What was so surprising to me on rewatching the film last night is the realization that the first story, which features Takeshi Kaneshiro as a cope named He Qiwu (or "233", after his badge number) lamenting the end of his relationship with a girl named May and his crossing of paths with a shady woman with drug connections played by Brigitte Lin, is a light thriller, and the other story, featuring Tony Leung as a cop angling in on, and then retreating from a romance with a stewardess (Valerie Chow) while never noticing the cute goofy girl (Faye Wong) who works at the food stand he frequents, is a romantic comedy. The fact that Chungking Express is a beloved (and rightly so) arthouse film that has been Criterionized while similar such American-made films tend to feature Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher and all that kind of thing, is I guess we'll say an interesting one.
None of this is to say that Chungking Express is typical of either the light thriller or the romantic comedy, but of course that's sort of my point. Wong's film is a curiously mesmerizing piece of work, curious because the source of that mesmerism is hard to track. It's instantaneous, at any rate, as the pulsing, noirish music at the beginning, paired with Kaneshiro's opening narration, somehow submerges you into Chungking Express's particular environment, one that is not only alien to most Westerners, but would be curious to most Hong Kong natives, representing as it does, according to Tony Rayns on his Criterion disc commentary, "old Hong Kong". All of which seems to be setting up a quite different film than we get. While Brigitte Lin's mysteriously bewigged and be-sunglassed woman is indeed involved in crime, and is being chased even, and even shoots people, most of the first story is given over to Kaneshiro, a cop who doesn't see much crime, and his hope that by buying 30 cans of pineapple, one a day, each with an expiration date of May (after his ex, named May) 1st, which would mark the one month anniversary of their split on April 1st, she would somehow come back to him before he reached 30 cans, or their love will have expired with the pineapple.
This, you will agree, is simply unbearable quirk, as is Tony Leung's habit, in the second story, of talking to his possessions -- bars of soap, stuffed animals, washcloths. As is Faye Wong's habit of playing "California Dreamin'" by the Mamas & the Papas over and over and over and over and over and over again. And over and over again. This is the kind of quirk that earns indie romantic comedies a quick swift in the teeth. Right? Except, no, not in the case of Chungking Express. That's what I find so strange about the film. How does Wong make this stuff work? In the case of the first story, there's an element of real danger, which I guess helps, and in the second story both Tony Leung and Faye Wong are effortlessly charismatic (Tony Leung in particular has an immense presence, without needing to do anything at all). And as far as insufferable hippie bullshit goes, "California Dreamin'" is actually pretty good. So there's all that in the film's favor. But I think the real key, or as best I can guess at it anyway, to Wong's ability to bring this stuff across, stuff that in other hands would turn the film into a shrieking nightmare, is that he simply makes no big deal about it. The pineapple thing, for instance, is very important, but is treated in an almost off-hand manner. Not only that, but after a while its essential absurdity is duly noted. Similarly Leung talking to soap and all that...it's just a funny thing he does. Its not forced on us because Wong is desperate to make us love the guy. And also that: there's no desperation in Chungking Express, not in the filmmaking. It's all cool and easy and enthralling. And it looks a treat, too, having been filmed by Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau as it was, who never quite let go of the noirish blues or the neon reds and yellows of Hong Kong nightclubs.
It's just amusing to me that Chungking Express is this arthouse darling of a movie, a designation that implies something Wong's film isn't (but other Wong films are). What Chungking Express is, is a good movie. When people say "That was a good movie", they're referring to Chungking Express.
TIFF Lightbox will be screening Chungking Express tomorrow and running through the 27th. On the 23rd, the Lightbox will be hosting a conversation with Christopher Doyle (not accompanied by a screening of the film, as I'd mistakenly reported earlier). If you're willing and able -- and you should at least be that first one -- I suggest checking it out.