hong Kong is a destination, an international city with many languages. One can imagine how busy it is, how big it must be. Like slurred speech, the camera moves in slow motion following Woman in a blonde wig as she looks for the men who have disappeared. She could get lost if she wanted. Instead she gets revenge. She tosses the blonde wig in the gutter. The image of her with black hair is blurred as though she is a butterfly beating her wings in transformation.
Cop 223 will be ok because he is a romantic. He calls his birthday a historic day though only one person calls to leave him a message. He spent the night in a hotel room high above the city eating and watching old movies on the TV set with Woman in a blonde wig fully clothed asleep on the bed. As he leaves he takes off her heels and with his tie wipes them clean. He isn’t the prince who wakes her up with a kiss, but a kind person who gives her a place to rest.
The two stories in Chungking Express don’t intertwine. Three songs play throughout the film, two about dreams and dreaming and the other about time. Woman in a blonde wig seems to have come out of a film noir in her retro clothing, her purse the same satin as her heels. Before her drug mules ran away, she was in control. Like Cop 223 she is searching for who she was jilted by. He is innocence. She knows the world is dangerous. Cop 223 is vulnerable in his everyday suits. Woman in a blonde wig has her uniform.
Cop 663 (Tony Leung) orders the chef salad night after night til his girlfriend, a flight attendant (Valerie Chow), leaves him a note and returns his key in an envelope. Cop 663 switches to black coffee.
Faye (Faye Wong), the waitress at Midnight Express, listens to California Dreamin’ as loud as her boombox will go. She fills Cop 663’s food and drink orders. Cop 663 wishes his girlfriend hadn’t left. He is mournful not bitter. He smiles at Faye. The flight attendant has long hair, Faye’s hair is close cut. The letter the flight attendant leaves for Cop 663 is read by Faye. She takes the key and lets herself into his apartment. Shy, she wants to be there when he is not there. He opens his door and finds her inside. Faye writes Cop 663 a letter that he leaves out in the rain. They will meet again but only after she has been to California and he has become the waiter at Midnight Express.
The four characters have their routines. Cop 223 says in the beginning, “We all have our habits…we all get our hearts broken sometimes.” There is a way to go about your day and still be surprised.
In Chungking Express the characters are sleepwalking and daydreaming. They connect with one another through ordinary and daily gestures. Cop 223 consumes food in the hotel room because he is growing. Woman in a blonde wig sleeps because she is fading. Then their roles reverse. He is on the track running in the rain ready to give up. He receives a page on his pager. She has called and left a message, “Your friend in room 702 says happy birthday.” They have known each other for 24 hours and their time together is over. Cop 223 narrates, “May 1, 1994 a woman wishes me happy birthday. Now I’ll remember her all my life.” Cop 223’s story can end because he has been seen, his presence has been a balm to a person in need. Thus Cop 663’s story can begin.