Matthew’s Video Store: “Chungking Express” and Wong Kar-Wai’s Intimate Explorations of Love

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai has a special connection with love and it’s best depicted by his up close and personal peeks into the romantic relationships between his characters.

There is perhaps nothing more personal than the small idiosyncrasies we engage in while coping with heartbreak. These little rituals — if only for a moment — allow us to regain our past security. Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chungking Express” places these small acts centerstage. A film of unfitting emotions, grief, mourning, acceptance; it breaks its characters down to the most human level, each performing bizarre rituals that only make sense under the influence of love.

The film follows two heartbroken cops in Hong Kong, He Zhiwu — Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and Cop 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung). Both of their lovers have left for other men and neither of them are able to reconcile their emotions. Both fall in love anew, He Zhiwu with a mysterious woman wearing a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin), and Cop 663 with Faye (Faye Wong), a worker at a restaurant he frequents.

He Zhiwu jogs; he jogs hoping to sweat out any water left for tears — May, his lover, always thought of him as “Mr. Cool.” He stares at her balcony, wondering if he will ever again climb out to avoid her parents. He buys a can of pineapples — her favorite food — each day of April with an expiration date of May 1st. He wonders if her love for him has already expired, if their memories could ever expire — after all, even plastic wrap has an expiration date.

Cop 663 talks; he talks to everything. “You’ve lost a lot of weight, you know,” he tells his soap bar. “You have to stop crying, you know,” he tells his dripping dishrag. He talks to his stuffed animals, lulling them to sleep, telling them not to doubt her for leaving. His language is filled with allusions to airlines, his lover’s profession still on his mind.

This movie is best explained in the emotions and relations of the characters. The plot unfolds from this — first telling the story of He Zhiwu and then of Cop 663, both loosely overlapping. Wong Kar-Wai perfectly connects his world to the city of Hong Kong — you feel the overwhelming bustle of the city — but you also feel the slowness and the ache of nights spent alone, separated from the millions of other residents. Hundreds of shots and glances portray the intimate feelings of the characters; Faye gazing longingly at No. 663 drinking black coffee while the Cocteau Twins plays in the background, He Zhiwu sprinting through the rain on his 25th birthday, No. 663 staring out the window of a convenience store at his past lover after meeting her again by chance.

Along with “Chungking Express,” there are two other Wong Kar-Wai films on Kanopy, “In the Mood for Love” follows a slow burning romance between two neighbors, played by Tony Chiu-Wai Leung and Maggie Cheung, as they struggle with their respective disaffected spouses. “Happy Together” stars Leslie Cheung and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, following them as they sort through their imperfect relationship on a trip to Argentina. Both of these films are superb, each leaving you thinking about your own relationships. Another, “Fallen Angels,” although not on Kanopy, is available to stream on HBO Max and contains one of the most moving and realistic depictions of father-son love in cinema. It was initially a third story to be included in “Chungking Express,” but was omitted and created as an independent film.

Wong Kar-Wai’s films are, for me, what cinema is about. Each leaves you wondering, you remember bits and pieces from the film as you go about your day, and every time you do, you like the film just that much more. In “Chungking Express,” Faye continuously listens to “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas & the Papas; I will never be able to hear this song without thinking of the film. As a unique piece of art, and one that so personally depicts the oddities of ourselves, I hope the memories of this film don’t have an expiration date.

Image courtesy of Hector Arrieta

4 thoughts on “Matthew’s Video Store: “Chungking Express” and Wong Kar-Wai’s Intimate Explorations of Love

  1. I’m happy to find a review at UCSD about Wong kar-wai. A few years back I made a short film based on his work. Somehow, I was lucky enough to have him watch it and get a review from him. He offered an invitation to visit him but with the pandemic travel restriction I have not been able to go to asia to see him.

  2. I’m glad you’re review Kar Wai’s films and exposing HK filmmaking to the UCSD community. Thanks for the hard work Matthew!

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