Friday, 30 March 2012

Chungking Express

A film about time and coincidence.

In this sense, a continuation of themes already established in Wong Kar-wai's second feature-length film, the sweltering melodrama Days of Being Wild (1990), and a springboard to the deeper meditations on memory and place that occur in the masterworks Ashes of Time (1994), Happy Together (1997), In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). These are films that slip between layers of memory and actuality; between how it is and how it could have been, either as a projection of the character's wants or needs, or through the accidental nature of existence; the significance of chance encounters, misheard declarations of love, or unlikely coincidences that occur when characters stumble across one another at a particular point in time.

In Wong's films, the situation that is established as a facilitator for these wider considerations is simple, if not wholly mundane. Two characters meet: either they live across the hall, or they work in the same part of town, or they share the same thoughts and feelings that compel them towards inevitable junctures and conclusions. These are characters on a collision course: fated, marked; existing on the fringes of a society, not because they're incapable of living any other way, but because the requirements of a lifestyle - the job or the social situation - dictates it. The loneliness, the desperation, the tedium of places all inspire a particular attitude that leads these characters into these situations in the first place; these locations that we return to again and again, always in some new manifestation of the same old routine, regardless of time, place or generation.

The small take-away restaurants, bodegas and bars give good cover for those meetings between inarticulate strangers with nothing much to say but a need to share a moment (or two) with someone other than themselves. Let the music drown it out before the soul starts screaming; take a walk through the lonely backstreets where characters can saunter, alone with their dreams and their shadow as chaperone.

Chungking Express directed by Wong Kar-wai, 1994:

In Chungking Express (1994), the two characters - inner-city cops battered and bruised by an aching loneliness - wander a labyrinth of these backstreets, alleyways and market places, converging in bars or convenience stores, but never really speaking; just taking the opportunity to soak in the spectacle of a life that eludes them, before it's back to the lonesome apartment buildings or the late night city streets. Both characters spend the duration of each segment sifting through old memories; living like revenants in a world that can't recognise their emptiness. Their paths cross on two separate occasions, but never intersect. Instead, their two stories are presented separately, one after the other, with each story offering echoes and variations of a theme that ripples throughout, uniting them through grief.

At the end of the film, after both threads of the narrative have reached their inevitable conclusions, the essential themes, of time, coincidence and displacement, come full circle, with the allusion to California - replayed by a character sitting in a bar called "the California", and with the song California Dreamin' on the soundtrack - highlighting the central idea of two entities existing at the same time in different places, connected, but at the same time, apart.