Chungking Express

on March 08, 1996 by Ray Greene
   Quentin Tarantino is nothing if not one of Hollywood's cleverest guys. There he is, the filmmaker who has made himself the foremost American publicist for the action-packed output of Hong Kong by publicly associating himself with everyone from action superstar Jackie Chan (to whom Tarantino gave last year's Lifetime Achievement Award at the MTV movie awards) to the team of director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-Fat (a duo for whom Tarantino was at one point planning to write an original script). When Tarantino and Miramax announced the formation of a new imprint called Rolling Thunder, through which Tarantino would share his love of Hong Kong cinema with the rest of the world, it seemed reasonable to assume that Tarantino would be sponsoring stateside debuts for such underexploited giants of Hong Kong action as Tsui Hark, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui and Ringo Lam.
   Tarantino may yet get around to it, but the first Rolling Thunder rollout, Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express," seems calculated to confound such expectations. True, it's a Hong Kong movie, and it does feature Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, an actor best known in the U.S. for his role opposite Chow Yun-Fat in Woo's genre-defining actioner "Hard-Boiled." But aside from those two statistical similarities and some smearily shot gunplay early in what plays like a long, long film, "Chungking Express" has almost nothing in common with the kind of moviemaking Hong Kong has become a virtual synonym for.
   It's a sign of the maturation of Hong Kong's supercharged film industry that an aesthetic counter-revolution of sorts is now underway. Hong Kong is known for its emphasis on audience-pleasing action, so the iconoclastic Wong has created a loose, improvisatory movie, closer in spirit to Italian neo-realism than to Woo's epics. In place of Woo's shiny urban landscapes of neon and smoke, "Chungking Express" depicts a flat, crowded, cramped Hong Kong, shot mostly in available light as if it were a Third World country.
   In a clear rejection of the overly structured approach to story that characterizes most Hong Kong releases, Wong has created a broken narrative, in which a truncated story about a lonely plainclothes policeman who falls in love at first sight with a bitter smuggler shifts into another, more charming tale about a lonely patrolman and the shopgirl who uses a spare key to surreptitiously enter his life.
   Wong's storytelling tactics could almost be called novelistic; incident replaces plot, and the film is filled to overflowing with extended interior monologues rendered in voiceover as Wong's characters stare meaningfully at empty beer bottles or household bric-a-brac, contemplating the emptiness and alienation of their daily lives. The fact that Wong uses cops for his male leads in both storylines without putting them through any of the melodramatic paces police officers usually face in the films of his countrymen seems a sly tactic for announcing the independence of his vision.
   "Chungking Express" was apparently considered something of a revelation in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, here in America, where serious-minded movie fare is a little easier to come by, "Chungking Express" seems far less radical and far more self-indulgent. Ultimately, this is one express derailed by redundancies and the lack of any (even implicit) narrative progression to draw the viewer in. As Rossellini and the best of the original neo-realists demonstrated time and again, the difference between characters who do little and characters who mean little to the audience is a critical one; it requires far more subtle skills to stay on the right side of that line than those Wong seems at this time to possess. Although Wong is to be commended for heading out in a new narrative direction, to Western eyes at least, he's still several stations short of his desired destination.    Starring Brigitte Lin, Ching-Hsia, Faye Wang, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung. Directed and writ-ten by Wong Kar-Wai. Produced by Chan Yi-Kan. A Miramax release. Action. Chinese-language; subtitled. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexuality and drug content. Running time: 103 min.
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