November 2016 Blindspot: Chungking Express

blindspotseries2016

The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2016. November’s selection is Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express.

poster_chungkingexpress

At first glance, Chungking Express seems to me to be a rather shallow movie. All of the joy is in the aesthetics; it doesn’t seem to want to be thought about or puzzled over at all. I can describe the effects, the colors, and then wonder about the plot or the message, the two never really seeming to connect. I’m not really sure what I will get out of trying to review it.

Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a cop in Hong Kong devastated over a breakup with his girlfriend. He plays a game with himself, collecting cans of pineapple that expire on May 1st. Her favorite is pineapple, and he convinces himself that if he does this for a month and she doesn’t come back to him, it wasn’t meant to be. When May 1st rolls around, he falls in love with another woman in a blonde wig and sunglasses (Brigitte Lin). She hangs out with him for a while and wishes him a happy birthday. He doesn’t know she is involved in drug smuggling, and dresses this way to avoid recognition.

Chungking Express is actually made up of two stories, and this is just the first one. Both feature men getting over breakups and potentially starting a relationship with someone new. Other than that, I can’t really figure out what connects the two (characters from the two stories do interact with each other, but only passingly). Furthermore, besides being mostly disconnected, the two stories give an unbalanced feel to the film as the second takes up a lot more running time and has more repetition in the characters’ actions. As you can probably tell, I liked the first a lot better.

pineapple_chungkingexpress

It’s not as if this first story really goes anywhere besides what I’ve already synopsized, but something about it intrigued me anyway. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to get out of the transaction between Qiwu and the woman in the blond wig, but something about how the talkative Qiwu and the near-silent woman related from their brief moments together got to me. Sometimes we depend on the kindness of strangers. As Qiwu got the message of her wishing him a happy birthday, I wanted to see if they would meet again. Unfortunately for me, the story shifted gears.

Qiwu is seen a few times going to a snack bar, and this snack bar serves as the centerpiece for the next story. A girl that works there, Faye (Faye Wong), becomes enamored with another cop that frequents the snack bar, 663 (Tony Leung) whose girlfriend (Valerie Chow) just broke up with him. Like Qiwu, 663 is devastated by the breakup, trying to comfort the objects in his apartment assuming they are just as sad as he is. 663 stops coming by the snack bar, and is not there to collect a letter his ex-girlfriend leaves for him, so Faye keeps it until he comes back to get it. She runs into 663 while buying vegetables, and he gives her his address so she can mail him the letter, and tells her she should drop by sometime. Faye then takes to visiting his apartment without his knowledge, cleaning and rearranging the furniture. One day, 663 catches her and asks her out on a date. Faye fails to meet him, instead carrying out her dream of seeing the world. A year passes, and she shows up again to discover 663 has taken over the snack bar.

bar_chungkingexpress

I feel as if my description of the plot in this second story hasn’t done justice to what it feels like to watch it. The two of them seem to keep missing each other, and I can’t tell if they are supposed to be together. I guess I kept getting distracted by how crazy Faye seems, though I suppose she’s just supposed to be quirky as the film presents her. She listens to the same song over and over again, “California Dreamin’,” which the film seems to take up as an anthem, but I can’t figure out what it conveys about Faye or the film. There is a great emphasis placed on 663’s apartment, as in the beginning of this story he talks to the things he owns, trying to get them to “feel” better about his girlfriend’s desertion. Then Faye remakes his apartment without his knowledge, which I guess is supposed to be a continuation of this idea but really just came off as unknowingly disturbing on her part.

This “half” of the film definitely takes up more running time than the first one, and I feel that’s because it ended up showing a lot of repetition. We see Faye enter 663’s apartment and rearrange his stuff three or four separate times, we see her pass by 663 while he’s eating lunch and get her to help carry her vegetables a couple times, and I feel that it’s impossible to count how often she listens to “California Dreamin’.” I like that song, but it became a bit much. Her actions remained really inscrutable to me despite all of this repetition, and the film started to feel a bit long.

snackbar_chungkingexpress

Regardless of how disjointed the stories seem, the cinematography is always beautiful. The film makes legendary use of Hong Kong locations, and seems to perfectly use available light so the extravagant colors look like they belong. Differing shutter speeds (I think?) are used to blur movement to an interesting effect. It seems to mostly be used to show characters rushing along with crowds, or in a few instances, characters standing still with a crowd rushing past them. The film always has an energetic feel, either because of the crosscutting between past, present, and future or the use of handheld camera movement. Sometimes it can be a bit too much, especially during the running scenes, but overall I really appreciated it.

I feel that one of the most dire mistakes a movie reviewer can make is to assume a film is meaningless just because they can’t find the meaning. I try not to do it, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. I really have no idea what Chungking Express is trying to say about relationships or breakups, or chance meetings with strangers, or life, or anything really. I do really like the feel of the film, especially the first half. If the film was just the first story I would probably give it 4 stars, but that’s not what the film is. As it is, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and Faye as a character is especially baffling to me, but for the most part it feel visually fresh and on its way to making a point. I hope to feel better about the film in the future.

blondwig_chungkingexpress

“We broke up on April’s fools day, so I took it as a joke. I’m willing to humor her for a month.”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Dissolve article
Criterion Essay
Roger Ebert review

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