Chungking Express – the masterwork of the Hong Kong New Wave, the definitive ode to identity in the age of globalization, the hyper-kinetic hybrid of neo-noir and romantic comedy – has taken me four long years to fully appreciate its boundless intricacies and hypnotic sway. Which is to say, it’s the only film in my top 10 that I wasn’t immediately enamored with, but it’s also the one that I’ve revisited with the most frequency. See, the structure of Chungking Express is so atypical and its details so innumerable that virtually nothing sticks the first time around, save the delirious imagery of metro Hong Kong and the endless loop of The Mamas and The Papas. The film spans the distance between two separate but not-entirely-unconnected stories that exist in vastly different genres and press forward with equally dissimilar strides. It takes a second viewing for the myriad connections to soak in. It takes a whole lot more and a dose of Hong Kong history for it to attain the level of admiration that I’m happy to accord it.
My understanding of Chungking Express has been cobbled together from theorist Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance coupled with a course I took on film noir and globalization, lest you think my reading here is an original one. Nonetheless, it fascinates me to no end what Wong Kar Wai was able to accomplish; a film that anticipates the approaching transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese authority. Faced with quite literally a countdown to a change in their identity, a creative renaissance emerges in Hong Kong as a whole generation of visionaries attempt to define a culture before it ceases to exist. Wong got it right, scarily right, and the first half of Chungking Express perfectly mirrors an already multinational culture hurdling forward in time at such speed that reflection seems impossible. Somewhere between the endless halls of a consumerist society, the sea of immigrant workers and Brigitte Lin’s Barbara Stanwyck-esque disguise, identity gets obscured.
His solution lies in the second story, a more languid (and charming) look at the same city, in which sprightly Faye Wong eases Tony Leung’s transition following a sudden breakup. It’s also Wong’s way of easing the transition of Hong Kong. The second story unfolds in the same world as the first; random objects resurface, the Midnight Express still stands at the center, and Leung’s Cop 633 experiences similar relationship woes to Cop 233 before him. Despite the abrupt shift in pace, everything exists as it did before, and in the process Wong has managed at last to pin an identity on the city. Chungking Express filters through all the consumerism, pop culture, and anxiety that define Hong Kong of the mid 90s, and then rightly shares this vision of global identity with the world.