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Chungking Express

Exquisite Tenderness


Frequently people personify objects for the purposes of abusing them. The photocopier becomes a pain in the arse; a child’s toy is an idiot getting in the way, a car is temperamental, as if emotionally refusing to start on a frosty morning. Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express personifies objects not so that someone can take their aggression out on them, but to allow a character to deal with their sorrow. This isn’t irritated frustration, but tender personification, and we might bring to mind a casual comment the writer Evelyn Waugh offered when asked a question about his fiction and his portrayal of character. “There are protagonists and there are characters who are furniture. One gives only one aspect of the furniture.” If Waugh aptly sums up his own slightly removed approach, it usefully gives us a perspective on Wong’s warmth; the tenderness that runs throughout his work, but especially present in Chungking Express.

When a critic in The Virgin Film Guide says the film “could be dismissed as another bit of stylishly promo navel-gazing – if it weren’t so obviously about something”, we may wonder over what that something might be. In relation to using voice-over, Wong reckoned “voice-overs are very important anyway. Nowadays people are more likely to talk to themselves rather than others”, and such a statement is consistent with the warm personification of objects. This is loneliness personified again but in a different form, as the forlorn characters happily talk to themselves in the absence of others. In the first of the two very loosely interconnected stories within the film, the leading character, Cop 223, mentions in voice-over that he is 0.1 centimetres away from someone he will fall in love with fifty six hours later. At the same time he is pining for his ex-girlfriend and informs us that since his birthday is on the 1st of May, and that is the name of his ex, he will eat thirty cans of her favourite fruit, pineapple, as they go out of date at the beginning of the month.

Wong’s romantic solipsism isn’t only a sentimental gesture though. It is also a formal conceit and a spatial investigation. It’s as though he wanted locked in characters to express a subjectivity of form and a subjectivity of perspective in a place – Hong Kong – where objective expression would usually require colliding with others and generate the sort of irritation to which we’ve alluded. Wong does of course offer shoot-outs here, but they’re irrelevant next to the exploration of feeling, as the woman responsible for the killings, the woman Cop 223 falls for, disappears from the film after the first, shorter section. After all, even in this first part of the film, Cop 223 is less interested in capturing the woman legally, than observing her furtively. In Chungking Express an investigation is not a police procedure; it is an emotional journey.

Indeed it is an observation of feeling that links the two stories as Cop 223 visits the same fast food bar as fellow cop 663, and notes that Faye, the woman working there, will fall in love with 663 in six hours time and leaves the story for the second one to develop between 663 and Faye. It is a nice transition; it signifies the opposite of self-absorption and keys into a comment 223 makes earlier in the film, saying that we pass people every day who may become our acquaintances, friends or lovers: the same is true for everybody else. Though numerous filmmakers have used Hong Kong as a city of high tension out of high population density, including Wong himself with, say, As Tears Go By, here he searches out instead a density of feeling, as if inverting the preoccupations of gangster flick assertiveness for a paradoxical empathic solipsism. Just as we reckoned Wong wants to personify objects to generate warmth, so he utilises tight spaces not for the possibilities first and foremost of tense exchanges, but for the chance of warm embraces. Hong Kong cinema is notorious not only for the violence in front of the camera but also behind it: the book Hong Kong Babylon explores triad activity in the film community. Wong instead assumes it is a place for heightened sensitivity, as if the self can move in the direction of confrontations with the world, or occupy a very private space within that world. The brusque and violent drug dealer gets a voice-over hinting at a private universe, and even sends 223 a text message wishing him a happy birthday after they spend a platonic night together in a hotel room.

In Wong’s work violence is often peripheral to feeling as he explores tenderness as a given and in this sense his films are an interesting inversion of Scorsese’s solipsism. The New Yorker shows a general sense of suspicion towards others, and objects as victims of violence (the trashing of the motel room in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the TV pushed over in Taxi Driver, the cell wall pounded in Raging Bull).  If Wong’s sensibility leans towards the empathically solipsistic; Scorsese’s is towards the paranoiacally so. Where Scorsese often shows men overcome by jealousy and a vague sense of hate, Wong here shows the male characters looking not to take their emotions out on objects and strangers, but putting their emotions into objects and strangers.

When The Virgin Film Guide believes Wong is onto something, central to this freshness lies in his interest in generating warmth out of loss, and also the moment over momentum. Both Cop 223 and 663 are characters recovering from their girlfriends recently leaving them, but they look not for hate figures but if you like contingent love figures. Where Konrad Lorenz in On Aggression says that hate is “the ugly little brother of love”, he adds “as opposed to ordinary aggression, it is directed towards one individual, just as love is, and probably hate presupposes the presence of love.” But in Chungking Express Wong bypasses hate without quite arriving at love, as if instead of a strong feeling being blocked, which indicates halted momentum, the feeling is promptly re-channeled into warm projection. Though Hong Kong is a city as famous as New York for its density of population,Wong and his cameraman Christopher Doyle shows it as a city of compact spaces made up of compact bodies. If the violent story of heroin smuggling takes up merely some of the time in the first story, is it because it’s tonally inconsistent with Wong’s aesthetic? It’s a cause and effect world of events and categorical responses as the female moll takes out the man who double-crossed her, but the events are here viewed peripherally and the story can then be completely dropped.

Wong’s formal innovation comes out of a certain emotional attentiveness, where he wants to explore feeling and requires a new form with which to do so. This is evident in his comment about voice-over, but it is also the case with Chris Doyle’s camerawork and the elliptical nature of the story. When 663 lies in bed with his air hostess lover this is the film moving into flashback, but at the same time as we see the couple lying together in 663’s flat we also have three layers of time on the soundtrack. We have 663’s voice-over, the song saying “what a difference a day makes”, and the sounds and voices from inside an airplane, indicating their initial meeting. All the while the camera is in close, less eavesdropping than part of a ménage a trois. Wong’s narrative purpose and use of mise-en-scene is to capture this not so much depth of feeling, which is something else again, but density.

We draw the distinction because while in his later In the Mood for Love depth would prove more important than density, in Chungking Express the feelings often seem arbitrary and frivolous, yet Wong refuses to ironise the emotions and this is where he needs an aesthetic completely aligned to the demands of character. When Faye insistently plays California Dreamin’ at a level so loud nobody can hear themselves think or speak, we’re at no stage placed outside Faye’s subjectivity in relation to it. At one moment the boss might turn it off, and at another Faye herself turn it down as 663 tries to talk to her, but the song is one of the film’s many moments where a broader perspective would contextualise the characters’ action but be in danger of diluting the feeling. Wong, though, wants to stay with the singularity of feeling and is willing to lose context to maximise it. When 663 goes back to his flat where we know Faye has been hanging out after using the key his ex-girlfriend left at the food stall when she left him, so any reasonable context would make us think of the mess 663 has to wipe up when he arrives and notices his flat has been flooded. Instead once again we have the warm personification of objects: 663 talks about the flat crying, and how many more tears have to be wiped up than when a person cries. There is no depth to the feeling here, as there is in In The Mood for Love where the couple muse over having an affair after discovering that their respective spouses are sleeping with each other. In the later film Wong’s ellipses serve a different function as he makes us wonder when, where and if a sexual liaison took place. The projective dimension is the viewer’s rather than the characters’ as we ask ourselves in relation to the body language of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung whether they have yet made love. Much of the depth of feeling comes from the unsaid; in Chungking Express the density of feeling comes more from what is said, in how the characters can express their emotions through diegetic music in Faye’s case, in voice-over and projection onto objects in 223 and 663’s. One senses any crisis in the characters is temporary, and feelings of loss easily compensated for by emotional gains elsewhere. 223 may be lovelorn, but he still sees the possibility for chance encounters.  As Wong says, believing the characters are more optimistic than in his earlier films, “they know how to live in the city.”

Just as we’ve indicated that Wong’s work is like an inversion of a Scorsese problematic; so of course numerous critics have drawn comparison with Godard due to certain similarities. Like the great French director in a number of his sixties films including A bout de souffle, Vivre sa vie, and Pierrot le fou, possibility is stronger than loss as the films possess an air of aesthetic contingency, a documentative dimension where the camera can pass along a street and know that on these streets there are other lives potentially capable of intersecting with the character’s own. In such a method one can offer a density of feeling without depth: the feelings haven’t hardened around an individual, but run through the film as the camera runs through the spaces it records. As Doyle’s camera nuzzles up to the characters, as it requires a mobility of movement at least equal to the character’s own, so we see that not only has Wong achieved a certain empathy of expression through voice-over and personification of objects, but that this has been matched by camera work that we could say empathises with the subject. There are shots in the film where Doyle must have been running at the same pace as the characters, lying down next to them, or stuck in cramped spaces as he uses wide angles to capture narrow confines. Obviously this in itself isn’t new, and Godard in A bout de souffle, Cassavetes in Husbands and Scorsese in Mean Streets, have all utilised camerawork that creates a close relationship between form and character, yet still the film feels fresh; and it may be in the number of ways in which it creates the density of feeling we’ve proposed, through the voice-over, through the tight spaces, through the camerawork, through the characters’ relationship with objects.

Interestingly Larry Gross in a fine article on the filmmaker in Sight and Sound mentions the Lacanian idea of the “objects of desire that we pursue in our real lives are never the true objects of desire at the very unconscious level”, and we may bring to mind the aforementioned antithetical comment from Konrad Lorenz in On Aggression where he talks of love and hate being directed at one individual. When we mentioned Scorsese we did so in relation to the paranoia and aggression that runs through his work, and so just as we can say Scorsese is a director not interested in the specific feeling of hate but the more general one of aggression, so Wong in Chungking Express is not especially drawn to love in this instance but the general feeling of warmth. If Scorsese’s work is permeated by unease; Chungking Express is suffused with a strange sense of ease, of feeling in no need of a subject not especially because of loss, but as if constantly aware of the possibility of gain. If Scorsese’s general aggression leaves men, women, children and objects all capable of receiving abuse; in Chungking Express this is basically reversed as everything is capable of receiving tenderness.

It is partly why Chungking Express can be a film with two barely overlapping stories, and also why any violence meted out cannot possess the visceral significance it has in Scorsese’s films: violence is tonally out with the mood of the work, a mood not quite of love, to paraphrase his masterpiece, but certainly of exquisite tenderness. When the Virgin Film Guide reckoned Wong was onto something, it may be that he wonderfully works with the Lacanian idea of lack not as a problem of what is missing from the world, but from what is always potentially present in it. In much of his oeuvre – from Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, even in the much underrated My Blueberry Nights – the warmth of possibility is usually more present than the coldness of what a life lacks. When Spinoza proposes that “the more an image is associated with many other things, the more often it flourishes”, the philosopher could be offering the opposite of lack. It also helps explain why Gross nicely ends his Wong article by saying “his stuff reminds me how I came to love and believe in films. When I get done watching one of his movies I discover that I am giddily and irrationally happy.” If Scorsese often disperses hate into paranoiac unease where the objects of desire are secondary to a permeating urban angst; Wong offers a film here where the potential for love is dispersed into images of affection that flourish beyond the confines of a self onto which one projects .

©Tony McKibbin