Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express" is as fresh as falling rain, a pair of love stories full of pain and humor. Shot fast and sometimes furiously on crowded Hong Kong streets, it speaks in its own highly personal shorthand, expressed through the most fluid of cameras and punctuated with bold whooshes of color and potent bursts of American pop music.
While so much of the Hong Kong cinema we get to see is either period fantasy or modern action-thriller in the martial arts genre, "Chungking Express" ravishingly, seductively exudes the immediacy of everyday life as its spins its classically timeless tales of love lost and almost regained. Wong has the kind of utterly unpredictable style that brings to mind two other distinctive filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino (who is presenting this film) and Jim Jarmusch.
A handsome, sweet-natured young policeman (Takeshi Kaneshiro), known only as Badge No. 223, tells us that he has come within "0.01 meter" of a mysterious woman (Brigitte Lin) wearing sunglasses, trench coat and a blond wig and will fall in love with her 57 hours later. While he is nursing his pain at the loss of his lover, who left him exactly one month before, the blond is rushing around Chungking Mansions, a huge maze-like tenement/bazaar in the claustrophobic tourist heart of Hong Kong. She's setting up a drug-smuggling deal with some Indian merchants only to have them double-cross her with the bravura of a magician's vanishing act, endangering her life. By the time she and No. 223 cross paths at a bar, she's prepared only to drink herself into oblivion.
As "Chungking House," as Part I is called, comes to its deft conclusion, No. 223 introduces us to another woman, Faye (Faye Wang), with whom he also comes within "0.01 meter." Faye has just taken a job at the Midnight Express--that's also the title of Part II--a snack bar in the trendy Lan Kwei Fong district frequented not only by No. 223 but another cop, No. 633 (Tony Leung), who has just received a Dear John from his beloved. (This is the boyish Tony Leung, not to be confused with the taller, sleeker actor of the same name best known for "The Lover.")
Gawky, very young, uncertain of what to do with her life but determined to find out, Faye, who has a Jean Seberg "Breathless"-style haircut, grows concerned about the despondent police officer. She has started falling in love with him but is too unsure of herself to say so. Instead, she sneaks into his apartment, subtly rearranging it in an attempt to cheer him up (but which makes him think he must be losing his mind for sure).
You strongly suspect that Wong must have suffered his own romantic loss to feel the need to express it through not only one but two men, whom he gives funny quirks. No. 223 has a thing for canned pineapple, discovering he wants to buy only cans with a May 1 expiration date, which is also his 25th birthday, the age when people start becoming aware of their mortality. Beyond May 1 is too painful to contemplate for No. 223, too indicative that his lover has definitively left him, too suggestive that everything in life may have an expiration date. Similarly, No. 663 finds himself pouring his heart out to inanimate objects in his tiny apartment.
Wong has as wonderful a way with actors as he has with a camera--certainly, his virtuoso cinematographer Christopher Doyle deserves a deep bow here, as does his clutch of mood-establishing composers.
Faye Wang is an especially quirky delight, possessed of as strong and original a personality as that of Canadian Chinese actress Sandra Oh. Kaneshiro and Leung play such likable, attractive men we're left just as perplexed as they are as to why their lovers would ditch them. But Wong takes the larger view, musing on the capricious of fate and emotions--of connections more missed than made.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some violence, sexuality and drug content. Times guidelines: The film also has a complex style and adult themes; not for youngsters.
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Takeshi Kaneshiro: Badge No. 223
Brigitte Lin: Woman wearing blond wig
Tony Leung: Badge No. 663
Faye Wang: Faye
A Miramax release of a Rolling Thunder (Quentin Tarantino) presentation of a Jet Tone production. Writer-director Wong Kar-Wai. Producer Chan Yi-Kan. Executive producer Chan Pui-Wah. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Editors William Chang, Hai Kit-Wai, Kwong Chi-Leung. Music Frankie Chan, Roel A. Garcia, Michael Calasso. Art director William Chang. In Cantonese and some English, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours.
* At the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (213) 848-3500, and the Monica 4-Plex, 1332 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741.