Chungking Express (1994): Wong Kar-Wai’s Dazzling Tale of Love and Loss

Displaying a dazzling visual style and flair for comic fun in the unexpected details, Chungking Express introduced Wong kar-wai to American audiences.

Structurally, the film consists of two stories told in sequence, each about a lovesick Hong Kong policeman mulling over his relationship with a woman.

The first tale stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cop obsessed with his breakup with a woman named May, and his encounter with a mysterious drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin).

In the second story, the handsome Tony Leung plays as a police officer roused from his gloom over the loss of his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) by the attentions of a quirky snack bar worker (Faye Wong).

“Chungking” in the title refers to Chungking Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, where Wong grew up in the 1960s. “Express” refers to the food stand Midnight Express, located in Lan Kwai Fong, in Central, Hong Kong.

Though largely plotless, the movie is so lavishly produced and so densely textured that it requires more than one viewing to absorb all the elements that add up to a singular picture, which cannot be compared to any other.

Chungking Express tells its story of love, loss, and memory through the romance (and romanticism) of objects, goods, clothes, shoes, artifacts of pop culture–and food items (French Fries and Ketchup feature prominently).

In the first story, He Qiwu desires closer social contacts but can only depend on desperate phone calls to May’s parents and cans of pineapples (May’s favorite food) as substitutes for actual physical contact or emotional intimacy.

At our closest point, we were just 0.01 cm apart from each other.” 0.01 cm is an urban space of possibilities—separation or connection, strangers or friends. This is a form of urban space that is of interest to Wong—that physical gap between busy passers-by in the city.

In the first story, Wong suggests that the sharing of 0.01 cm in a busy city can produce an affect. In the second, the possibility of sustaining a relationship through the non-simultaneous sharing of space is posited.

During the long production of Ashes of Time, Wong was forced to wait for two-months for equipment to re-record sound for some scenes.

He was in a negative state, feeling heavy pressure from his backers and worrying about another failure, and so decided to start a new project: “I thought I should do something to make myself feel comfortable about making films again. So I made Chungking Express, which I made like a student film.”

Conceived and completed within only six weeks, the new project ended up being released two months before Ashes of Time.

As noted, Chungking Express is split into two parts–both set in contemporary Hong Kong and focusing on lonely policemen. Wong was keen to experiment with two crisscrossing stories in one movie and worked spontaneously, filming at night what he had written that day.

Though Chungking is more lighthearted (and naive?) than the director’s previous efforts, it deals with the same themes that had preoccupied the director throughout his career.

At the 1995 Hong Kong Film Awards it was named Best Picture, and Wong received Best Director.

Miramax acquired the film for American distribution, which catapulted Wong to international attention.

Other films by Wong may bear more emotional resonance, but there’s no denying that Chungking Express displays a certain innocence, limitless stylistic exuberance, and freedom from any constraints–narrative or character-driven.