Those for whom the statement "that was weird and meaningless" is high aesthetic praise will love "Chungking Express." Those who prefer their art to come equipped with such old-fashioned accessories as coherence and character development will be less happy. Iconoclastic Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 film is a frenetic one-way ride through The Land of Vaporous Plot, with stops along the way at Irritatingly Cute Extended Metaphor City. There's madness aplenty in this tantalizing film, but not nearly enough method in it.
You have to give Kar-Wai, the much-parodied, arty bad boy of Hong Kong cinema, points for audacity. To his unorthodox two-stories-in-sequence structure Kar-Wai adds generous portions of Hong Kong noir, manic editing, urban angst a la Scorsese, Freudian analysis as told to Hello Kitty and possibly the worst overuse of a pop song in film history. This wild mixture sounds intriguing, but it ends up being about as nourishing as those "special milk shakes" that six-year-olds make out of beer, aspirin, peanut butter and cayenne pepper.
The script of "Chungking Express" (which appears to have gone from conception to final form with remarkable rapidity) consists of two consecutive, supposedly mirroring stories about the strange and unhappy love lives of two Hong Kong cops. In Story A, the cop, Detective 223, having been dumped by his girlfriend, reacts in a way that would bring joy to the Pineapple Council: every day he buys a can of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1, a month to the day after his girlfriend walked out on him. If she hasn't changed her mind by that date, he vows to forget her and eat the pineapple. It's whimsical, WHIMSICAL, see? A light, refreshing metaphor with a fruity finish and a slight metallic aftertaste.
Meanwhile, a mysterious woman in a blonde wig and sunglasses is running a heroin-smuggling scheme out of the fabled high-rise known as Chungking Mansions, a multicultural Tower of Babel in Hong Kong's Tsimshatsui district. The Indians she hires to move the skag double-cross her, allowing her only one day to find them before she is killed.
#223 sadly swallows his Dole stash and hooks up with the mystery blonde in a bar. They spend one odd night together, after which she guns down her adversaries in wild urban action sequences that give Kar-Wai full opportunity to display his lush, jagged visual style, crafted from hotshot handheld camera work and dazzling editing technique. So much for Story A, and if this precis seems to end a little soon, you should have been there.
The baton is now handed to Story B, a tale of another heartbroken cop, Detective 663, who has been dumped by his flight attendant girlfriend. Forsaking the canned-fruit therapy favored by #223, #663 embraces the more advanced approach of talking to domestic objects. "We all have moments of doubt," he intones to a large, impassive stuffed animal. "You can't just let yourself go like this," he cautions a bar of soap.
#663's weird world soon gets even weirder, courtesy of a nutty countergirl named Faye. Possibly unhinged by her habit of constantly listening to an ear-shattering rendition of "California Dreamin'," Faye falls in love with him and begins sneaking into his apartment, rearranging the furniture, cleaning the place up and further weakening his already-shaky grasp on reality. When he finally catches her, they make a date to meet at the California Restaurant -- but zany Faye stands him up by flying off to the real California (which is what the viewer may feel like doing after being subjected to the Mommas and the Poppas' greatest hit again and again and again -- I gave up counting after five renditions). The film ends on a note of sadder but wiser promise.
So what does it all mean? Not a whole lot. Kar-Wai's oddball writing can be amusing, even at times thought-provoking, and at its best "Chungking Express" does cast some flickering light on the offbeat side of romantic obsession. But his canned-food and stuffed animal gags are pretty much one-liners: they make a psychological point, but don't go anywhere. And the prevailing tone of whimsy becomes a treacly semi-cuteness that undercuts any claims the film has to emotional seriousness.
In the end, since Kar-Wai never develops his characters, he's forced to rely on manic cinematography to provide meaning. In that regard, "Chungking Express" is like a hyperactive version of Alain Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad," in which immobility is the meaning. But if Kar-Wai is somehow trying to make a connection between his film's blurred, Francis Bacon-like imagery (which wonderfully captures the speed and chaos of city life, particularly the anonymous Brownian motion of crowds) and the nature of love and memory, he left out too many steps in between. "Chungking Express" is like a sketch for a film on those themes, not the thing itself. Which is disappointing, because Kar-Wai is clearly a talent, a technically gifted, risk-taking director with a remarkable visual sense.
In his director's statement, Kar-Wai, whose earlier films include "Ashes of Time" and "Days of Being Wild," writes "I made 'Chungking Express' in less than three months' time. . . At times, I felt I had become a film student again and the experience was immensely refreshing and enlightening." With its cavalier formalism, throwaway plot, silly genre quoting and unjustified air of breezy self-confidence, "Chungking Express" certainly feels like a student work -- even, with its undeniably hip style, a refreshing one. But anyone who finds enlightenment here has a very generous soul indeed.