(Not So) Short Review of Chungking Express

chungking express

Like I suppose a lot of people did, I performed a few Google searches in the aftermath of Anthony Bourdain’s passing* in what started as a retrospective attempt to find clues that he may have left of his despair, but then quickly turned into a time of revisiting old stories and clips about his life over the past couple of decades.

(* – I promise this will be the last post about the topic.)

Knowing that he was a big movie buff, I decided to google “Bourdain Top Ten Movies” which led me to this page …

https://www.criterion.com/current/top-10-lists/152-anthony-bourdain-s-top-10

… a 2011 list of his top 10 movies

  1. The Friends of Eddie Coyle
  2. Eyes Without a Face
  3. The Battle of Algiers
  4. Chungking Express
  5. Kiss Me Deadly
  6. Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
  7. Withnail and I
  8. Army of Shadows
  9. House of Games
  10. Sullivan’s Travels

I have to admit that before last weekend I hadn’t seen any of these movies but I figure I can take his word for it that they are worth seeing. And so, as a small way of paying homage to his legacy – and a chance to see some good movies – I have decided to watch as many of them as I can over the next few weeks and offer my thoughts. And with that, I’ll start with the one that I watched on Sunday – Chungking Express.

Let me just start by saying that, if you are the type of person who likes a good story with well-developed characters, then Chungking Express is not the movie for you. The movie is only an hour and 43 minutes long and instead of one story, the director (Wong Kar-Wai) included two. The result is two underdeveloped story arcs and a group of characters with no back story – they are simply introduced to the viewer during a brief episode (two, actually) of their lives and when those episodes are over, so is the movie.

That’s not to say you won’t enjoy the characters. They are quirky and fascinating to watch as they deal in their unique way with loneliness and disappointment, hope and hopelessness, and infatuation and longing. A thought that crossed my mind is that people from the Western hemisphere might find their approach to problems a bit odd. I don’t know – you tell me after you watch the movie. As for me, since I lived in Asia for 17 years, I did not find them out of the ordinary.

(I know that there are some who will read this who will want to know what the movie’s about … because I’m lazy I’m just going to copy and paste a description from the movie’s Wikipedia page):

“The film consists of two stories told in sequence, each about a lovesick Hong Kong policeman mulling over his relationship with a woman. The first story stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cop obsessed with his breakup with a woman named May, and his encounter with a mysterious drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin). The second stars Tony Leung as a police officer roused from his gloom over the loss of his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) by the attentions of a quirky snack bar worker (Faye Wong).”

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chungking_Express)

But none of that matters, because Chungking Express wasn’t meant to be enjoyed for its story. Its brilliance is in its camerawork. Its visuals. Its motion, colors, and location. Concerning his filming style, the movie’s cinematographer, Christopher Doyle (who coincidentally shot the final episode of Parts Unknown in Hong Kong just days before Bordain’s death), said,

What I’m trying to do is make the camera-work lyrical rather than fragmentary. It’s a dance between the camera and the actors.

And without a doubt he succeeds.

To be honest, it took me about fifteen minutes before I began to appreciate the subtleties of the camera work (I am a person who likes a good story, after all). But then I started noticing how the camera was in a constant state of motion, zooming in and out and darting about as it set up the actor’s next line or movement or even thought. It’s at times frenetic and at others subtle. You can get a sense of it in this video made from clips of the movie:

There were two other things that I enjoyed about Chungking Express on a personal level. The first was its portrayal of Hong Kong. Typically, when one thinks of Hong Kong, they picture skyscrapers and Kowloon Bay. Wong takes the viewer to ground level – to the grimy, pulsating, in-your-face action on the street. The life of the city.

The second is that the movie was released in 1994 – only a year before I arrived in South Korea for the very first time – and it brought back a lot of memories. Special impressions and wonderment that I had of Asia as a much more naive man. This movie was a big hit in Korea and when I heard California Dreaming playing over and over (and over) in the movie, I remembered the time when I heard it virtually everywhere I went in Seoul for the first couple of years I was there.

Ah, yes … mid-90s Asia. A time when Asian cinema was establishing its reputation on a global scale; and the course of my life made its most consequential turn …

… but I digress.

I give Chungking Express a 4 out of 5. I subscribed to FilmStruck to watch it, but if you want to see it for free you can find it in two parts at DailyMotion.

Enjoy!

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