Posted on April 1, 2021
In the cinematic shorthand of Wong Kar Wai, neon lights are blurred like the colours on an impressionist’s canvas, standing for the passage of time or the frenetic pace of modern life. Characters glance off one another, in varying states of loneliness or melancholy, as if each one is a bubble floating in the same space, over the same landscape. The disjointed, poetic chaos that characterizes Wong’s oeuvre is on full display in the film that made the Hong Kong auteur an indie darling in the West: Chungking Express. His 1994 film was put together in under a month, during a lull in the filming of Ashes of Time. This may be one of the most productive, delightful lulls in the history of cinema: it led to a sweet, intimate meditation on connection, memory, and love. Chungking Express is at once playful, deeply sad, funny, and remarkable, and it plays so mischievously with the idea of memory.
Made up of two separate, essentially disconnected short films, Chungking Express tells the story of two lovelorn policemen, played in the first half of the film by Takeshi Kaneshiro (Red Cliff, House of Flying Daggers) and in the second half by Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love). The first short film revolves around the romantic misadventures of the dreamy, sweet-natured He Qiwu (Kaneshiro) whose girlfriend May, a girl with a fondness for canned pineapples, deserted him on April Fool’s day, leading him to believe that this breakup was a joke.
In an odd attempt to get over his broken heart, he falls into the habit of buying cans of pineapple that expire on the first of May: his birthday, the month that shares a name with the woman who left him, and the date that will mark a calendar month since he had his heart broken. He also frequents a fast food stand in Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions / Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood known as the Midnight Express. From this fast food stand, he begins to call up (it seems) every woman he has ever known, trying to find one who will share the night with him, or at least remember him. He has absolutely no luck there. When he finds his thirtieth can of pineapple, he decides to eat all thirty cans in his tiny apartment, with only his goldfish and his dog for company.
Afterwards, feeling sick and miserable, he wanders into a bar. This strange young man has another coping mechanism for getting over heartbreak: jogging. He believes that jogging will wring all the excess water from his body, leaving none for tears. This philosophical jogger collides with a mysterious, unnamed drug smuggler in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) when he walks into the bar, and this woman has been running around Hong Kong all night in search of escaped drug mules.
The sly humour in a cop trying to pick up a drug smuggler is not lost on the audience. Kaneshiro’s young policeman is so hung up on his breakup that he fails to see what is right in front of his eyes: the fact that the mysterious woman in the bar is a part of the criminal underworld he is meant to police, and the fact that his ex-girlfriend May will never return to him. He is desperate to cling to the memory of May. At the same time, he wants to put the past behind him as his birthday approaches, and he is eager for a connection with just about anyone.
The idea of memory troubles him. He muses, everything in this world expires. Even cling-film expires. Is there anything in this world that won’t expire? He wants to feel that certain things are time-proof, but he understands that May sees him as a can of pineapple: something that will eventually expire. It is this thought that sends him right into the path of the mysterious wigged woman in the bar. Several telephone conversations with various women reveal that many of them do not remember him at all. Desperate for a connection on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, he walks up to the woman in the blonde wig and delivers what might be the best, most left-of-centre pickup line in the history of indie cinema: excuse me, Miss, do you like pineapples?
Even in the midst of trying to connect with a complete stranger, Kaneshiro’s young cop cannot let go of the memory of his ex-girlfriend May. Is he looking to create a link – however tenuous – between May and the woman in the blonde wig? Perhaps. The point is, despite the blonde woman’s obvious disinterest, Kaneshiro’s cop persists. She fobs him off repeatedly, but he goes on, delivering a sweetly rambling almost-monologue on the state of his life and his views on love and connection.
The point is connection. It doesn’t seem to matter how or why the connection is made. This much is obvious when these two mismatched characters end their night in a hotel room. She sleeps, and he watches television while eating tray after tray of room service. His appetite never ends – you would be tempted to assume that this lonely young man is eating his feelings.
Towards the end of this one-sided night, Kaneshiro’s cop cleans the woman’s shoes and walks out of the hotel room, never to see her again. Later, while he waits to turn twenty-five, he jogs around a sports ground and plans to ditch his pager, presuming no one will call him to wish him a happy birthday. The pager is ditched, but not before it goes off, alerting Kaneshiro’s sad birthday boy to a message left for him by his “friend” in the hotel room. The mysterious woman in the blonde wig has not forgotten him after all: she wishes him a happy birthday.
This leads to the most endearing moment of the film. Kaneshiro muses, if memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries. He is overjoyed, and the camera freezes him in this moment of recognition and connection: a young man with a beaming smile. Fate is less kind to Brigitte Lin’s mysterious drug smuggler. She works for a European man who uses his bar as a front for his drug running operation, and he informs her that she, too, has an expiry date: coincidentally, it is May the first, as stamped on a can of sardines delivered to her earlier in the film. She guns down her employer, but her fate is left open-ended, so we never find out whether her story truly ends on the first of May.
The persistence of memory dominates the first half of Chungking Express. To me, this is what makes the first short film, centred on Kaneshiro and Lin, so noteworthy. Being remembered is such a basic human desire. We want to believe that something about our connection with another person will be remembered even though the connection itself may not last. Who wants to believe that they are as expendable as a can of pineapples? Kaneshiro’s determination to forge a connection at the cost of time and dignity speaks to a universal fear of loneliness, but it is in a moment of profound loneliness that he experiences even the smallest fraction of connection. The moment he hears that Brigitte Lin’s drug smuggler has wished him a happy birthday, he makes this wish a memory in its own right, declaring that because of this wish, he will always remember her.
That little moment of recognition and acceptance becomes his only instance of true joy, and it is enough for him. We see him satisfied and getting on with his life after that, in casual clothing and with his trusty running shoes, buying a cup of Coca Cola from the now-familiar fast food stand and not especially desperate to look for another connection with a stranger.
Wong Kar Wai is known for never using a finished script when he shoots a film. In many ways, Wong is a conductor whose orchestra is made up of chaos, chance, and fate. He sets all three up in front of a constantly rolling camera and allows them to interact, filming, cutting and editing the footage into some semblance of a film that also manages to mirror a few essences of human life. This ability to cobble together life out of chaos is a trademark of Wong’s, and it is showcased magnificently in the first half of Chungking Express, with the steely detachment of Brigitte Lin paired up with the endearing persistence of Takeshi Kaneshiro.
The result is like so much of life: misjudged connections, misplaced affections, characters nursing emotional bruises and fretting over being loved and remembered. Wong’s chaos is human and humane, not to mention impressive.
Aided by able performers like Kaneshiro, who brings the energy and bewilderment of youth to his role, the auteur director has managed to create a film about a lovelorn cop, a drug smuggler in a wig, canned pineapples and stress-eating that continues to resonate with audiences worldwide; and this is only half of the full film.
Impressive, and infinitely memorable.
© Genji & Co. 2021
Photo credit: courtesy of Janus Films