Wong Kar-Wai has proven himself to be a great director – In the Mood for Love is one of the greatest films of the 2000s. However, all the creative talent involved in the production of Chungking Express, including veteran actor Tony Leung and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle, could not save Kar-Wai’s breakthrough film from being a mawkish structural mess that fails to engage on either an intellectual or emotional level. Doyle’s aesthetics are certainly dazzling, but its oneiric formalism is ultimately empty and its post-structuralism is overwhelmingly ineffective.
Appropriating the two-act peripeteiac structure popularised by the incredibly dated and hackneyed The Crying Game, Chungking Express starts with a brilliantly entertaining first act and completely runs out of steam after thirty minutes, relying on tiresome repetition in its unnecessarily protracted second act. Act one portrays the tale of Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who comes in contact with a peculiar drug runner in a blonde wig. Act two involves the tale of Cop 663 (Tony Leung) who, dealing with a breakup much like his act one surrogate, encounters an enamoured worker at his local take-away food stall named Faye (Faye Wong). Unlike the structural déjà vu of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Chungking Express is frankly uninteresting, especially on repeat viewings. While this repudiation of the three-act structure – even the two vignettes don’t follow the conventions of exposition, complication and resolution – is certainly intriguing on an initial viewing of the film, Chungking Express is a short film idea stretched across 100 tedious minutes.
The thematic congruence between the two acts seems overly pedestrian and trite – a disillusioned police officer suddenly falls in love with a mysterious woman, and then a different mysterious woman falls in love with a different disillusioned police officer – which is why the film lacks a sense of perspective, coherence and meaning. In other words, the sheer banality of the second act ensures the audience will be longing for the frenetic energy and pace of the first act.
Doyle’s dizzying hand-held cinematography and tantalising use of slow-motion and multiple-exposure effectively disguises the film’s tonal monotony; through this, Kar-Wai deludes and confounds the audience into thinking that the film is more thematically acute and astute than it actually is. Doyle shows his hand too early, exploiting all his formalistic devices early in the piece. Consequently, the second act lacks any semblance of thematic or formal surprise, and thus fails to engage the viewer on the same level as the frenzied and plot-heavy first act. The structural weighting of the film hence feels misaligned, as the unfocused and unnecessarily repetitive second act is twice the duration of the first act.
From the outset, Chungking Express is so explicitly about the inability of institutional authorities to successfully engage with the populace that the film requires little decoding; this theme carries a bathetic degree of irony when you consider how simply unengaging the bulk of the film is. Given that so much of the film is ultimately dull, the smaller on-the-nose elements in the script become sightly and bothersome.
Seemingly attempting to replicate Spike Lee’s motific diegetic integration of Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’ in Do the Right Thing, Kar-Wai has Faye incessantly listen to the song ‘California Dreamin’’ by The Mama’s and the Papa’s. However, Kar-Wai offers a mere simulacrum of Lee’s film. Every time ‘Fight the Power’ is used in Do the Right Thing, it is in a different context and thus carries a different meaning, while still acting as an effective leitmotif each time. In contrast, the constant use of ‘California Dreamin’’ in Chungking Express is numbingly irritating. Faye wants to go to California. She wants a new life. Okay, we’ve got it. Time to move on. It’s a pop culture shorthand that, to the untrained ear, seems to carry more thematic weight that it actually does. In this regard, Wong Kar-Wai is the arthouse Asian equivalent of Wes Anderson’s empty populism.
Another misplaced and vacuous motif is that of the take-away food store owner, played by Chen Jinquan. He is represented as a borderline-racist ‘oriental’ caricature, evoking an illogical homage to Mickey Rooney’s Asian stereotype from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The first act of Chungking Express is genuinely funny but the attempts at humour in the second act are cringe-worthy, again elucidating the structural misgivings of the film.
I will admit that Chungking Express is essential viewing for anyone looking to be educated in the art of cinema (it’s one of Tarantino’s all-time favourites). At the end of the day it is not awful, but it is surely one of the most overrated films of the 1990s.