Ethan’s review published on Letterboxd:
夢中人 一分鐘抱緊 接十分鐘的吻
陌生人 怎麼走進內心 製造這次奮
A cloud of dread and uncertainty looms above Wong Kar-Wai’s third feature, Chungking Express, an exuberant whirlwind of love and longing bursting with seductive exoticism, set amid a Hong Kong in a perpetual state of flux and apprehension about its identity and future. Released in 1994, a mere three years before the British government would concede the island colony back to the Chinese, the film uneasily sits between Britain’s colonial past and the encroaching influence of mainland China.
The narrative structure of the film is separated into two diverging halves with an abundance of shared thematic overlap, parallels, and motifs. The first follows Cop 223 as he obsesses over a breakup with a woman named May and falls in love with a mysterious nameless woman in a blonde wig who, unbeknownst to him, is a drug dealer. The second half follows Cop 663, who is similarly dealing with a breakup with a flight attendant and falls in love with a beautiful ethereal server Faye at the late-night snack bar he frequents. The symmetry of the two juxtaposing stories underplays personal identity to highlight the uncertain collective identity of Hong Kong as it transitions from colonialism to post-colonialism.
Wong Kar-Wai’s Hong Kong is a vibrant urban jungle engulfed by towering skyscrapers and a bustling multicultural cosmopolitan city teeming with crime and dreams. Christopher Doyle’s feverish blend of slow-motion, pixelation, shifting shutter speeds, and indistinct images of loneliness and yearning coalesce into a ferocious sensory experience. The physical density of the city is visually expressed in the crowded spaces of Chungking Mansions and Lan Kwai Fong. While the sheer number of bodies may seem to indicate hyper-interactivity, it is quite the opposite; people navigate within proximity but are isolated in their routines. The seclusion and lack of social contracts reflect a loss of collective identity.
Characters in the film are hopelessly lost, feeling abandoned by the greater outside world. The outward refusal of emotional attachment and connection is deeply rooted in the “port” mentality among Hong Kong citizens. Many see the city as a transient place, not a permanent place to settle down. It is difficult for people to assimilate into society and align themselves with a permanent identity because the future of the city is already predetermined.
The crisis around the city's identity is also depicted in the film’s use of music, most notably in its repetition of the song, "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and The Papas. Played a total of eight times, the song is not only indicative of invading western cultural influences but also heavily informs Faye’s idealism. When Cop 663 first meets her, she is comfortably bobbing her head left and right, passively dancing about. The song is blasting so loud that Cop 663 has to lean in to speak his order into her ear. For the quirky and enigmatic Faye, who embraces a untroubled attitude to life, the song liberates her from the urban loneliness of the city. Opening with the lyrics: “all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey”, the song expresses little hope, but Faye’s compulsive affinity for the song may suggest hope for her future and, by extension, for Hong Kong’s future. Other songs, similarly repeated throughout the film, namely, “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown, “What a Diff'rence a Day Has Made" by Dinah Washington, and “夢中人” by Faye Wong build a dreamy trance-like atmosphere, displacing its audience in a cyclical feeling of love and loss.
The film embraces an impressionistic approach to its structure, perceptively made to feel formless, similar to the manner people perceive consciousness. Scenes in the film transpire like fragmented vignettes, messy and ephemeral, akin to fleeting memories. Wong is unconditioned by chronological storytelling, treating time in an elusive, slippery way. Time moves forward and backward without notice, audiences are left unsure how scenes correlate with one another. But taking the impact as a whole, Chungking Express holds an evocative quality of fantasy and communicates something deeply personal.
Uncompromising in its vision and commentary, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is a thoroughly beautiful and captivating introspection of loneliness and melancholy set amid a city unable to secure solace in its identity or history. Through its striking and experimental aesthetics, repetition of music, despondent loveless characters, narrative symmetry and allegory, Chungking Express endeavors to find hope in a city facing impending change.