in Criterion Month

Chungking Express (1994)

I’ve thought a lot about mise en scène this Criterion Month and the big takeaway is: when it works it really works. Which is to say, I love the aesthetic of Chungking Express. An early days of video story set in the neon streets of Hong Kong plus a dream pop-inspired soundtrack? Sign me the hell up! Oh, to be a cop in Nineties Hong Kong! Occasionally chasing bad guys through crowds but mostly hanging out at local restaurants stoically sharing stories of failed relationships or spending time at home smoking cigarettes in tighty whities and staring at the fish tank. That’s the life.

Chungking Express is mostly split into two halves, although, like its contemporary the Three Colors trilogy, there is a bit of overlap if you’re looking for it. The first story begins with a woman in a blond wig, sunglasses, and a raincoat (Brigitte Lin), because, as she explains, she’s cautious and can never guess when the sun will come out or when the showers will pour. She’s dealing with a drug smuggling deal gone bad but — in one fleeting instant — comes into close contact with police officer He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro).

Qiwu is going through a rough patch because his girlfriend, May, dumped him on April Fool’s Day. Unsure of how serious the breakup is, Qiwu has decided to buy a can a pineapple (one of her favorite snacks) with an expiration date of May 1 every day in April. This way, he reasons, he’ll know their love has “expired” for sure when the calendar flips over. What stands out to me about Qiwu is that he’s very open to everyone about how much the breakup has devastated him, but the one thing he won’t let himself do is cry. Instead, he likes to jog (full-on sprint, really), because he believes his sweat will use up all his body’s water, leaving nothing for tears.

Tony Leung’s character is the opposite. He’s pretty closed off, to the point that we don’t even know his name, just that he’s as Cop 663. But this officer reacts to being dumped in the opposite way, he immediately accepts it and doesn’t even want to read the letter his ex left for him at his favorite snack bar. But when he goes home, he sees his sorrow all over the apartment. He treats every object in there — washcloths, soap, his beloved giant stuffed Garfield — as if they are going through the breakup as well. When he sees them drip he interprets that as them crying. It’s great:

There’s just one thing: there’s a bit of a home invasion going on. You see, when 663’s ex left her Dear John letter at the snack bar, she included her set of keys to his apartment. And, since 663 let them keep the letter, that means that staff member Faye (Faye Wong) has access to his apartment. And since she has a bit of a crush on the guy, she uses this as an outlet for her feelings. Faye starts snooping around, which turns into cleaning, which turns into full-on redecorating his apartment. What’s crazy is she’s getting away with it too! 663 is so out of it he just accepts things like Garfield as having always been there or her beloved Mamas & the Papas CD as being one of his ex’s favorites. It’s a lot of fun to see where this story goes.

This is only my second Wong Kar Wai movie, after In the Mood for Love. But I’m sold, the guy’s a genius. I went and made my one Barnes & Noble Criterion Month purchase, the 4K box set that came out last year (which, by the way, leaves me with an extra blu ray of In the Mood for Love, so hmu if you want that). The crazies thing about Chungking Express? WKW made it as a way to deal with his burnout from working on a big budget action movie. That’s right, he did the thing George Lucas has been talking about doing for two decades.