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15th April 2024

Chungking Express: Intoxicating youthful cinema | UoM Film Soc screening reports

In an age where arthouse cinema has become middle-aged, Wong Kar-wai’s 90s classic still speaks to today’s youth
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Chungking Express: Intoxicating youthful cinema | UoM Film Soc screening reports
CREDIT: Chungking Express @ Jet Tone Production Co., Ltd.

Chungking Express is fairly simple. It’s a rom-com where most of the characters are much sadder in their homeland than Hong Kong’s neon lighting and bright colours would’ve led you to believe. In this sense, Kar-Wai can easily be cited as the guiding influence behind Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and can be compared to Wes Anderson. Anderson’s films likewise are constructed to be set in beautiful scenery though are always somehow filled with characters that resemble broken or disfigured dolls.

It follows police officer Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in its first part before it switches to Cop 663 (Tony Leung) in its second. Both parts deal with how these two men in traditional positions of masculine authority deal with getting their hearts broken by their now ex-girlfriends. In the first part, a very weird cop who eats lots of pineapple falls for a very introverted girl in a blonde wig he’s been innocently bothering in a bar (Brigitte Lin) who we are aware, even if Cop 223 isn’t, is, unfortunately, a drug smuggler.

Then in a reversal, the very straight-edged Cop 663 becomes the fixation of quirky Faye (singer Faye Wong) who works for her cousin at the takeaway that both cops frequent. It’s used then to subvert the generic tropes of both the crime and romance genres of Hong Kong cinema, to really handle loneliness and alienation in a love letter to a city that was plagued by uncertainty for its future. A love letter written 30 years ago to a city right to feel uncertain. A city that has recently since died a death at the fist of mainland China, where the predictability of said death made it no less tragic to those who cared for it.

Yet more so than its quality as a time capsule for a city that you can no longer visit is the joy of life it offers to its audience. It is filled with unhappy people yet is funny from beginning to end. As much as there are brief scenes of brilliantly frenetic action film violence, the film’s main focus is the humour of the tiny inconveniences and sorrows of day-to-day life. The drudgery.

Wong Kar-Wai is able to season what could be quite boring subject matter with his unique style; his and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s visual flare that captures urban environments like no one else and a range of weirdo characters whose interior lives are as strange to the viewer as they are simultaneously relatable. Even in its most melancholic character Cop 223, there isn’t a scent of the nihilism that prevails in other films about urban decay like Taxi Driver or some of the other American classics.

Instead, it makes rather more sense for me, as has been done countless times by critics before me, to compare Wong Kar-Wai to European cinema. No director till Kar-Wai had been able to capture the intoxicating adrenaline or the uncertainty of their countries’ young adults like the auteurs of the French New Wave had, but most especially as John-Luc Godard had achieved for himself in his 1960s prime. From his ground-breaking Breathless to films like Contempt and Bande à part.

Yet to speak of their similarities: the use of jump cuts, improvisation, urban settings, pop soundtracks, untrained actors, blending high/low culture and use of hand-held cameras feels pointless. What is more important to discuss is where these kinds of films and the kind of people that made them have disappeared to? Who is making movies, right now, for the generation that discovered movies such as Chungking Express late one night after pirating it on their laptop in bed? Don’t mistake me for saying arthouse cinema has died. Arthouse cinema is alive and well. But its themes have started to become middle-aged.

Who, right now, is making interesting cinema for students who cannot afford to spend £13 for an Odeon ticket? For the politically minded but not obsessed, who aren’t going for dinners and cocktails after going to the movies, but going to underground events at Hidden. If the answer to my question is someone like Emerald Fennell, the director of Saltburn, how can that make you feel anything other than suicidal? For me to claim movies are getting worse would be stupid, but the feeling that art films with characters under 25 in them aren’t the same anymore seems certain. Maybe then the most depressing thing about Chungking Express is how great it is.

At the start of this review, I mentioned that each viewing I’ve had of Chungking Express was memorable in some way. The first time I watched it 3 years ago I remember being immediately intoxicated by its style, from the moment the opening chase scene commences. The second and third viewings were in London’s Chinatown at a cinema that constantly has a Wong Kar-Wai season going.

Those times in a different way, I was taken aback by its perception of heartbreak, especially as those screenings were a year apart and each time I had one of my two best friends sat next to me. Who in two different parts of those twelve months had been left broken by the same girl.

Of this viewing, I’ll remember the cramped space wherein I teared up watching Faye’s love of life as she messes around in Cop 663’s apartment after stealing his keys. A film making you laugh at something funny or cry at something horrifying is impressive. To make you let go of a tear at something joyful is either a sign the movie you’re watching is special or it’s a sign alerting you you’ve got a chemical imbalance.

Yet either way, it’s given me a memory I don’t want to forget and am unlikely to, which is probably the best thing you can say about the experience of seeing a film. Part of that I owe to the UoM Film Society, and can only suggest you should now go to their next screening, even if it unfortunately isn’t likely to be Chungking Express.

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