Cecile Pin discusses the themes and style of the 1994 Hong Kong drama.
Watching this film a few days ago, I was blown away by its striking aesthetics. Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai uses a mostly cold palette with occasional neon and upbeat colours that will brighten up your screen. He also makes use of a unique filming technique for the action sequences, which gives it neither a slow-motion nor fast-motion look. Instead, by deleting some one second-frames and duplicating some others, we are given blurry, ruptured sequences. I was a bit disconcerted by them at first, but I quickly got into it, and realised that it gives the film a truly unique look and style.
Chungking Express consists of two barely-interconnected stories told in sequence, both dealing with being lovesick and lonely in a paradoxically big and crowded city like Hong Kong. For example, one of the characters is seen at different times talking to objects and giant plush toys in his apartment, having no one else to release his thoughts and feelings to.
The film also carries the theme of change and the non-enduring nature of our lives. Indeed, the protagonist of the first story remarks: “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?” This signifies that everything seems to fade away in life: our emotions and feelings vary from one minute to another, and seasons change every three months. Even our life in itself has an expiry date.
This film reminded me of Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola: they both deal with suffering from loneliness in a vast and dense Asian city, and include beautiful, slightly poetic visuals that contradict the fast-paced nature of those cities. By this, I mean that citizens of such urban jungles are usually too busy or too much of in a hurry to notice their environment. What Lost in Translation and Chungking Express try to do is show us that beauty can be found wherever we look for it, but we must take the time to find and appreciate it.
Another film with similar eye-popping cinematography is one of my favourite film: Mr. Nobody, by Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael. It also builds on the theme of change that is so preeminent in Chungking Express.
The three films also deal with chance encounters, i.e. the randomness of how we meet people, and how some of these people sometimes become big parts of our lives. On the other hand, we sometimes meet people that cross our path for just a moment, but disappear as quickly as they appeared. The first story of Chungking Express deals with this latter kind of chance encounter, while the second story deals with the former.
On the whole, I enjoyed Chungking Express more for its visuals and themes than for the plot itself. I recommend watching it, as it is a quite unique and beautiful film that includes an array of quotable and picturesque moments.