JUMP CUT
   A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The Drug Smuggler looks for the couriers who stole drugs from her.

Brigitte Lin as the Drug Smuggler

Off-duty cop, He Qiwu, played by Taiwanese pop star Takeshi Kaneshiro, flirts with the woman he’s supposed to arrest.

Faye Wang as a pop star

Faye with cop 633, played by Tony Leung, in the Midnight Express where she works

Faye in the Midnight Express.

Faye in cop 633’s apartment

“633 sits around his apartment in his underwear talking to his household objects. He rationalizes Faye’s decorating changes as his apartment expressing its own sadness over his break-up.”

He Qiwu trying again to phone his love

He Qiwu’s collection of empty pineapple cans.

 
Chungking Express

Wong struggled for two years to edit the ponderous Ashes of Time—and the struggle shows. During the interim, in an effort to take a break from the martial-arts marathon, the director dashed off another film “which went from first day of shooting to premiere in almost exactly three months.”18 Ironically, it’s a film that many regard as a vastly superior work: Chungking Express. This light-hearted contemporary comedy breezes across the screen with an apparent absence of effort. However, the film is no trifle. A startling confluence of sound and image, this movie thwarts audience expectations in its own way, most obviously by tacking together two completely unrelated stories: one a crime drama, the other a romantic comedy. Moreover, the movie concludes the first story and begins the second approximately half-way through the running time and does little to integrate them. This is clearly a film in which seamless narrative closure is not a top priority.

Chungking Express takes it title from the two stories. The first starts out in the Chungking Mansions, a shabby shopping-arcade-cum-flophouse with a reputation as a den of thieves. An unnamed, blonde-wigged Drug Smuggler in dark glasses (an unrecognizable Brigitte Lin, Hong Kong’s highest-paid actress before her early retirement) hires some Indian locals to hide a heroin shipment for her, only to have her couriers sneak out on her at the airport. After running around the city looking for them, the weary Smuggler bumps into a lovelorn cop, He Qiwu (Taiwanese pop star and actor Takeshi Kaneshiro), and the two spend a chaste night together at a hotel. The next morning, the Smuggler guns down the North American Contact who double-crossed her. The second story is set around a fast-food take-out joint called the Midnight Express. A second cop, known only by his badge number, 633 (Tony Leung),19 is dumped by his flight-attendant girlfriend, who leaves his apartment key at the take-out. Working there is Faye (pop star Faye Wang), a free-spirited young woman who is secretly in love with 633. Rather than tell him her feelings, Faye repeatedly uses the key to break into 633’s apartment and gradually redecorate it, until the oblivious cop catches her. 633 asks Faye out on a date, but instead, she leaves for California.

Although the two stories draw upon two different genres, the crime drama and the romantic comedy, the film’s tone is light throughout. The two stories’ main “unifying” element is that they are both about lovesick policemen, He Qiwu and 633. Wong says that he chose police protagonists “because Hong Kong movies are supposed to be action-oriented; they’re full of cops and gangsters…” (in Rayns, “Poet of Time,” 14). However, there’s very little crime-fighting in Chungking Express: the cops are usually moping about their love lives. Qiwu spends most of his time buying canned pineapple slices with the expiration date of May 1 to commemorate the one-month mark since his break-up with his own girlfriend. When Qiwu meets the Smuggler, he’s so smitten by the idea of being in love with her that he doesn’t realize the woman he’s chatting up is someone he’s supposed to be arresting. This situation inspires much humor, and the boyish Qiwu comes off as naive. For his part, 633 sits around his apartment in his underwear talking to his household objects. He rationalizes Faye’s decorating changes as his apartment expressing its own sadness over his break-up. For a cop, 633 isn’t very logical. These two policemen would certainly be out of place in a John Woo-style policier.

Chungking Express begins with striking—but very simple—visuals: Brigitte Lin’s blonde-wigged Smuggler stalks through the crowded labyrinths of Chungking Mansions looking for drug couriers. The photography (begun by Lau Wai-Keung, completed and partially reshot by Doyle) films her in Wong’s trademark undercrank/step-printing style. Where the step-printing slowed down the martial-arts scenes in Ashes of Time, here it allows us to take in these more mundane (but somewhat exotic) sights with a new appreciation: step-printing is not how we experience the outside world. By slightly suspending the passage of these moments, Chungking Express asks us not to take these blurry scenes for granted. Then, over real-time shots of the Kowloon skyline, we hear He Qiwu’s voice say: “Every day we brush past so many other people, people we may never meet or people who may become close friends.” We soon see a step-printed Qiwu chasing a fleeing suspect through Chungking Mansions. Coincidentally, he brushes past the Smuggler. “This is the closest we ever got,” his voice-over reminisces, “just 0.01 of a centimeter between us. But 57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman.” Qiwu’s voice-over instantly sets up the tension between the desire to get close to other people and the frustration when 0.01 of a centimeter is the closest one ever gets. Again, Wong Kar-Wai establishes a story of lonely people destined never to connect.

The word most often used to describe Wong’s characters is “solipsistic.”20 They seem to be locked in their own insular worlds, unable to hook up with anyone else. Chungking Express may be seen to confirm this criticism: although it holds out the possibility of pairing Qiwu with the Smuggler, and 633 with Faye, the film frustrates these outcomes. Qiwu and the Smuggler ultimately walk away from each other, and Faye runs out on 633 just as their relationship has the chance to become serious. The story ends with an epilogue, where Faye returns to Hong Kong a year later as a flight attendant, a coda which suggests that Faye and 633 (now a civilian) might still get together. But unlike the typical romantic comedy, this resolution remains unfulfilled. The inability of the characters to connect with each other is a consistent trope in Wong’s films, prompting some speculation whether Wong views perpetual solitude and unrequited love as the unalterable “human condition.” As with Ashes of Time, the characters of Chungking Express may be seen as forever doomed to wander the earth in a state of constant, unfulfilled yearning.21

Still, Wong seems bemused by his characters’ inability to connect. Instead of seeing their situation as tragic, Wong wrings great humor out of their solitude. This is especially true for the story’s most intriguing invention: having Faye break into 633’s flat to clean and redecorate it. Some viewers may see this quirky contrivance as male wish fulfillment: Faye, it could be argued, affirms the perception of women as having an “innate” predisposition to act as homemakers, an urge they apparently can’t resist. However, on other levels, Faye resists male fantasy. With her close-cropped hair and casual clothes, the pixieish Faye appears androgynous. Indeed, when Faye is first introduced, Qiwu confuses her with a male co-worker. (As a singer, Faye Wang usually performs wearing long hair and flashy costumes, so her appearance in this film works against her off-screen celebrity image.) To break into 633’s flat while he’s away, Faye must play hooky from work, and she comes up with increasingly far-fetched excuses for doing so. In a society with a deeply entrenched work ethic and gender roles, the free-spirited Faye instantly assumes the identity of a recalcitrant social figure.

Moreover, Faye doesn’t only clean 633’s apartment, she also redecorates it with more colorful accessories: new bedspreads, new clothes, new toiletries, new food—she even drugs his bottled water to make sure he gets to sleep. (And we laugh when 633 misinterprets all of these changes.) Faye doesn’t just clean the flat, she pervades it, and in doing so, she gradually changes 633’s lovelorn life without him being aware of what she’s doing. Rather than acquiescing to the role of the stereotypical homemaker (or maid), Faye reclaims the role and teases out its subversive possibilities. In one sense of the word, she is indeed a “homemaker,” but she’s a homemaker on her own terms, and she enacts the role without being tied down by the other roles attendant upon a traditional romantic (or employment) relationship. Although Faye clearly values 633, she values her freedom even more: after he discovers her in his flat and wants to start a relationship, Faye leaves. At the end of the film, we ultimately see Faye looking more “feminine” in long hair and a flight attendant’s uniform (which she first tried on in 633’s apartment, it having been abandoned there by his former girlfriend), but her new attire comes off as just one more costume. Becoming an “air hostess” to preserve her freedom, Faye appropriates yet another traditional female role for non-traditional purposes.

The thwarting of romantic closure is equally important in the first story. Qiwu collects soon-to-expire pineapple tins as a reminder of his lost love (a love he hopes to win back). The cans and their common expiration date become indexes for both the passing of love and the passage of time. Ackbar Abbas has already argued that the passage of time in Wong’s films intimates the countdown to the 1997 hand-over,22 which gives the pineapples a peculiar political dimension. Intriguingly, the blonde-wigged Smuggler also uses expiry dates on cans to communicate with her (ultimately disloyal) Western Contact, who, after meeting with the Smuggler early in the story, spends most of his time avoiding her.

In an unconscious effort to purge his love for his ex-girlfriend from his body, Qiwu eats the spoiled pineapple and throws up. Ready to fall in love again, he bumps into the Smuggler at a bar and puts the moves on her by asking if she likes pineapple (ironically, this is just after she has killed some of her double-crossing couriers). Discouraging his advances, the Smuggler says to herself: “Knowing someone doesn’t mean keeping them. People change. A person may like pineapple today and something else tomorrow.” The scene then cuts to the Contact in another bar as he makes out with an Asian female Bartender. The Bartender playfully puts on a blonde wig (like the Smuggler’s), and she and the Contact become more passionate. Later, Qiwu takes the tired Smuggler to a hotel, where she promptly falls asleep. The next morning, Qiwu leaves her. The Smuggler wakes up, tracks down the Contact, and pumps five bullets into his body. As this first story concludes, the last shot is of a sardine tin that expired that day (1 May 1994), its sell-by date prominent in the frame.

Because pineapples and expiry dates are associated with love, the film insinuates that the Brigitte Lin character had a romantic relationship with her Western drug Contact. By donning a blonde wig, the Bartender teasingly evokes the Contact’s past relationship with the Smuggler. The relationship has certainly soured with the Contact’s treachery: just as one’s feelings for pineapples may change, the Smuggler’s feelings for the Contact have changed. By concluding the story with a shot of another expiry date, the film suggests that the Smuggler’s love for the Contact has also expired. But it should be remembered that the film only intimates this subplot; it isn’t explicit. If this interpretation is correct, the Smuggler uses her wig not only to conceal her identity from the authorities, but she also uses it to make herself more attractive to the Contact— as the Bartender assuredly does. (This interpretation is supported by Fallen Angels, where a different female character also uses false blonde hair—a dye job this time—to win back the heart of the man she lost.) After the Smuggler kills the Contact, she doffs her wig and walks out of the narrative, out of the film (and Brigitte Lin, who retired from acting after making this movie, walks out of cinema). The audience only catches an oblique, blurry glimpse of the Smuggler’s face and real black hair in a fleeting step-printed shot.

This scene takes on an added resonance in the context of colonialism and its shaping of dominant narrative discourse.23 Following Abbas’ argument, the countdown to the cans’ expiration plays upon the countdown to the hand-over. If the Western Contact can be taken as an emblem of Western colonization of Hong Kong (which began with Britain smuggling another drug—opium—into China), then the scene of the Contact’s execution may be seen as the death of Western domination. So, a Hong Kong/Chinese identity (as represented by movie-star Lin)24 no longer needs to fashion itself in the West’s image, as the Smuggler does with her wig. Because the Contact speaks with a North American accent (the accent of Hollywood) and because Lin’s face is never fully exposed to the camera, Wong seems to connect this issue to the cinema and narrative per se. Throughout the film, Wong keeps the highest-paid actress in Hong Kong covered in dark glasses and a blonde wig—and in her valedictory performance, no less. The audience never gets a good look at this pricey performer. This must have been very frustrating to the many Hong Kong viewers who bought a ticket to see their favorite female movie star in her last film. Apparently, the death of the Western “master” (master of the heart, master of the state, master of the cinema) implies not only the death of dominant narrative conventions, but an opportunity to re-think the politics of the visible from the ground up. However, as the last, indistinct shot of Lin implies, a fully alternate mode of discourse —and an empowered “Chinese” identity to go with it—has yet to be fully envisioned.

Wong’s refusal to unite his characters at the end of Chungking Express touches directly on the issue of narrative closure. And like the last shot of Lin, this carries deep implications for the very idea of cinematic representation. Wong’s original script concluded with the four main characters all converging in an airport lounge: this would have tied up the loose ends, giving the story a sense of wholeness and completion. But when Wong couldn’t secure the location he wanted for the scene, he simply decided not to shoot it (Rayns, “Poet of Time,” 16). Such a decision is mind-boggling: Isn’t the ending an inextricable part of any film? Apparently, for Wong, wholeness and completion aren’t the point. Instead, the film ends with flight-attendant Faye’s return to Hong Kong. 633 has quit the police force and bought the Midnight Express. Faye’s nervousness and voice-over imply that she’s still in love with 633, but she appears to discourage his romantic interests. She makes a hand-drawn boarding pass for him. “Where do you want to go?” she asks. “Wherever you want to take me,” he replies. Suddenly, the closing credits roll over Faye Wang’s voice singing an up-beat Cantopop cover of the Cranberries’ song “Dreams” (which had earlier accompanied scenes of Faye redecorating the apartment). Rather than concluding with the finality of romantic union, the film remains poised on the brink of possibility. Chungking Express playfully encourages us to go wherever we want.

Indeed, Chungking Express is almost the complete antithesis of Ashes of Time. Like the people in the martial-arts movie, the characters in Chungking Express suffer from loneliness, frustration, and the loss of love. However, they overcome these problems in unconventional ways. Where the martial artists of Ashes of Time are trapped by the confines of an illogical warrior code—extended extradiegetically to the confines of the action genre—the characters of Chungking Express refuse to conform to the expectations of the police movie and the romantic comedy. The characters’ lack of romantic resolution at the end of the film suggests the still-evolving component of the Hong Kong identity, an identity which, the film implies, is free to take off in any direction. Where Ashes of Time merely casts a disapproving eye upon the constraints of martial-arts conventions, Chungking Express knocks down generic conventions from the outside and tells stories where the constraints of the policier and the romantic comedy no longer apply. By working against genre, Chungking Express liberates itself from the pessimism that ultimately weighs down Ashes of Time. As a result, Chungking Express offers an alternative vision full of human potential—and in doing so, opens up cinema viewing to greater perceptual freedoms.

Continued

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