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May012009

Piecing Together Chungking Express

Upon first viewing, Chungking Express doesn't appear like it has much to offer. It's a mash-up of two separate and distinct stories. The first half of the film tells the stories of Cop 223 taking down criminals while coping with the loss of his girlfriend, and a woman in a blonde wig whose drug deal goes south and who must track down the money or face the consequences from her employer. The second half is all about Cop 663 and his meet-ups with Faye, a new employee at the Midnight Express; she finds the key to his apartment in a Dear John letter and secretly starts visiting it and changing things every day at lunch. After subsequent viewings, however, the two halves begin to connect.

As I noticed the growing connections between the two stories, a whole world of stylistic depth opened in front of me. I continue to watch the film again and again, and each time I discover a new piece to its puzzle. Narrative similarities, color, character framing, and camera stalking are just a few of the many style elements that tie Chungking Express together and take it from good to grand.

Mirrored Stories

I first noticed that the stories of Cop 223 and Cop 663 are, in outline, very similar. Both officers appear to have no friends and live alone, are on night duty, cope with being dumped by their girlfriends, find a new girl that interests them, fall asleep near that girl, and come to terms with their changing life. Both cops also attempt to prolong their breakups. In part one, Cop 223 was dumped by his girl, May, on April 1st (fools day), so he’s convinced that it was just a joke. In response, he buys a can of her favorite fruit, pineapple, from the OK convenience store every day during April. All of the cans expire on May 1st—if she doesn't take him back by then, he knows their love will expire with the fruit. Coincidently, May 1st is also his 25th birthday. Yet, instead of letting all of the cans of pineapple expire, he eats them all at midnight, trying his best to swallow every last remnant of his failed relationship. In part two, Cop 663 is dating an air hostess. She drops off a Dear John letter at the Midnight Express takeout, along with the keys to his apartment, instructing the owner to give it to him. To avoid being hurt, Cop 663 won't accept or read the letter. He tells the new employee, Faye, to keep a hold of it. Much like collecting cans of pineapple, Cop 663 refuses to let go of his relationship and accept the pain of being alone.

Each cop lives alone in a flat. Their primary company: goldfish. Unfortunately, goldfish cannot respond to their emotional needs. Cop 223 also has a pet dog, but when he attempts to give it some of his pineapple, it refuses to eat, thus refusing to share his pain. Oddly, Cop 663 tries to transfer his pain to the inanimate objects that surround him. He tells his dishtowel to stop weeping, brushes his stuffed animals, and asks his bar of soap why it’s gotten "so skinny" since the breakup. He also holds onto his girlfriend’s possessions, like her air hostess shirt, even taking it out “for some sun” one day. When he comes home to a flooded flat, he thinks the apartment has been weeping because she’s gone.

A book could be written on the small narrative similarities between the two stories. Both cops are seen brushing their teeth, though only Cop 663 is seen spitting. Both cops enjoy the Chef’s Salad at Midnight Express. Both cops also  receive relationship advice from the owner of Midnight Express. Both cops encounter Faye.

Woman in the Wig and Faye

Perhaps more interesting is the connection between the girl in the blond wig (part one) and Faye (part two). Both are actually seen together in a long shot outside a toy store in part one. The woman in the wig is smoking a cigarette, while Fay picks up a giant stuffed Garfield doll.

Faye walks out of a toy store as the Woman in the Blonde Wig smokes a cigarette

The camera has odd relationships with the Woman in the Blonde Wig and Faye. In both cases, it seems to follow them around as if stalking. This is most apparent, in the shots after the Woman in the Wig loses her drugs (her smuggling team abandons her at the airport, taking the drugs with them!). As she anxiously walks through the crowds at a mall (or something similar to a mall), the camera follows at eye level, just a few steps behind, documenting her search. When she looks anywhere, the camera quickly reacts, paning and tilting to see what she’s looking at, as if a person itself. She often enters stores, but the camera doesn't follow her inside for fear of losing its cover; instead it stays near the doors and watches her through the windows.

With Faye, the camera has an even closer relationship, and isn't hindered by windows. In the beginning of her story, Cop 663 walks up to the counter at Midnight Express three times: each shot is seen from Faye's point of view, as she watches him approach. The camera seems to have Faye's interests in mind. It follows her into 663's home, and documents her when she tries to escape. However, after she's been caught by 663, late in the film, the camera loses its relationship with her. In a way, this mirrors the breakdown of her relationship with 663. She is not followed after that. When she is seen, it is often from behind objects or framed through a porthole window on a door.

The Woman in the Blonde Wig and Faye are the focus of the only montage in each half of the film. To an Indian tune, the Woman in the Blonde Wig runs a drug smuggling operation, stuffing what appears to be cocaine into clothing, shoes, electronics, toys, and even people. In part two, Faye goofs around inside Cop 663’s flat to the tune of "Dreams," by the Cranberries—sung by Faye Wong herself. She changes sheets, replaces cans of food, and searches for the air hostess’s hair in his bed, helping the set-in-his-routine cop to slowly learn to live without his ex-girlfriend. During these montages, the camera and editing operate in a somewhat frantic manner, much like a typical music video.

Motion Blur, Colors, and Frames

Many scenes of the film feel like they could be in a music video due to their quick editing, use of repetitive camera techniques, and heavy colors. Examples are the motion blur scenes. Part one has two scenes where the camera follows Cop 223 as he chases after wanted criminals. During the chases, the camera follows in a very shaky fashion, as if trying to keep up with the action. The night streets are blue and crowded, and a complete motion blur. Even 223 is difficult to make out at times, and the frame rate seems low, adding a choppiness to the blur.

The second part has three shots with a similar motion technique. In these shots, Cop 663 moves very slowly, while all the action around him speeds up. In the first shot, a long shot, he’s sitting in front of the counter at Chungking Express and slowly takes a sip of black coffee. People blur past at three or four times their normal speed. Faye, leaning over the counter, unwaveringly stares at 663. Toward the end of the film, Cop 663 waits for Faye at a nearby bar and slowly puts a quarter into a jukebox—people blur past. There is a sense of longing in all of these shots, and they're all heavily accented with blue.

Cop 663, surrounded by blue, waits for Faye to arrive at the California bar

Most of the first half of the film has many richly colored scenes. When the Woman in the Blonde Wig is chased down the "garden hostel," the screen is richly lit in blue; she knows she is in trouble. In the shot of Cop 223 cleaning the woman’s shoes in the bathroom, he is also lit in blue, disappointed by how the night has gone. Green permeates 223’s flat when he’s eating pineapple and the hotel room he later stays in. Red fills the scene at the bar when the woman in the wig and 223 meet. The second half of Chungking Express doesn’t have the bright colors seen in the first half--it has more whites. However, both parts have an odd fascination with windows and mirrors.

Shots without a character being framed, seen through a window, or reflected in a mirror are in a minority in Chungking Express. Through both halves of the movie, there are more than 25 shots with distinct left/right character framing alone, and it happens to every character, especially inside the Midnight Express. When Cop 223 is making calls to his ex-girlfriend, he is framed by a foreground Coke machine on the left and the wall on the right, focusing a busy shot on him. Later, he runs up a long escalator, with the camera watching him from the bottom, diminishing in the distance. Shots with windows separating the viewer and the characters are too plentiful to count and also affect all characters, though I especially like the shot of Faye drinking black coffee behind the glass of the counter during the day. Midnight Express is closed, and the scene is a bluish green, lit by the midday sun.

Then there are mirror shots. These are seen most plentifully in Cop 663’s flat. In one shot, 663 sits next to Faye after massaging her legs. We see them through and framed on either side by a mirror on the wall of his apartment. The very last shot of the film links all three techniques. A mirror rests, acting as a window, and framed by the walls of the Midnight Express on either side.

Conclusion

I dismissed Chungking Express the first time I saw it. I thought the film was a bit primitive, had goofy dialogue, and was split up arbitrarily. Repeated viewings have shown me that this is not the case. For fans of film, there is a candy land of style that weaves through each story in Chungking. The film proves itself, layer by layer, through multiple viewings. The first time I saw it, I liked the second half of the film much more than the first. Now I can’t imagine seeing either half of the film without the insights of the other.

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Reader Comments (2)

this is one of my favorite movies of all time.

May 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbrandon

I just saw the film and I absolutely love it. Just have a question for you. Can you please explain to me the ending? The scene where Faye comes back from California and sees cop 663 refurbishing the store. Why did she give him a fake plane ticket? She went to California because she wanted to be an air hostess?

August 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

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