All the Lonely People, where do they all belong ?
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Crowded cities and lonely people searching for love –a hackneyed theme in world cinema. However, Chungking Express, a tale of two heartbroken cops living in a crime-ridden neighbourhood of British Hong Kong, is far from banality. Cops 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and 663 (Tony Leung) have nothing in common, except their occupation, the fast-food stand that they visit (though, never at the same time) and that both are dealing with a separation from their lover. The movie details the agonisingly slow process of ‘moving on’ in 223’s collection of canned pineapple and 663’s talking furniture. It is not entirely difficult for viewers to empathise with these characters and their feelings of helplessness and listlessness. It is a shared experience of the urban youth and this is Wong Kar Wai’s ode to all the lonely people in the world.
Its two halves essentially mirror each other in their similarity of themes. It is an instinct to want to replace recently vacated roles in one’s lives; a point that the director emphasizes through an element of doubles. The food stall owner suggests to Cop 223 that he date ‘the other May’ who works there. 223’s yearning for company on his birthday is fulfilled by a mysterious blonde-wigged woman (Brigitte Lin). She sleeps through the night, while he watches TV and polishes her shoes. Her mere presence is adequate to fill the chasms of his loneliness. Although poles apart in profession and personality, they seem to be perfect, just for one night. The blonde drug dealer also has a doppelganger in her boss (and possibly an ex)’s new leman. Faye (played by Faye Wong) substitutes 663’s stewardess girlfriend, indulging him by redecorating his apartment, playing hide and seek with him, letting him massage her legs and becoming a flight attendant at the end of the movie.
Food is a major plot point; post breakup ice-cream bingeing sessions are replaced by Chef’s salads and black coffees. 223 buys cans of pineapple with a nearing expiration date that he uses to mark the termination of his relationship. Music is the true voice of Chungking Express’ female leads. It represents the confluence of cultures that is Hong Kong, providing a note of whimsy and nostalgia which resonates with the story and its characters, who often find themselves lost in the depths of reminiscence and desire. We have a femme fatale sporting a blonde wig, red rimmed sunglasses and a raincoat; she runs down streets, mercilessly raining bullets to a bandish sung by Parveen Sultana. She shoots down her treacherous ex (a Caucasian man) and leaves her wig behind – a subtle jibe at Hong Kong’s impending independence from the British. Faye is the classic manic pixie dream girl, loudly California dreamin’ on rainy Hong Kong days. The only thing the director could be charged with, is limiting his heroines to cliched tropes.
The genius of this movie lies in its subversion of expectation. Right when you anticipate a blossoming, disastrous romance between 223 and his blonde-wigged paramour, the narrative changes abruptly. Wong Kar Wai observes the intersection of lives in a fast-paced urban world. Having Faye not show up for a date with a man she adores (to the extent of obsession) makes for a surprising turn of events. The lack of structure in the plot is reflective of his style of filmmaking and non-linear conception of ideas. It works in his favour, by lending the story the authenticity and imperfection of unpredictable real-life events. The camera, never being able to capture the overwhelming entirety of the scene, expresses the people-packed streets of Hong Kong in saturated hues and a dizzying array of images. These incomplete snapshots of memory slowly develop into a beautiful picture of the modern East-Asian city.
Despite its poignant premise, Chungking Express has a light-hearted and optimistic outlook on love, clearly reflected in the hopeless romanticism of its protagonists that allows 223 to live in denial of his breakup. The implausibility of Faye and 663’s romance does not stop them from having a seemingly happy ending. The human desire for intimacy seems to be more powerful than intimacy itself. Wong Kar Wai revels in the what ifs and could have beens. In his world, it is more romantic to fall in love than to be in it.