Wong Kar-wai knocked out his 1994 pop romance portmaneau Chungking Express (Chung Hing sam lam) over just three months. The project was a break from the lengthy postproduction of his period martial arts epic Ashes of Time (1994/2008), and indeed, Chungking unfurls with a dizzy, kittenish, revitalizing playfulness that runs counter to Ashes’ more belaboured and intricate aesthetic gestures, despite the fact that these films share many of the same themes and motifs: above all, young people trying on personalities; the durability and masochistic allure of sustained broken-heartedness and melancholy memories; and the comforts of quirky metaphors and magical thinking in times of loss. Yet for all that the film is pretty damned gleeful. It makes housework, breaking and entering and playing with toy airplanes look like an awful lot of fun. (The Mamas and the Papas on the soundtrack helps.)
The film’s twin narratives, both set in the crowded, florescent-lit Babel-labyrinth of pre-hand-over Hong Kong, feature two police officers, known only by their badge numbers, a pixie-like take-out kiosk clerk and a drug smuggler whose look was apparently modeled after Gena Rowlands in Gloria (1980), though something about the combo of her sunglasses, make-up, oversized overcoat and big blonde wig always makes me think she looks like a drag queen. The four stars, two of whom were hugely popular singers, were all East Asian box office gold at the time, but the face who remains most familiar to Western audiences also happens to be the one with the wounded eyes and the role most lovingly loaded with Wong’s signature tropes. Tony Leung’s No. 663 is a soft-spoken cop with a crying apartment, an “emotionally charged towel” and a giant stuffed Garfield doll to whom he talks while waiting for a flight attendant girlfriend who’s never coming home. It’s easy to imagine this character, or any of the others, really, collapsing under the cuteness and wistful sentimentality of Wong’s voice-over monologues, but each of the actors, perfectly in step with their director, very wisely play it cool.
Perhaps the real star of Chungking Express is Christopher Doyle, the internationally beloved wild-man cinematographer who developed what would become his singular, shooter-as-auteur approach while working in close collaboration on Wong’s early features. Before revisiting the film to write this piece I hadn’t seen Chungking in many years. I realized that nearly everything I remembered about it and held most dear had much to do with the way Doyle used the film’s array of cramped locations, channelling his pent-up energy into buzzy, brushstroke-like camera moves; the way he coasted down corridors with a wide-angle lens and adored his lovely young subjects in lyrical close-up. It was a visionary aesthetic built largely on necessity—like most visionary aesthetics. And it begs, down on all fours, to be seen on the big screen.