Director: Kar-Wai Wong (Hong Kong). Year of Release: 1994
He Qiwu (mainly referred to the film as Cop 223) is a plainclothes cop, approaching his 25th birthday. He’s recently been dumped on April Fools Day, and spends most of his time either moping around in fast food bars feeling sorry for himself or ringing his messaging service to see if his ex has rung (she invariably hasn’t). Every day, he buys a can of pineapples with the expiry date 1st May, because his ex loved canned pineapples and 1st May is his birthday.
To celebrate his birthday, he eats the 30 cans of pineapple that he’s collected and goes on a bender. In a bar, he meets a woman who we’ve previously seen in a selection of dodgy scenes involving passports, a load of $100 bills, and a gun. She always wears a blonde wig, a trench coat and sunglasses, because “you never know when it’s going to rain and when the sun will shine”.
The following scene is typical of the film as a whole. Cop 223 goes to the woman and starts talking, even though she makes it clear that she wants to drink on her own. She doesn’t even respond to his conversational gambit “do you like pineapples?” More to the point, although she tells him that she doesn’t want to talk, she never tells him to fuck off. Many empty glasses later, he’s still at her side, and they go together to a motel room (even though all she really wants to do is sleep).
After maybe three quarters of an hour, this story abruptly ends, and we’re introduced to Cop 663. He’s also been recently dumped, by an airline stewardess. But he is also too absorbed in his own woes to notice that the woman at the fast food counter has the hots for him. He even fails to see that she’s using the house keys that his ex left at the café and sneaking into his house to clean the place up,
Chungking Express is largely told from the perspective of the male leads and the male director. There is a brief attempt to let the girls do some of the voiceover narration, but this doesn’t lack long and we’re soon back to the men. Moreover, the female characters are Manic Pixie Dream Girls who only really exist as a glorified fantasy – all quirky and sexy, but not really having agency, or even opinions of their own.
The film only manages to pass the Bechdel test when one of the women working in the café announces that she’s finishing her shift. But it’s not just the women who barely interact – no-one talks to each other. The men moon around like Young Werther, wondering how life can be so cruel that a woman who they thought they owned has stopped fancying them and are too self-absorbed to talk to anyone else. This is not a film that’s high on dialogue.
Having said all that, Chungking Express looks great. There is a lot of handheld photography at play, much of which is very claustrophobic, getting so close to the objects being filmed that we lose track of where we are. This can be quite disorientating, but it also gives us a sense that something exciting is going on, that we’re in a film where something is happening.
The soundtrack is similarly terrific. From Dennis Brown’s Things in Life and Dinah Washington doing What A Difference A Day Makes to Cantonese versions of the Cranberries and the Cocteau Twins (I didn’t catch the latter, but it was on the end credits so maybe it’s something they just bunged onto the soundtrack album). And California Dreaming played again and Again and AGAIN until you start to lose your goodwill for what is still a great tune. In moderation.
It wasn’t a surprize to see that the poster for today’s film prominently featured the name of Quentin Tarantino – a man who’s films always contained more style than substance. It was Tarantino, still on a post-Pulp Fiction high, who fought that Chungking Express would get a US-American release and there is plenty here that would appeal to Tarantino fanboys (they are usually boys).
Chungking Express is flashy, self-referential and made more for people who gasp at film iconography rather that, ooh, I don’t know, a coherent plot and a story. It was released in Europe when I was new in Germany and had limited access to cinema I could understand. I remember there being a large amount of hype, and although I was not necessarily expecting it to be any good, I thought that it would, at least, be substantial.
But this is not substantial film. It is superficial, gimmicky, all fur coat and no knickers. Which is fine. There are plenty of insubstantial films that are a joy to watch. If you manage your expectations, there’s a lot to get out of this film, but be aware that it is what it is.