Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Every six months or so when DVD Planet has their biannual sale, I fill in the holes in my Criterion Collection, picking up whatever discs did not make it my way since the last purchase. Just last month I finally got a hold of Chungking Express, directed by my favorite contemporary director, Wong Kar-Wai. I'm surprised I held out so long. I guess since it was my fourth time purchasing it on DVD, the urgency was not there. My intention was to watch it and write a new piece on it, but it occurred to me that I had already written about the film once before. Three years ago, a Korean Region 3 double-pack of this film and Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels was released, I was lucky enough to receive them for review [original publication here], and I wrote the following piece on the films as a pair. I liked the essay well enough that, rather than write a new article, I decided to reprint it here and add some additional thoughts after.

* * * *

Wong Kar-Wai fans will debate endlessly about his films. Not just the strange and elliptical plots, but the meanings of images and even further, how those images are presented on DVD. Most of his work hasn't been given the best treatment in the DVD age, a real crime when you consider the singularly beautiful work he has done with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. So, even though in most cases one has cause to groan when a bogus upgrade edition of a given Hollywood studio picture tries to tempt us into a double dip, when a Wong Kar-Wai movie finally gets done right, it's cause for celebration.

This new Korean twofer combining 1994's Chungking Express and 1995's Fallen Angels is a real boon for Kar-Wai aficionados. Finally, these two movies look the way we've always dreamed they could, and the new packaging is sleek and affordable. Coupling these two films together also makes sense, as they are interconnected in the usual amorphous Wong Kar-Wai way. When he was first shooting Chungking Express, the auteur intended it to have three distinct stories. When the first two grew too long to accommodate a third, the remaining narrative was spun off and put together with some other ideas to make Fallen Angels. Thematically, the two films are simpatico, like lovers who are so well-matched that they finish each other's sentences. Revisiting them back to back was a real treat, I must say.

I would call Chungking Express Kar-Wai's best pop single. While later films were concept albums and symphonies, this one was a summer 45 that you can play over and over, learning every word and only loving it more, much the way Faye Wong's character never stops listening to "California Dreaming" in the film. Its two story lines criss cross at only a couple of points, but they play off each other in fascinating ways. In the first chunk, a man and a woman find love but are unable to connect, while in the second the couple shares a bond before they even know what is happening.

The front of the movie concerns itself with a lovelorn police office, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers) who is pining for May, a girlfriend who has broken it off with him. Zhiwu dials his voicemail repeatedly in hopes she left him a message and buys a can of her favorite fruit every day hoping to somehow connect with her. Each pineapple can must be dated to expire on May 1, his birthday, a deadline for his heartache to expire, as well. When May doesn't come back to him at the start of the month that bears her name, he eats all the pineapple and then goes out drinking. At the bar, he meets a woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin, The Bride with White Hair). Ironically, the cop's new love interest is a criminal who has lost her drug mules and needs to get out of town before the property's rightful owners catch up to her. Though they both may find tenderness in one another for the night, she will have to be gone by morning.

The second story comes in as the day passes. Zhiwu goes to a food stand to get something to go, and the proprietor suggests he date his cousin, Faye (Faye Wong, 2046). Mistaking her for a boy because of her short hair, Zhiwu passes, but as his narration informs us, it's what was predestined, as Faye is meant for another man. All four main characters in Chungking Express have voiceovers, all of them in the past tense, emphasizing thematically that these are stories that have happened, that like the cans of fruit they have end points, and like many of Wong Kar-Wai's films, Chungking Express turns on the importance of memory.

The man intended for Faye is Cop #663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Infernal Affairs). He was dating a flight attendant (Valerie Chow, To Catch a Thief) who recently chose a different flight plan, and he orders endless cups of black coffee in an effort to stay awake in case her plane lands and brings her back to him. Intrigued by this sad gentleman, Faye takes advantage of an odd opportunity: the flight attendant left #663's spare keys at the food stall. Faye begins sneaking into his apartment, cleaning up after him and altering his life in subtle ways. Eventually, he will begin to notice, and we hope and pray it will be too late for him to resist her.

Chungking Express is a supremely romantic film, and I fell in love with it from the first time I saw it. Faye Wong, in particular, is enchanting. With her pageboy haircut and slim figure, I'd dare compare this debut to Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday. She has that kind of presence onscreen.

By comparison, Fallen Angels is a far more erotic film. If Chungking Express is the pop 45, then Fallen Angels is its B-side. It's a little darker, a little more weird, with Wong Kar-Wai both stretching his legs and thematically summing up his work to that point. Stylistically, there is a marked difference between the two films that you'll notice right away. The camera moves more in Fallen Angels, and it travels faster through the scenery. When it settles, Kar-Wai and Doyle favor extreme and distorted close-ups. They also blanket the movie in more garish colors, laying hot reds and bright greens over scenes. The result is a story that feels far less grounded. Fallen Angels takes place almost exclusively at night, and so it's concerned with the kinds of characters who are active while the rest of us are home resting. Their Hong Kong is more like an Earthly purgatory than a living society. Unsurprisingly, these people are disconnected and operating by habit, waiting for a change.

Kar-Wai connects Fallen Angels to Chungking Express by a couple of well-chosen echoes. The most obvious is the return of Takeshi Kaneshiro as another character named He Zhiwu. Rather than a heartbroken cop, this Zhiwu is a petty criminal. When he was five, he ate a can of pineapple that had passed its sell-by date and the resulting illness left him mute; being unable to talk, he can't run a regular business, so instead he chooses to break into other people's shops after they close and force passersby to sample his wares. By playing at usurping other people's existences, he can put his own on pause.

Another echo is in the female half of an assassin partnership. The unnamed girl, played by Michelle Reis (also in Takashi Miike's City of Lost Souls), is the advance agent for the team, finding the target and investigating the scene. Wearing fluorescent cleaning gloves, she goes through the target's trash to learn about him. Whereas Faye removed #663's rubbish to get closer to him, this girl embraces a man's trash in order to eradicate him. The same hands she uses to sift through garbage are the ones she uses to regularly pleasure herself, the only way available to her for unleashing her desire.

You see, the two killers have never really met. They don't want emotions getting mixed up in what should be a cold, calculated business. Only, it backfires on them and there is still a connection between the duo, whether they like it or not. Trouble comes when Ming (Leon Lai, Leaving Me Loving You), who does the actual killing, decides he has had enough and wants to get out. He attempts to change his habits, and even hooks up with another girl (Karen Mok, So Close), her dyed blonde hair a visual rhyme on Brigitte Lin's wig in Chungking. Such allegiances are fleeting, however, and Ming will inevitably be drawn back to where he belongs.

Zhiwu also attempts a relationship with a girl. Charlie (Charlie Yeung, Seven Swords) is a motor mouth, just like Ming's blonde, and we're never quite sure that the "Blondie" that Charlie is trying to hunt down for stealing her man isn't in fact Karen Mok. She, too, will move on, only returning later in a stewardess outfit, nearly unrecognizable and also not recognizing Zhiwu at all. In voiceover (employed here much like it is in Chungking Express), he refers to her as his first love, which means she is also his first heartbreak. How fitting, then, that she would leave him stranded in the same food stall where Faye and #663 fell for one another.

Forgetting matters of the heart, however, Zhiwu is the only one who is compelled to chase a real connection. He lives with his widower father (Chen Man Lei, In the Mood for Love), and by using a video camera to film the old man, he creates a roundabout mode of communication. He has also found something that all of Wong Kar-Wai's heroes are searching for: a way to preserve memory.

End of Fallen Angels with the Yaz cover song

Though often pushed down to the lower levels of Wong Kar-Wai's canon, Fallen Angels is one of his most visually exciting movies. It is also one of his most lusty, only rivaled by the director's segment in Eros and 2046. Even more important, though, I would posit that Fallen Angels may be Kar-Wai's most hopeful movie. Though some ambiguity remains at the end, the movie leaves the viewer with a sense of elation, buoyed by the doo-wop cover of Yaz's "Only You," a sweet love song. It's quite possible the characters that remain have found their connection at last, and maybe even the route out of purgatory.

* * * *

One of the two Criterion-added features for the Chungking Express disc is a twelve-minute segment from the BBC television series Moving Pictures. Shot in 1996, it was released in anticipation of the British premiere of Fallen Angels and fittingly focuses on both it and Chungking Express. In the piece, Kar-Wai takes us on a tour of Hong Kong to see many of the actual locations used in Chungking, including the store where Brigitte Lin gets in a shoot-out, the Midnight Express food stand, and Tony Leung's apartment, which just so happens to be Christopher Doyle's apartment.

There are two things besides this guided tour that make the program especially revealing for Kar-Wai fans. The first comes from seeing the Kar-Wai/Doyle style aped by people other than the artists that perfected it. In a misguided attempt to spice up the profile, the BBC crew tries to match the film exposure and the neon look of Chungking, and it doesn't work. In fact, it looks especially cheap when placed next to actual clips from the movie. It makes it clear that this aesthetic is not something achieved by accident, but requires careful choices and a clear knowledge of the technology and how to manipulate it.

The second revelation is connected to the first. Over the years, I've encountered several guys who have a chip on their shoulder about Wong Kar-Wai. For whatever reason, they've decided that he's a hack and the real talent is Christopher Doyle. Their theory relied on a hope--to them, a belief--that Kar-Wai would fall on his face without Doyle. When their partnership ended abruptly during 2046, it would be the end of the director's long con, and it would be proved once and for all that Doyle carries all the skill. This is, of course, a groundless assertion, and one that is not proven either by the completed 2046 nor My Blueberry Nights.

It's also not borne out in this BBC piece, where we see the two men together. In one way, they are a study in contrasts. Kar-Wai is a careful speaker, slow in manner, and not just because English is his second language. There is a serene aura around him, and also a reserve, as evinced by his ever-present sunglasses. Doyle, on the other hand, is quick to speak, a joker, and gregarious. As artistic temperaments go, it's no surprise that they end up being complementary, practically being two halves of one whole; likewise, it's not surprising that they would eventually clash. By various counts, their split occurred because Doyle was done with moving at Kar-Wai's speed. The director's meticulous and often contradictory capricious nature was no longer tolerable to the cinematographer.

To listen to them talk, though, it's clear that their working relationship at the time of Fallen Angels is very much in sync. The ideas generally originate from Kar-Wai, and Doyle finds the way to execute them. It's more than one man explaining what he sees, however, and the other figuring out how to make those visions a reality. By the time of this feature, it sounds like they were trading off, experimenting together, sharing one vision. Kar-Wai talks of lenses, Doyle talks of narrative symbolism as represented by shot composition. In a way, it reminds me of the classic comic book model, where the writer and artist are separate. In my own work, I know where my strengths lie, but just because I can't draw doesn't mean I don't have something to contribute to the visuals; likewise, just because the artist didn't generate the script, it doesn't mean she couldn't refashion the story in interesting ways. Neither of us could likely fill in for the other if our compatriot called in sick, we're still essential each to each, but we aren't as far apart as all that, either.

I suppose it's fitting that these two collaborators would eventually split and go their own way, and that time would be a factor. One side was unaware of time, seemingly believing he had as much as he wanted, the other side was too aware of how it could run out. One side was content where he was, the other had to go. Still, why they were together, they shared one way of seeing, and that was important to them, both in terms of how they got stuff done and how that affected the work thematically. Think about how many times a Wong Kar-Wai/Christopher Doyle film hinges on the way people see each other, how many shots there are of one person peering through a particular object to see the other. Like Faye Wong peering through soap-covered glass trying to make Tony Leung come into focus. They are on two separate sides but wish they were on the same. That's the yearning passion of a Wong Kar-Wai movie made simple, and it's what both pulls his characters together and ultimately, more often than not, pushes them apart.

* * * *

One day I'd like to do a project where I rewatch all the Wong Kar-Wai films in order and write about them again that way. One day. For now, most of the links in this review go to previous pieces I've done about his movies, so they will have to do for now. One not mentioned: Ashes of Time Redux.

Comics artist Adrian Tomine draws Faye

No comments: