by Jay Seaver
Chungking Express is a cop movie in that its two protagonists are police officers, but it doesn't deal with crime very much at all. Instead, writer/director Wong Kar-Wai's film is an eccentric, beautifully shot pair of stories about two men whose girlfriends have recently left them.The first half is certainly set up to look like a procedural. We're introduced to a police officer, badge #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), one of the youngest detectives on the force. His girlfriend broke up with him on April Fool's Day, and since then he's been buying tins of pineapple with a May first expiration date, marking time until, he believes, she either comes back or his love for her expires. We also meet a smuggler (Brigitte Lin) using Indian families to smuggle heroin into Hong Kong. The expected play, perhaps, is for the officer to be assigned to capture her, but for an attraction to build, until each are ultimately forced to choose between their duty and their heart...
"The express route from unhappy endings to hopeful beginnings."
Only it doesn't work out that way. 223 is too consumed in his own sadness to pay much attention to anything else, and he really doesn't seem to be much of a cop. Meanwhile, it seems as though anything that can go wrong with the smuggler's plan does, and she has to scramble to herd her mules, report to her bosses, and run when danger seems near. Their paths will cross, but not necessarily in the predicted manner.
It says good things about the movie as a whole that this is the weaker segment. 223 is kind of a sad sack, and one's first impulse is to grab him and shake him, and point out that this whole pineapple thing is really, really silly. But he's hurt, and people don't necessarily think straight when they're hurt. And the very nature of his obsession is absurd, leading to some outbursts that are as funny in some ways as they are sad. He yells at a shopkeeper for not having any pineapple that expire the next day, and it's a silly thing, but the audience has probably been in that place: You need to erupt at someone, but the person you're angry at is unavailable, so you create reasons.
More arresting is Brigitte Lin. We're given nearly nothing about her character's background and really don't know anything about her other than she's up to no good, but Ms. Lin turns in perhaps the film's finest acting job. Wearing sunglasses, a raincoat, and a platinum-blonde wig, she's almost a smooth criminal caricature. But she sells it, using few words but plenty of body language to create the potentially contradictory image of a competent, veteran badass whose plans could fall apart at any moment. There's efficiency in her movements and hostility in her glares, and if 223 is all the law enforcement she's going to encounter, she doesn't have much to worry about, but somehow she could still lose.
Wong and his cinematographers go the hand-held route here, using a lot of night shooting to create a dark, grainy look (although the graininess may be a result of the DVD source used when a print was not available). I see on the IMDB that Brigitte Lin's scenes were greatly expanded for the U.S. version of the movie, likely to the film's great benefit - even if it's not strongly connected to the main story of the cop, the audience at least sees that something is happening, rather than watching someone waiting for something to happen.
The second half features Tony Leung as officer #633; his girlfriend was a flight attendant, and she leaves a letter and her key to his place at the lunch stand where he regularly eats. The staff reads it, of course, and when the man continues to put off actually picking it up, Faye (Faye Wong), the counter girl follows him home, sees the sad state in which he's living, and takes it upon herself to start cleaning his apartment while he's out.
That Leung's character is a cop isn't really important to this segment; he could be anything. Though he narrates, the main character of this story is Faye. And, indeed, that's kind of the ironic point - he's so hung up on the girl who left him, he barely notices the one standing right in front of him. And it's not like Faye is easy to ignore: She's pretty, she cranks the radio (somehow always playing "California Dreaming") up so loud it's almost impossible to give her one's lunch order, she skips out on work and breaks into his apartment. But at times it seems he's determined to ignore her - when he nearly catches her in his place one afternoon, and the floor's wet from where she'd accidentally let a sink overflow, there's a narrative aside about how the apartment must miss the old girlfriend, because it's crying, too. (Jilted Hong Kong cops get some weird notions)
The photography in this segment is less confining, with more open spaces and brighter colors. Even 633's apartment (cinematographer Christopher Doyle's own place) feels full of possibility, especially once Faye has dealt with some of the clutter. The lunch stand is in a pretty low-rent district, but it looks nicer on 633's visits than on 223's, due almost entirely to how Wong & Doyle shoot it.
Both stories start from the same point - cop's girlfriend leaves him and he has trouble letting go, even when a new woman enters his life - but it's the differences in the telling that make it interesting. They're both sort of in denial, and at first it seems like 223 is better off; he's at least set himself a goal in terms of getting over it. But he allows himself to wallow, calling her family and hoping against hope that she'll come back. 633 may not be willing to explicitly admit that his girl is gone, but he hasn't completely closed himself off to moving forward.And, ultimately, there's hope. That's kind of surprising, considering Wong Kar-Wai doesn't exactly specialize in happy endings, but then, he's not really supplying them here. "Chungking Express" as a name evokes a train, and that's apt - these are stories about getting from unhappy endings to hopeful beginnings, rather than the other way around
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originally posted: 05/19/05 12:24:59