Chungking Express

Chungking Express Is Romance in Its Rawest Form

Dept. of Neon Abstractions


“If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.”

He Qiwu, Cop 223

DISCLAIMER: This review is riddled with spoilers, so if you’re a Chungking Express virgin, then this probably isn’t your playground. 

Chungking Express might easily be one of the most romantic movies to date. Hear me out. I’m not talking about grand declarations in the rain or sprinting across airports to confess your undying love (although that’s charming in its own way). This movie brings something different to the table. It celebrates the idea of love. The ebb and flow. The euphoric highs and harrowing lows. Of love lost and found.

And yet, this masterpiece was conceived on a fluke. Director Wong Kar Wai had spent a taxing two years shooting what was to be his third movie, Ashes of Time, when during a two-month production break, he decided to create a much lighter, more contemporary story. It was a gamble for time. But it paid off in the end. Chungking Express was released just two months before Ashes of Time, and received a positive response worldwide. Even Tarantino cried after his first viewing, he was apparently “so happy to love a movie this much.” I can’t say shedding tears is the norm, but at the very least, it tells you something. Beyond the cacophony of neon abstractions and melancholic music, this is a love story at its core. And a beautiful one at that. 

“We’re All Unlucky in Love Sometimes…

Chungking Express

Chungking Express is split into two adjacent tales of love on the frenzied streets of Hong Kong. Two policemen, played by Takeshi Haneshiro and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, have been recently dumped by their girlfriends and left forlorn in the wake of their departure. This propels their meet-cute-but-not-really-cute encounters with a blonde-wigged drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin) and a snack-bar waitress (Faye Wong). It hardly spells out the makings of a love story, but what this movie sets out to do is sell the notion that love is found in the most unlikely of places and in the oddest of pairings. 

The first story spotlights the oddest pairing of all, between the lovesick detective and the underworld figure, who find themselves sitting together at a bar and drinking into a stupor. Neither of them has had a great day. Kaneshiro’s He Qiwu accepts the loss of his relationship on the eve of his birthday, while Lin’s mysterious woman broods after a drug operation goes wrong. There are no introductions or deep confessions of woes, but just a tender understanding that hangs in the air of the sleazy bar. Exhausted, they crash in a motel room after. He shines her shoes before leaving and she leaves him a happy birthday message on his pager. A sense of hope lingers after going their separate ways, almost like a renewed desire to carry on.

The second story then swivels over to the next pairing: the jaded police officer and the quirky waitress. He places the same order everyday, while she eyes him from behind the counter, seemingly infatuated. They sometimes exchange pleasantries and move on. But Faye’s schoolgirl crush goes into full bloom when she gets ahold of his apartment keys. In an effort to rouse him out of his slump, she visits his apartment daily to clean and redecorate. Yes, it’s pretty stalkery, but it gets a pass, because hey, it’s Faye Wong. She is the blueprint manic pixie dream girl, and I’m obviously here for it. Clearly Tony Leung’s character is too, because he catches her at his place one day (trespassing, of course), and instead of arresting her, asks her on a date. But the ship doesn’t sail (or even leave the dock for that matter), because she leaves for California, leaving behind a hand-drawn boarding pass. A classic right place, wrong time story. A year later she comes back, now a flight attendant, and reunites with her beau, symbolising the beginning of something new.

What’s the Measure For “Most Romantic?”

Chungking Express

Listen, I’m as cynical as they come, but by the end of it, I was a giddy mess. There’s no convoluted dialogue or theatrical background music (except maybe Faye playing California Dreamin for the upteenth time!). There’s hardly even any physical touch. It’s almost non-existent. Chungking Express is sensual in the least sensual way; lingering within fleeting glances, unspoken words, and pensive thoughts. It’s an ode to the little moments we have with people we meet, however brief.

Timing stands as a wedge between the characters, whether it be Qiwu yearning after his former love, or Faye falling for the depressed policeman. Love knocks at the wrong time, turning unrequited. And Wong Kar-Wai studies it under many microscopes: tragedy, hope, desire, loneliness. Leaving you with a hollowness of a past loss, while still teasing the possibility of a new tomorrow. 

Colour exists very much as a character in the movie, and Wong Kar Wai bathes each scene generously with it. The rich hues and saturated neons, paired together with focal blurs and freeze frames, create visual metaphors that lend to the growing melodrama. It posits love in a mosaic of tones. The blues and greens of despair and isolation. The reds and yellows of hope and serenity. Feeding the intimacy and tension between characters without explicitly doing so. It’s frantic yet entrancing. Hasty yet unforgettable. Honest yet a façade.

Chungking Express is hardly your average romance movie. It flirts between crime and comedy. It throws you into the wild cosmopolitan of 90s Hong Kong, spring-boarding from the illicit hotspots of Chungking Mansions to the shop lots of Midnight Express. Chaos and chance encounters blend beautifully, creating a complex and combustible concoction, resulting in what might be the most romantic movie of all time.

Chungking Express is now available to stream on Mubi. If you’re on a Wong Kar Wai binge, the streamer is also host to Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, Ashes of Time Redux, 2046, and The Hand.

The Dropout Podcast
Previous Story

The Goggler Podcast #142: The Dropout

Winning Time Podcast
Next Story

The Goggler Podcast #143: Winning Time

Latest from Movie Reviews