If Chungking Express were a snake, it would be a boa constrictor. It starts off slow, gradually easing you into the everyday life of its characters. Before you know it, the movie has wrapped itself around your brain. It's a smart little film with dialogue that would be pretentious anywhere else and an eclectic soundtrack that actually works with the film instead of doing duty as the background for various music videos. And hey, we'll admit: we were mesmerized by the cinematography.
The film comprises two love stories in the Kwaloon section of Hong Kong. Most of the less affluent population of Hong Kong lives in Kwaloon; it's the Bronx to Hong Kong's Manhattan. The common thread in these two Bronx tales is a lunch counter where both men, each of them policemen, stop to eat every day. The lunch counter is, of course, named Chungking Express.
In the first story we meet No. 233, a somewhat off-center plainclothes police officer who broke up with his girlfriend May. Every day he buys a can of pineapples with an expiration day corresponding to one of the days since May broke up with him on April 1st. By the time he has thirty cans, he figures, he will know whether May will come back to him.
At the same time, a beautiful woman (who always wears a blonde wig, sunglasses, and raincoat no matter the time of day or prevailing weather conditions) is having a little trouble with her drug smuggling operation. Her latest batch of immigrant smugglers have disappeared with an entire shipment, and she fears that she is being set up to take the fall for the screw-up by her apparent boss/lover. The fun begins when No. 233 decides to use his new pickup line ("Excuse me... do you like pineapple?") at a singles' bar.
Faye Wong as Faye.
In the second, largely unrelated story, Officer 866 (Tony Leung from Hard Boiled, looking more clean-cut usual) breaks up with his air-stewardess girlfriend. The girlfriend leaves her Dear John letter and her copy of the apartment keys at the Chungking Express for him to retrieve. However, even though he knows it's there, 688 refuses to pick up the letter, and it falls into the hands of Faye (pop singer Faye Wong), who is working at the Express. Faye has become infatuated with the cop and uses the keys to break into his apartment when he's not there. During her visits, she restocks his aquarium, changes the labels on his food, goes through his closet, and just generally messes with his stuff. The entire time she's doing this she wears dishwashing gloves. It's sort of the ultimate in safe sex.
For his part, the cop never quite notices that anything is going on. He spends his time chastising the inanimate objects around his apartment for being depressed about his girl friend leaving, and when they mysteriously change due to Faye's influence, he chastises them for not being themselves.
If there is a message in all this, it's probably that some neurotics just deserve each other. Director Wong Kar Wai may be the Taiwanese equivalent to Woody Allen, in that his supreme skill is to relate to us the lives of people who just can't deal with life, and more specifically life in the big city, the way society tells us is healthy. The fact that the protagonists of both stories are cops is deliberate, because cops are authority figures we think of being very together. If the city can cause the cops to become emotionally crippled, what chance do the rest of have?
Tony Leung talks to his dishrag.
On the other hand, it is the women who you come away from this movie remembering. Brigette Lin exudes nasty attitude as the Woman in the Blonde Wig. She doesn't seem to enjoy her chosen profession very much, though she is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, including kidnapping and murder. Even so, she remains a mystery, largely unreadable behind her sunglasses. When she abandons her wig at the end of her story, you get the sense that no one will ever lay eyes on her again.
Faye, Cop 688's secret admirer, is practically the definition of elfin. She is very much a creature of the late twentieth century, with a shortened attention span and a listless path through life. She listens to loud rock music, always "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas and the Papas, so she won't have to think. Faye Wong as an actress is totally engaging and totally believable in this role, and it's really a shame that she hasn't been in anything else (as far as we can tell).
Chungking Express is largely a movie for people who love moviemaking. The camera moves with the moods of its subjects, dancing with Faye as she works at the counter, or slowing to a leisurely pan as 688 watches the pedestrians walk past in the evening. It certainly won't win any friends in the "plot-is-everything" schools of thought, although the story of Faye and 688 is rewarding if you can stick with it. If you can accept this movie on the terms of beautiful filmmaking for its own sake, then Chungking Express is a film you have to see.