Chungking Express (chóng qìng sēn lín 重庆森林) was the first of Wong Kar Wai (wáng jiā wèi 王 家卫)’s films to gain international plaudits but was actually made as a cinematic exercise to help him regain some perspective in the middle of editing a huge Hong Kong (xiāng gǎng 香港) epic: Ashes of Time. The film, a simple, straight forward character piece that reaches unexpected levels, rightly described as a love note to Hong Kong, tells two different and unconventional love stories connected by having cops and a fast food joint named Chungking Express. Made with a down and dirty feel which probably reflects the production itself as well as the intended style we are brought into the streets of Hong Kong and the bustling effervescence of this city as only Wong can describe, which makes it unparalleled to any other.
The Chinese title translates to “Chungking Jungle”, referring to the metaphoric concrete jungle of the city, as well as to Chungking Mansions (chóng qìng dà shà 重庆大厦) in Tsim Sha Tsui (jiān shā zuǐ 尖沙咀), where much of the first part of the movie is set. The English title refers to Chungking Mansions and the Midnight Express food stall where Faye works.
The title is symbolic of the film’s lively, anything goes sensibility, representing the pair of largely unrelated stories that make up its bifurcated narrative.
The first story, which takes place mostly at Chungking Mansions, focuses on a lovesick police officer, No. 223, Takeshi Kaneshiro (jīn chéng wǔ 金城武), pining over his ex-girlfriend May. The officer has taken to collecting cans of pineapple that expire on May 1, his birthday and the day on which he will give up on his ex.
Meanwhile, a gangster woman in a blonde wig, Brigitte Lin (lín qīng xiá 林青霞) has also received canned food of some import: sardines with the same expiration date, meaning she will be killed on that day. In the Chungking Mansion, a shopping center in Hong Kong where she is arranging her drug trafficking (of which the cop remains ignorant for the entire film), she and Cop 223 almost run into each other. 223’s voice-over tells us that in exactly 55 hours, they will meet again.
Then later on in a bar, where he picks her up and takes her to a hotel room, where she promptly falls asleep. Wong treats No. 223’s lovesickness with humor (as when the officer foolishly eats dozens of cans of pineapple in one sitting) and tender sensitivity (as when he polishes the blond-wigged woman’s shoes before leaving the hotel), and he ends the segment with his typical mix of regret and romanticism. No. 223 is still alone, but he’s free to keep looking for love.
Desperation and tragic romanticism sparks our interest in the first story of the film, but Wong doesn’t focus on the search. Upon resolving No. 223 and the blond-wigged woman’s relationship, he ditches their story for another through one of the film’s centerpieces, the Midnight Express Indian Fast Food stop.
Beginning at a restaurant called the Midnight Express, Chungking Express’s second half focuses on another police officer, No. 663, Tony Leung (liáng cháo wěi 梁朝伟), himself the victim of a recent breakup, ignores Faye (wáng fēi 王菲), a waitress at the restaurant who falls madly in love with the officer in secret and takes up sneaking into No. 663’s apartment during the day to redecorate and “improve” his living situation. When No. 663 discovers Faye in his apartment, it kicks off a typically Wong’s romance: aching, beautiful, impermanent. The film has a frantic energy, and although (particularly in the second part) very little seems to happen – it does so beautifully.
The first story rambles but the second one is a delicious romantic comedy. Together, the two stories depict hope for love and happiness in the lonesome city of Hong Kong.