Following are some reflections on Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (1994), which I recently screened to my students. This is not really a review, but rather something that one might enjoy reading after watching the film. (Warning: There are SPOILERS in these reflections.)
The original Chinese title is Chungking Mansions, which refers to huge housing/commercial complex in Hong Kong, famous for its cultural diversity, liveliness, but also crime. The film may be seen as an action/comedy/romance featuring two storylines that seem only tangentially connected at first, but are actually thematically parallel. The mood of the first story switches back and forth between the tension of an action film and a light romantic comedy, and does so surprisingly effectively. The second story is more consistently a romantic comedy. The themes that bring the two storylines together were only apparent to me on a third viewing (and with the help of a handout from Vassar Emeritus Prof. of Philosophy and Film Jesse Kalin): the difficulty of obtaining the object of one’s love, and the instability of love even when it is obtained. In the first story, we meet the Woman in the Blonde Wig (WIBW), who is arranging a drug smuggling operation, which goes horribly wrong I assume that WIBW was originally in love with the white guy (her pimp?), who has now sent her on a drug run. We see him converting his next “victim” into a clone of her. So WIBW has already loved and lost that love. Eventually, she will kill him. Why? Perhaps it is to prevent him from sending someone after her. But White Pimp operates out of a seedy bar. He hardly seems the type to have international hitmen working for him. Perhaps she is motivated by jealousy? As Oscar Wilde wrote, “And all men kill the thing they love / By all let this be heard / … / The coward does it with a kiss / The brave man with a sword” – or a revolver in this case.
Later in the same storyline, we meet Cop 223. He is still in love, but no longer has the woman he loves, “May” (rhyming with the Mandarin Chinese 没 “to not have”). He tries to find someone – anyone, really – to replace her. He seems to be “in love with the idea of being in love” (as St. Augustine said of his own adolescent self). After going all the way through his “little black book” to the number of his grade-school crush, he ends up in a bar, where he pursues WIBW. In a sense, he “gets” her: they spend the night together in a hotel. However, she simply sleeps while he watches TV and eats several room-service meals. In a sense they are living in parallel, unconnected, but he is watching over her, and even takes her shoes off before he leaves so her feet won’t swell up. The last time he will ever hear from her (she is about to flee the country) is when she leaves him a message: “Happy Birthday.” It is simple, yet touching. He hopes that his memory of her has no “expiration date,” even though everything else in life seems to.
At the start of the second story, Cop 663 is in what appears to be a successful romantic relationship with a sexy airline stewardess. Faye, a quirky girl who works in a noodle shop, spots him and develops a crush. The object of her desire seems unobtainable. But then 663’s girlfriend dumps him. Instead of pursuing him directly, Faye begins to stalk him. She gets the key to his apartment, which his ex-girlfriend has dropped off to return to him. Faye wheedles out of him his address, then starts to show up at his apartment when he is out. At first, she just “plays house.” However, she gradually starts to redecorate, the way any girlfriend might do with a new guy who lived in “a total bachelor pad,” as one ex-girlfriend of mine described my Vassar apartment. (This was after my first marriage had reached its “expiry date.”) 663 does not notice the changes, or rationalizes them. Does he really not notice? This requires an immense suspension of disbelief. Then again, if you asked me, whether my bathroom walls were “lime” or “mint,” I could not tell you to save my life. Prof. Kalin hints that the film may be warning us that its own narrative is not trustworthy.
Why doesn’t Faye just approach 663 directly? He invited her to “drop by” his place, which, if not precisely a date, is a starting point any interested woman would take advantage of. We realize what the problem is when 663 finally catches her red-handed in his apartment. She escapes, but he finds her at the Midnight Express noodle bar where she works and asks her out. She agrees…but then runs off into the back of the noodle bar and shouts, “I’m doomed!” And when the night of the date arrives, her boss shows up at the bar to tell 663 that she has left the country. Faye dreamed of flying away to California. (In Mandarin, “Faye” is a homonym for both “to fly” 飞 and “is not” 非.) If she gets into a relationship with 663, she has to give up her California dream. He is (perhaps) her true love, but obtaining him is her “doom.” (“The coward does it with a kiss….”)
At the end of the film, Faye returns as an airline stewardess. This allows her to travel the world, as in her dream, but it also makes her transformation into 663’s ex-girlfriend complete. Cop 663, meanwhile, has bought Midnight Express. (Has he become her? Not exactly, since she was an employee, whereas 663 is now the owner, but still some strange through-the-looking-glass transformation has occurred.) 663 asks Faye to a late dinner, but she refuses: “I have an early flight tomorrow.” 663 shows her the pretend boarding pass she left for him a year ago, when she skipped their date. He asks her to make him another one. “Where to?” she asks. “Wherever you want to take me,” he replies. Does this mean that they are a couple? My wife and I argued over this one. She thinks he has proven his love (by keeping the boarding pass, and by buying the place where she used to work), and has expressed his willingness to go with her anywhere. But how can he follow her if he just bought a business in Hong Kong? Will she continue to be a stewardess but visit him when she is on layovers in Hong Kong? We saw how well that worked with his last girlfriend. The film ends with uncertainty, just like Faye’s favorite song, “California Dreamin’ “: “If I didn’t tell her / I could leave today.” Will the narrator of the song leave “her”? Why is he walking in the cold instead of staying with her? Why hasn’t he left her already?
Prof. Kalin (who always grasps more of films than I do) notes the political subtext of the film, which was made a few years before the handover of Hong Kong from the UK (which had essentially stolen it from China in the Opium Wars) to the People’s Republic of China. Who is the only white person in the film? It’s the guy (presumably British) whom I called White Pimp. He betrays WIBW, and when he gets killed it’s hard to feel bad for him. In the second storyline, when Faye shrieks, “I’m doomed!” she seems to be talking about a potential relationship with 663, but she expresses the fears of many Chinese about staying in Hong Kong through the transition. It turned out to be less traumatic than anyone thought. Hong Kong is a special economic zone, with a measure of independence from the Mainland government. Hong Kong natives are most comfortable speaking English and/or Cantonese, and many of them are positively hostile to anyone who speaks Mandarin (the official dialect of the Mainland). So Hong Kong has managed to maintain its identity as a semi-independent, multicultural, laissez faire capitalist metropolis – and home of some of China’s greatest filmmakers.