Even in the bloodiest of his Hong Kong cops-and-gangsters flicks, John Woo incorporates little twinklings of wacky grace, when his tough-guy heroes reveal childlike senses of humor and wonder. Imagine a whole film constructed from such moments and you’d have Chungking Express, writer/director Wong Kar-Wai’s deliriously whimsical diptych about disconnected people in overconnected Hong Kong.
Everything about Express seems transitory, including the way it was made. Filmed while Wong was stalled in the making of a historical epic, The Ashes of Time, it was written, shot, and edited in less than three months. (Ironically, the film’s U.S. commercial release has been anything but speedy; Express arrives a full 18 months after it was featured at the 1994 New York Film Festival.) Dodging through Hong Kong’s many tight spots, Christopher Doyle’s hand-held camera epitomizes the film’s frantic, glancing, yet tightly focused style. Express features zooming trains and whooshing airplanes, but its characters don’t venture beyond the narrow confines of downtown Hong Kong and Kowloon.
The film tells two casually intersecting stories and takes its title from their principal locations: Chungking Mansions, a bustling warren of transient housing and small shops in central Kowloon, and Midnight Express, a carryout in Lan Kwai Fong, just across the harbor on Hong Kong Island. The first site is the turf of police officer No. 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who’s about to mark the first month spent without his ex-girlfriend; the second is a frequent stop for police officer No. 663 (Tony Leung), who’s about to split with his girlfriend, a flight attendant.
Express is hardly a gangster film, but the first segment does feature a heroin smuggler (Brigitte Lin) who’s been cheated by a group of Indians. As she doggedly tracks the people who ripped her off, No. 223 wanders more aimlessly, collecting cans of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1—both his birthday and the day exactly one month after his breakup. Eventually, the two meet, but they’re still on different tracks.
Cop No. 223 unknowingly hands off the narrative to cop No. 663, whom he never meets, when he rejects the possibility of a date with Faye (Faye Wong), a new employee at Midnight Express. An oddball charmer, Faye sways and muses to the tune of the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” but comes out of her reveries long enough to develop a crush on the latter cop. When his girlfriend leaves a farewell letter and his apartment key at the carryout, Faye takes the key. She develops a casual friendship with the cop and a much more intense relationship with his apartment, which she visits regularly. In his romantic grief, No. 663 doesn’t quite notice the changes Faye makes to his dwelling. Even when he does recognize them, he’s not alarmed; he allows inanimate objects to pursue lives of their own.
Actually, nothing qualifies as inanimate in Wong’s Hong Kong, which pulsates with splashing rain, buzzing neon, and smudgy slo-mo. Wong’s direction, Doyle’s photography, and William Chang’s art direction transform the city’s carryouts, convenience stores, and karaoke bars into a enchanted world as visually dynamic as it is emotionally becalmed. (The director’s ability to construct such distinctive visions from a combination of everyday vistas and leftover cinematic imagery—as well as his sheer vigor—recalls the liveliest early work of Jean-Luc Godard, notably Breathless and A Woman Is a Woman.) Even Wong’s occasional still images—notably an almost-abstract close-up of a restaurant sign—are stunning.
An eccentric cousin of the conventional Hong Kong action movie, Express may perplex and even disgust fans of more hard-boiled entertainments; this is a cop flick that’s not afraid to reveal its feminine side. Still, the film provides action of a different sort. It’s stuffed with images, emotions, and sly cinematic, almost musical gambits; the two episodes echo each other in a dozen dazzling ways. Though the narrative is slight and the mood delicate, there seems to be almost as much going on in Express as on the streets where it was made. CP