For a module on Asian Cinema.
The identity crisis that modern Hong Kong finds itself in comes in large part from the political uncertainty of the British transfer of sovereignty to Mainland China. Hong Kong was set apart from Mainland China by the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, meaning that over 3 whole generations have grown up politically and culturally influenced by Western values and mores. More than anything, Western colonisation is a cultural one. Yet they are still Chinese by blood, and maintain an intricate relationship with the mainland.
Pre-1984 Hong Kong was politically uncertain about the future of its sovereignty, and this thinking was reflected almost obsessively in the cinema of the First New Wave that burst on the scene in 1978. The 1984 Sino-British Declaration may have set its political destiny down in certain terms, but culturally its future remained uncertain. The films of the Second Wave of cinema in the mid-1980s express this unease, but “with introspection rather than outright cynicism”, which is said to have “brought Hong Kong cinema to a new level of maturity” (Teo, 1997). As Hong Kong matures as well in building its identity, the exploration of what it means to be neither fully Chinese nor British can be seen underlying its films, whether intentionally or just as a natural expression of the filmmakers’ psyche.
Notably, Wong Kar-wai captures this outlook in many of his films. Wong Kar-wai was a protégé of Patrick Tam, a First Wave director, and we see Tam’s ideas and concerns coming to fruition in Wong’s work. This is reflective of the development of thought from the First Wave to the Second Wave; and in a larger context, from pre-1984 Hong Kong to present-day Hong Kong. In particular, his film Chungking Express (1994) articulates this mood very succinctly (and stylishly).
The Hong Kong we see in Chungking Express is cramped, bustling, and seemingly pointless. The action centres around Chungking Mansions, particularly the late night food joint Midnight Express, after which the English title is named. The Chinese title translates to Chungking Jungle, referring to the urban concrete jungle that is Hong Kong. It is a jungle in which the characters do not roam free, least of all in their own minds.
The characters in Chungking Express seem stuck, whether by situation, routine, or simply in their heads. Cop 223 and 663 are in post-breakup limbo, while the woman in the blond wig is cornered in a heroin smuggling set-up. Her perpetual lack of expression (further “intensified” by the sunglasses) tells us that she isn’t exactly happy with where she is in life (who is in the grotty Chungking Mansions?); but she lives with it anyway because it gets her by (even if she needs a refrigerator to keep her cool). Cop 663 just goes about his daily routines as dictated by his shift – we first see him returning every night to buy a chef’s salad, later we always catch him eating lunch at the same crowded market. We almost laugh when we see row after row of canned sardines in his apartment. But within that entrapment there is a certain restlessness, like that of a caged animal wanting to escape. Many shots are framed by walls or corridors, exacerbating the confines of space. We first find Faye Wong’s character behind the counter of Midnight Express, constantly hawked by her storeowner cousin as a potential date. When we do see her get out of the confines of that space, she goes on her weird adventures in Cop 663’s flat, discontent with simply paying the electric bills. Ironically, it is the older generation (the store owner) who advocates change, advising Cop 663 to try the fish and chips instead.
Part of being trapped is being bound by deadlines. Expiry dates are a repeated motif in the first story. Being in Hong Kong seems to be all about counting down. When the film was made in 1994, Hong Kong was 3 years away from being its transfer of sovereignty. And even as a Special Administrative Region, its autonomy is only guaranteed for another 50 years. The characters’ restlessness in Chungking Express reflects this lack of agency. This spirit of urban restlessness is captured in cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s use of handheld camera and step-printed frames in fast sequences. We are constantly straining to see what is going on.
Being at a crossroads also means that Hong Kong life is highly transitory, with people moving in, out, and everywhere. There is a scene in another film of Wong Kar-wai’s, A Mood for Love (2000), when the Tony Leung character returns from Singapore to his old apartment, to find everyone gone including his old landlord. The film reflects how the uncertainty of the 1960s and the migration wave it sparked meant that people simply come and go, and things change. In Chungking Express, characters briefly cross paths, the story ends with one and picks up with another; this narrative style that he employs often in his films has been compared to tête-bêche – stamps printed upside-down or sideways relative to another (Teo, 2001). Cop 223 states (almost too explicitly) at the start of the film:
“Every day we brush past so many other people.
People we may never meet or people who may become close friends.”
The idea of chance meetings and lost opportunities is a recurrent theme in Wong Kar-wai’s films, and they demonstrate how in Hong Kong chance meetings should be frequent due to density, but ironically unlikely because at this pace of living, no one notices the things around them. Wong Kar-wai examines the rare and special moments when they do.
Transposed to the 90s, the mass emigration wave from 1989 to 1997 of nearly one million people translates to the motif of flight in Chungking Express. You never know when someone will return, least of all a stewardess girlfriend. This escapism manifests itself also in the form of Western idealisation; Hong Kong afflicted by a complex case of Stockholm syndrome. Symbols of Western colonisation appear in the form of Coke, bars modelled after American pubs complete with jukeboxes, and even the rotating hotdog warmer that Cop 663 uses to dry his letter. Western pop music features frequently, California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and Papas plays repeatedly as the soundtrack to Faye’s life, and a Cantonese cover of Dreams by The Cranberries is another. Flying west is a seen as a means of escape. But because they are trapped, all they can do is daydream, or more precisely, sleepwalk.
Daydreaming implies a forward-looking perspective. As Faye stares vacantly from behind the counter of Midnight Express, Faye’s cousin corrects her, “you’re not daydreaming, you’re sleepwalking”. The characters sleepwalk through life in resignation to their fates. Huang (2001) calls them flâneurs (idler or lounger) and city-walkers. “Walking becomes therapeutic for the alienated walkers: it serves as an antidote, to temporarily relieve the syndromes resulting from ‘wandering lonely in the crowd’, the unbearable malady of being left out in a big city”. The characters embody an intense loneliness. Shots through windows, doors, and in mirrors distance us (the audience) from them. We often see them alone, and when they do meet and communicate, they are either shouting or talking very figuratively to one another. The sense of social alienation is encapsulated in two scenes with a cinematic technique: in which the main character is moving extremely slowly, while the rest of the world progresses around him rapidly in time-lapse fashion.
People turn inward when the world around them moves too fast, and engage in pointless routines. Cop 223 cold-calls past girlfriends to date, and gives himself absurd promises like falling in love with the next woman that comes in though the door. They place more meaning on objects than people as a coping mechanism, becoming increasingly self-absorbed. Cop 663 projects his dejection on the objects in his house, embodying them with personality. The comedic scene at the convenience store two hours to May 1 shows the contrast in how Cop 223 finds so much significance in the expiry dates of pineapples, while failing to see the simple reality of life for the store keeper. Cop 663 is so oblivious that he thinks the changes in his house are due to their changes in personality, rather than because of a person.
Faye is the wildcard that goes out of her way to reach out to Cop 663, aligning her own routine when Cop 663’s routine changes, so she can bump into him at the market and also carry out her secret home-keeping expedition. In Chungking Express, she represents agency over her own thoughts and actions, illustrating that the feelings of entrapment among those in Hong Kong is possibly just in the mind. Later in the film, we see how the characters gradually realise this in their own ways, finally acknowledging the presence of the people around them. The situation that Cop 223 finds himself in in the hotel room makes him reach beyond his social isolation to care for another individual instead of serving his own selfish needs. When he tenderly removes Brigitte Lin character’s shoes and cleans it, it is a redemptive act. There is a parallel scene with Cop 663 as he helps to massage Faye’s legs, although at that point he has yet to fully realise Faye’s love for him. But the transformation that occurs eventually shows that in spite of their disconnection from each other in modern capitalist Hong Kong, they are essentially still a very collectivistic society, and they still have the capacity to care for other disconnected souls like them.
Wong Kar-wai seems to hint that there is hope at the end of those expiry dates; hope that does not involve leaving. Hong Kong, after all is still home. At the end of Chungking Express Cop 663 and Faye meet again at the heart of the story, again at the counter of Midnight Express but this time under very different circumstances. Now they are no longer trapped in the prison of their own minds. Faye has finally realised her California Dream, but has comes to terms with her idealised view of the West. “Nothing special”, she said. Cop 663 has taken over Midnight Express and there is renewed energy in his face. Faye now has the answer to her question, “can dreams be catching?” Even Faye’s cousin has moved on to open a karaoke bar. At the end of Chungking Express, the characters reclaim their human agency and meet again as better people, not stuck in their own worlds.
Did Wong Kar-wai intend to convey all this in his film? Probably not. Chungking Express was shot in just 23 days and released 2 months later. But whether intentional or not, it is an expression of his thoughts and his voice is also one of Hong Kong’s. Wong Kar-wai shot Chungking Express as a break from editing his martial arts epic Ashes of Time, and shot it in sequence with his script half done. But perhaps the film’s boon is that we receive the creation of honest unfiltered output.
For Patrick Tam’s generation, there was resignation in uncertainty over the future. But in Wong Kar-wai’s narrative, uncertainty entails hope. Like Cop 663 said, maybe “it [just] takes time to get used to things”. The characters in his story are mostly nameless; they could be anyone in Hong Kong. They could be you.
The undertone of pessimism that in Cop 223’s opening lines is now replaced by hope.
Faye: “Where do you want to go?”
Cop 663: “Wherever you want to take me.”
These are the closing lines of Chungking Express, capturing the restless hope of Hong Kong in the 90s.
Teo, S. (1997). Hong Kong Cinema, The Extra Dimensions. London: British Film Institute.
Teo, S. (2001). Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love: Like a Ritual in Transfigured Time. Senses of Cinema (13).
Huang, T. (2001). Chungking express: Walking with a map of desire in the mirage of the global city. Quarterly Review of Film and Video, 18(2), 129-142.