Chungking Express (1994)

D: Wong Kar-Wai
S: Faye Wang, Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro

If the word 'stylish' is to have any meaning at all, it probably shouldn't be applied simply to films where style is all there is to hold onto. Unfortunately, it is in exactly such a context that the term is usually used (even here). Chungking Express, Wong Kar-Wai's long-delayed art house follow up to Days of Being Wild, like its predecessor, is a stylish film. In fact, Chungking Express is all style. There is certainly not much in the way of drama, even given the ironic, comic tone. The intersecting lives of several Hong Kong denizens in the latter days before Chinese reintegration are detailed with a series of coups de cinema designed to make it all seem much more interesting than it really is.

A young cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) recently dumped by his girlfriend contemplates the meaninglessness of pineapple tin expiry dates and old phone numbers. He eventually encounters drug dealing Brigitte Lin (dressed up in blonde wig and shades in one of the film's plethora of empty symbols and nudge-nudge postmodern self-references) and they pass a night together where she sleeps and he eats. A young patrolman (Tony Leung) also dumped by his girlfriend (Valerie Chow, in a special guest appearance) becomes the object of a romantic obsession for a ditzy young waitress (Faye Wang). This couple eventually come to an ambiguous understanding as the movie ends.

The two separate stories are liked by location and by a common concern with the vagaries of romantic longing and loneliness. If you wanted to, you could relate them to a concern with human disenfranchisement in a world of meaningless icons and symbols (all with irony, of course), but it would make the film no more profound. This is not a film which arouses passion or interest, it is simply another tail-chasing postmodern comment on postmodernism within a postmodern context (Natural Born Killers, Deconstructing Harry).

It works, if it matters. It is carried of by Kar-Wai in tour-de-force style. The cast are uniformly good, there are some amusing comic moments and observing the execution is all very enjoyable for the attuned. But how much you engage with it will probably depend on your general mood before you see it and your ability to actually understand why lots of hand-held camerawork, disjunctive editing and narrative ellipses are interesting in the first place. Many critics were enamoured of it, and references to Godard and to the fact that its American distribution was picked up by Quentin Tarantino's company made it very much a hip and trendy movie. No one would attribute any depth to it, even its staunchest defenders (though there may be some angst-ridden teenagers out there who would warm to it emotionally), but this is not sufficient justification for a warm recommendation.

Chungking Express is probably worth a look if you're a film student, but it is of limited interest to anyone without specific motivation for seeing it. It is the kind of film which triumphs on the film festival circuit and happily defies classification outside the realms of 'arthouse' or 'auteur' cinema. If you're in the mood for something odd and not particularly taxing, if might fill a corner. Just remember that in thirty years time, we'll all look back on this postmodern era and laugh.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.