1994, 98 minutes
directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Hong Kong is a small region that produces a disproportionately large share of movies. For the remaining two films of the The Future is Asian series, I’ve chosen to discuss two films by one Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai. This is a testament to either Wong Kar-wai’s importance and relevance as a director, or to my stubbornness and arrogance in selecting films that I believe are relevant.
Wong Kar-wai is one of those consummate indie film auteurs: the kind black-skinny-pants-wearing hipster film majors love to love. Chungking Express was the first movie distributed by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures movie company, and Wong has continued to produce highly anticipated and highly debated films—his latest, My Blueberry Nights, starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz, made its American theatrical debut in 2007 (it received tepid reviews).
However, it’s not hard to see why Chungking Express made such a splash when it was first released in the US in 1994. It’s fast, stylishly oblique, cooly violent, and full of alienated beautiful people, the kind that have occupied hipster films since Antonioni. Though infused with a distinctively Asian vibe, it nonetheless effuses a thoroughly international sensibility. Wong Kar-Wai layered and mixed the music to compete with (and at times drown out) the dialogue–this was a fairly radical idea, and his use of music throughout his later films seems to have been a result of the success of that experiment in this film. As the theme song (in this case, “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas–see the clip below) weaves in and out or abruptly starts and stops throughout the film, it sets up a rhythm that organizes the narrative structure and establishes a spatial atmosphere.
But a funny thing happens when after you finish watching Chungking Express, or for that matter, other Wong Kar-Wai films: afterwards, you don’t necessarily remember the plot, or what happened, at least not in the traditional sense of who did what to whom, which then precipitated certain events, and so on and so on. In other words, you don’t exactly remember the chain of causal events that normally propel stories from beginning, middle, to end. This is not to say that Wong Kar-Wai’s films are forgettable—in fact, just the opposite. You distinctly remember the neon rush of the cosmopolitan streets of Hong Kong, the worn and tired texture of the old-city walls in that cramped, dark alley where two old friends said goodbye, the tight space of the lovers’ apartment, or the rhythm of the music that weaves its way through the images. Some images, like the food stall girl (the adorable Chinese pop-star Faye Wong) absent-mindedly bopping along to “California Dreaming” by the Mamas & the Papas (see the clip above), or the woman gently leaning her head on her lover in the back of a taxi, never leave you. Indeed, you are left with something else. We could try and call this something else visual impressions, or moods, or atmosphere, but I think it may be something which is the culmination of all of those things, yet somehow more: you are left with a sense of urbanity.
Chungking Express takes its name from a bewildering, crowded mess of stores, shops, and eateries in one building in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong–it is essentially a vertical souq populated and staffed predominantly by immigrants and foreigners. To anyone who has ever been to this building/place/phenomenon, it is in and of itself an urban idea.
Urbanity, as a broad concept, is inseparable from a conception of time. As our understanding and perception of time has changes, so does our understanding of cities. The most important urban theorists and architects all have differentiated themselves with a specific temporal conceptualization: from Alberti and Nolli all the way through Le Corbusier, Rossi, and Koolhaas. Wong Kar-Wai presents an essential understanding and documentation of contemporary urbanity due to his subtle, sophisticated, and irreducibly contemporary ability to play with time—most predominantly through his phrasing of visual sequences, his unique use of music, and to a lesser extent, his working method and the interconnectedness of his filmic oeuvre. Wong Kar-wai’s subject is exactly the relation between two things, time and urbanity, and in this way, proves that there are no more analogous artistic endeavors than film and architecture.
- quang truong (originally written April 2008)