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Chungking Express Macro analysis

November 29, 2010

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Wong Kar-wai

1994 Hong Kong

Chungking Express tells two stories about two policemen, Cop 223 and Cop 663, and their love lives.  The stories are independent from each other, but both are set in the bars, restaurants and hotels of Hong Kong.  The mise-en-scène creates a vivid picture of a modern, cosmopolitan city.

It is a low-budget film and uses many techniques associated with New Wave filmmaking – handheld camera, jump cuts – but adds new kinds of discontinuities such as the slowing down and speeding up of the film stock.

Chungking Express is a visually striking film which uses a variety of film language styles and has been compared to a music video.  As with Breathless, at times it seems that Wong wants the audience to appreciate the form of the film more than the content.

Having watched Chungking Express, think about which of the two story segments you preferred.  What do you think appealed to you about that one?  Consider plot, character, genre.

The narrative form – two stories in one film – could be one of the ways in which Wong Kar-wai foregrounds the film language, reminding the audience that they are watching a film.

In this respect, Wong may be compared to Godard – the form of the film, the film language, is as important as the content.  However, the subject matter in this film does seem to be important to the director – and very carefully thought through and structured.

For example, the two stories are not completely separate but are linked through a variety of settings, characters and themes which may not be immediately apparent.

Watch Chungking Express and make notes on the following for each of the stories:

Write a brief synopsis of each story.

List the main characters.  Who are they?  What do they do?  What are their names?  What is their relationship with each other?

Describe the main settings which feature in each story.

How does each story end?

What other forms of narrative structure could be used to tell these stories?  Why do you think this particular structure was chosen?

Hong Kong: East and West

Hong Kong is often seen as representing a crossroads between Eastern and Western culture due to its history as both a Chinese and a British colony.  Britain invaded Hong Kong in 1842 during the war with China (known as the Opium Wars) over the free movement and trade of opium.

It remained under British rule – which oversaw a liberal economy – until 1997, when Hong Kong was ‘handed back’ to China.

This influence of different – often contrasting – cultures is evident throughout Chungking Express in the setting, costume, dialogue and musical soundtrack.

The appearance of Brigitte Lin in her trench coat and blonde wig, the corporate logos and the use of American pop songs on the soundtrack are just a few examples of this.

This representation of Hong Kong as – part British, part Chinese – also infects the characters.

In Chungking Express, Hong Kong is a city which lacks an identity and is a place of anxiety in the buildup to the handover to a communist state.

This is also evident in the characters.  In both stories the policemen are filled with longing for something which has gone, they are unable to think or act rationally, they are in state of complete self-absorption and isolation – perhaps Wong is using the characters as a metaphor for Hong Kong at the end of the twentieth century.

This theme of the the conflicted state of Hong Kong as it faces an uncertain future is also found in other films of this period: Made in Hong Kong (Fruit Chan, Hong Kong, 1997); The River (Ming Liang-Tsai, Taiwan, 1997); and Suzhou River (Ye Lou, China, 2000).

Defining a new wave: Chungking Express and Hong Kong Cinema

As is evident in Chungking Express, Hong Kong Cinema is characterised by its mixture of references from Eastern and Western culture.  These include the kung fu, gangster and thriller genres as well as influences from Chinese folklore and ghost stories.

Chungking Express has to be studied in the wider context of the Hong Kong film industry in the 1980s and 1990s which is unique in East Asian cinema.

Hong Kong was one of the ‘economic dragons’ of the 1980s, along with South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.  These countries experienced a rapid economic – and in some cases social – development throughout the period.

However, of this group only Hong Kong developed a successful film industry (which has also been affected by the economic recession in the late 1990s; Wong Kar-wai has difficulties getting funding for his films now) and there are various possible reasons for this.

In Hong Kong, filmmakers have been free to express themselves with little interference from the state and censorship is very relaxed.  This marks them out from other East Asian cinemas – particularly Singapore and China, where directors work within state-controlled, heavily-censored industries.

Another reason for the continued popularity of cinema-going in Hong Kong is that it is a small city with a high-density population where the social experience of the cinema has meant that it has remained dominant in the face of competition from TV and video.



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