If you thought Hong Kong cinema was all martial arts, gangsters and guns, think again. Trevor Johnston meets director Wong Kar-Wai and discovers just why Quentin Tarantino has gone wild over Chungking Express.
Perhaps ﬁttingly for the man who’s made the coolest picture of the year. Hong Kong director Wong Kar- Wai keeps his shades on for the entire duration ofour conversation. in any other case. this would be posey in the extreme (though interestingly enough the only other time it‘s happened to this panicular writer was with Leos Carax. director of Les Amants Du Pont Neal; so maybe it's a good omen after all). but after you've seen his new ﬁlrn Chungking Express. believe me. you'd indulge the guyjust about anything.
Just how good is this movie? Well. let'sjust drop the critic‘s customary mask of world-weary cynicism and lay it on the line: it’s as fresh and invigorating a ﬁlm for the 90s as Godard‘s Breathless must have been for the late 50s. a movie that‘s hip. charismatic. terriﬁcally funny. and slung together with the kind of off-the-cuff brilliance that announces the arrival of a major talent on the world cinema scene. If you were religious. it's the kind ofthing you‘d probably pray for.
‘l was thinking about John Cassavetes.‘ reckons the 37-year-old. typically unphased by the buzz that‘s surrounded the ﬁlm since Quentin Tarantino announced it would be the ﬁrst release on his own video label. ‘We were working in the same situation. We have a low budget. limited time. limited space. You have to do it this way. Quick. And happy. You just have to shoot like a gambler.‘
‘lt’s as fresh and invigorating a film for the 90s as Godard’s Breathless must have been for the late 50s, a movie that’s hip, charismatic, terrifically funny, and slung together with the kind of off-the-cuff brilliance that announces the arrival of a major talent on the world cinema scene.’
Even he's surprised by the success ofa movie that was made in two months after coming off the back of a much larger project (an expansive and ornate swordplay epic called Ashes Ofﬂine that still awaits a UK release date). But the testing circumstances under which Chungking Express was ﬁlmed have ﬁltered into the ﬁnal result in the most scintillating way. Here’s a ﬁlm that captures the bpm of the modern metropolitan experience like few others, the loneliness too. and that peculiarly potent
‘ if s ~. * ssh \“mgsw' \
Chungking Express: “captures the bpm of the modern metropolitan experience’
twentysomething longing you get when you‘re hoping something‘s going to happen in your life and you start getting worried it already has.
Set in contemporary Hong Kong. it‘s a conllation of two different segtnents. though Wong likes to think of it as two contrasting aspects of the same story. like the two sides of a coin. The ﬁrst. shot in and around the disreputable Chungking Mansions area. has fernrne fatale Brigitte Lin as a heroin smuggler in a blonde wig and SOs-style shades, who has a brief encounter with Takeshi Kaneshiro‘s Cop #223. who‘s just eaten 30 out-of—date cans of pineapple chunks to mark the month since he split up with his ex. In the second though. the attention turns to the Midnight Express fast—food stand (‘Chungking Express”. geddit?). where Tony Leung’s Cop #663. who‘s started talking to his dish-cloths since his air hostess girlfriend chucked him. resolutely fails to notice that cutesy serving gal Faye Wang has gotten hold of the keys to his flat and has been busily changing the decor every time he goes out. Packed with fun little details. like the wondrous Ms Wang‘s penchant for The Mamas And The Papas' tune ‘California Dreaming'. it's a thoroughly disarming exploration ofrornantic pessimism and the power of cheap music - and about as far away from the high-octane world of most sub-John Woo shoot-'em-ups as you could imagine.
‘No. it's not like most Hong Kong movies. but it's very Hong Kong.’ concurs Wong. a former screenwriter who got his break into direction with the stylish I989 crime thriller As Tears Go By. before ﬁnding his own ﬁlmic voice with l99l's achingly melancholic study of 60s lost youth Days Of Being Wild (out now on Made In Hong Kong video. and not to be missed either). ‘lt‘s about the way people live. the feel ofthe city, the tempo. i started shooting it without a complete script, just a few ideas that weren‘t really developed. But because we were doing it in sequence. l’d spend each afternoon in the coffee
house and come up with the stuff we would do that evening. It‘s quite exciting when you don't really know what‘s going to happen and there‘s quite a lot of improvisation from the actors. Most of the time we were ﬁlming without permission anyway. We just stole the images like thicves.‘
Using the same crew he’s had on all his movies (Aussie cameraman and hand-held miracle worker Chris Doyle. take a bow!) and with a cast of Hong Kong stars taking time out from their usual commercial assignments to show what they can
‘Because we were doing it in sequence, I’d spend each afternoon in the coffee house and come up with the stuff we would do that evening. Most of the time we were filming without permission anyway. We just stole the images like thieves.’
really do, the end result is that rarity: a movie whose refulgent pleasure in the medium transcends any attempt to summarise its qualities. And. dammit. you gotta love a guy who‘s still quoting Godard after all these years. ‘Yes. you know l‘m a ﬁrm believer in
, what he said. that it‘s like your one and only dream
each time you make a ﬁlm. If it‘s not your ﬁrst
movie. it could be your last. All i want to do is to
make people feel the happiness l feel. which doesn’t necessarily mean you're dealing with comedy. It's about afterwards: you come out of the cinema and you can say ljust spent two hours in another place.
and it was good!’
Chungking lirpress opens at the Edinburgh Film/rouse on Friday 22 September and the Glasgow Film Theatre on Friday 6 October: (Days Of Being Wild is on the Made In Hong Kong label. priced
f l 3. 99)
The List 22 Sept-5 Oct 199517