Three Reasons to Watch: Chungking Express
Every Monday, Curzon or a guest editor recommends a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection. This week, it's Wong Kar-wai’s style-defining 1995 Hong Kong drama.
For his first few films, Wong Kar-wai was only known to a small number of people outside Asia. Then, Chungking Express changed everything. With 'Quentin Tarantino Presents' above the title, the film influenced the look of fashion and style magazines, contemporary cinema and music videos. It was a key moment in 1990s pop culture.
Unfolding in and around Chungking Mansions, a business and residential block in the heart of Kowloon, just a ferry ride from Hong Kong Island, Kar-wai’s film is, by turns, a crime thriller, police procedural, melodrama and romance. It takes four lives, across two interconnected stories, shuffling between shops, street cafes and apartments, and delivers a study in longing that is punctuated with sporadic bouts of action. Thematically, it continued the filmmaker’s preoccupations. But stylistically, it didn’t so much reflect the era as inform it.
Kar-wai began his feature career with As Tears Go By (1988), an effective, if mostly forgettable gangster drama. The achingly beautiful period drama Days of Being Wild (1990) was what attracted the attention of critics and audiences.
That film made up a loose trilogy that was rounded-off by In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). Kar-wai's third feature was Ashes of Time (1994), an opulent swordplay actioner whose near-incomprehensible plot about two warriors battling in different locations (think an Asian take on Ridley Scott’s 1977 debut The Duelists) made for baffling viewing. It was hardly helped by the director’s attempt to re-cut the film in 2008, leading to the release of Ashes of Time Redux. The production took so long that Kar-wai even produced a parody of the film, The Eagle Shooting Heroes, which featured the same cast.
Likewise, in need of some modernity, he shot Chungking Express during a two-month break from editing his martial arts epic. The result is a work that feels fleeting in the best possible way, capturing the restless energy of Hong Kong.
The film was shot by Christopher Doyle, whose apartment in Chungking Mansions doubles up as Tony Leung's in the film. Elsewhere, the blur of Hong Kong's lights at night and in the labyrinthine world of the Mansions turns the world into an otherworldly place in which the characters play out their stories. It's a real world extension of the street scenes in Blade Runner (1982), the cafes teeming with life and, through the voiceovers of the two male leads, where stories of love and loss play out.
Three reasons to watch Chungking Express
The look. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is both kinetic and sublime. Hong Kong becomes a dream-like world of colour and light. And Kar-wai's play with slow motion images adds to the romantic atmosphere.
After oozing cool as the hitman in John Woo’s crazed bullet ballet Hard Boiled (1992), Tony Leung begins his journey as one of 1990 cinema’s most charismatic romantic leads. He would hit his peak with another Kar-wai collaboration, In the Mood for Love.
The Mamas and the Papas. Their classic 1965 track ‘California Dreamin’’ dominates the film’s second part, as Faye Wong’s waitress longs to travel the world. It perfectly encapsulates the film’s energy.
Wong Kar-Wai's celebrated portrait of a neon-lit city populated by love-lorn cops, dangerous drug smugglers and dreamers is one of the key 1990s movies.
Kar-wai's film explores two stories of crime and passion, set within the complex network of markets, corridors and apartments that is Chungking Mansions, in the Hong Kong district of Kowloon. In the first, a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) brushes with a woman on the run (Brigitte Lin). In the second, another cop (Tony Leung) is unaware that the woman (Faye Wong) who serves him at a local cafe is in love with him. She breaks into his apartment, cleans it and leaves him mementoes, in the hope he will get over a broken heart and see her properly for the first time. The passage of time, in a place where conventional time seems to have forgotten, is central to these stories of heartbreak. But the real star is the backdrop. The Mansions, as filmed by Christopher Doyle, are almost dream-like in the way they're presented.
Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express is available now on Curzon Home Cinema