I first saw Chungking Express when I was in college and it marked a bit change in me watching films from a psychological standpoint. I’m sure like millions of people, watching a film in a language that isn’t your own can be a turn off for many reasons, to many it must seem like instant culture shock. But that doesn’t mean that foreign language films have woven their way into mainstream popularity, there are thousands. However, if you are one who watches them on a regular basis, you may be wondering why some of the more obscure foreign language films you like don’t have the same popularity levels are other. This is where I stand with Chungking Express, every time I watch it, I wish it to be held to higher recognition.
Chungking Express is a 1994 comedy/drama film directed by Wong Kar Wai, The film can be separated into two halves with each halve telling a different love story with two Hong Kong policemen, the first story is with He Zhiwu or Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who has been recently dumped and tries to start a romantic relationship with a woman in a blond wig (Brigitte Lin) who is involved in the drug underworld. The second story is with Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who has also been dumped by his girlfriend who was a flight attendant, he meets Faye (Faye Wong) a snack bar worker who falls for him.
Before I start with my own comments, If you have an interest in the film already, I highly recommend that you also watch a introductory video on Chungking Express by Quentin Tarantino, he makes some great points as to why this film is special in many ways. One of those reason I feel I should mention here is the presumption of Chungking Express. This film came from Hong Kong and immediately I know that in your head you’re picturing maybe something along the lines of a Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee film, very martial arts focused. Chungking Express is not like those films, in fact there were few films to come out of Hong Kong that were like Chungking Express. This film does however keep something from those kinds of Hong Kong film intact and that is the energy, it an astonishing achievement to still have this fast-moving spectacle whilst at the same time being very personalised and character focused.
What struck me with Chungking express is how expressive the film it with it cinematography techniques. The big Hollywood blockbusters may have wow factors, but Chungking Express has moments where you will genuinely say “how did they do that” one example is with cop 663 and Faye in the background moving in a slow motion way, but the blurred crown in the foreground are moving at normal speed. Apparently to get this shot, cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau used a technique called Step Printing in which the shutter speed of the camera is high and the frame rate is low, The frame is then duplicated many times to achieve the desired effect. The film became well known amongst film lovers for expanding this technique with a smearing motion which gives Chungking Express distinctive style that is captivating from the moment we lay eyes on it.
The character of Faye is quite possibly one of my favourites of any foreign language films. For context, Faye Wong the actress is know in Hong Kong as simply “The Diva”. She is Hong Kong’s answer to Madonna,this was her first acting role and she makes you fall in love with her character instantly because, especially when she is dancing to The Mamas and The Papas. I defy anyone to watch this film and not picture Faye doing her little dances every time you hear California Dreamin’, it is so infectious.
Chungking Express is also a kind of window into a different world as well. One thing that stuck with me when studying this film in college is the historical context. The film was released in British owned Hong Kong on 14th July 1994, nearly a week after the regions handover back to China had taken effect. You can see how Western culture has become part of Hong Kong’s identity, even at the snack bar where Faye works, the food is like food you would get in America like the predominantly featured chef’s salad. So to me, like Cold War German films this film is like a window to how things used to be.
Wong Kar-Wai is a director who’s work I always keep an eye out for and spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to see his works because they are worth every second of precious time. Chungking Express has become a film I watch at least once every year, its brilliance knows no bounds if you love the art of film yourself. If I had my seven wonders of cinema, Chungking Express would most definitely be on that list.