Modern Classic Film Review: Chungking Express

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Loss, Love and Light

(Chunking Express, Wong Kar Wai, 1994, 98mins)

All too often contemporary cinema, particularly Hollywood cinema, falls victim to the trap of the narrative formula. Deconstructing the narrative of most films reveals a dry, uninventive approach to profit driven film making. ‘The quest’ is often mentioned in screenwriting guidebooks, also referred to as ‘the hero’s journey’. In this narrative structure a supposedly inadequate hero overcomes massive obstacles in order to achieve their desired goal with hugely negative consequences should they fail. This narrative is shadowed by a simultaneous and equally formulaic emotional ‘arc’ in which the character overcomes their own lack of self belief in order to fully realise their heroic potential.

Just about every blockbuster released while I have been alive has stuck rigorously to this formula – The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Inception, Casino Royal, Shrek, even American Pie. The list is endless and deeply unnerving. Hollywood’s obsession with the ‘quest’ has been around more or less since the success of Star Wars in the seventies, and really just goes to show how ready most of Hollywood’s film producers are to jump on a bandwagon. Doubtless a bandwagon facing insurmountable odds.

There are other narrative formulas which occasionally make an appearance but the important thing to grasp here is that feature films are written according to a set of rules, because there is an unquestioned perception that certain narrative structures make commercially successful movies. This is of course not true. All the discerning critic needs to do is wryly observe the massive box office failure of Waterworld to realize that deep narrative structure is by no means a ticket to success; it certainly has far less impact on a film’s profit margin than an effective marketing campaign and good word of mouth. This isn’t to say that all films written to a formula are ‘bad’, merely that they are as much a product of science and business as art or expression.

Chungking Express is an ensemble film without strict precedent; it doesn’t follow a standardised narrative formula. This makes it something very rare and very special: it is unique.

The film is torn into halves, exploring the concept of old and new love through the eyes of two different protagonists – not intercut, or with interweaving non-linear narratives as in The Holiday, but simply one story followed by another. If it weren’t for an impressively understated moment of transition between the two stories, this could almost be considered to be two separate films, and is often treated as such by film enthusiasts when writing synopses for open-source websites.

But it is not two separate films. It is one film that dares not to conform with the standard structure which audiences have come to expect from contemporary cinema. It is slow paced and neither of the two love stories are riddled with clear-cut conflict. As such on first viewing the film can seem strange – it creates a sensation of displacement; we are uncomfortable with a film that does not adhere to our preconceived notions of narrative structure. Nonetheless you walk away with a sense of happiness and freedom, created by the characters’ eventual optimism in the face of loneliness.

Set in the dizzying metropolis of Hong Kong and shot in magnificent blurs of light and colour, this is through and through a visually beautiful movie. Christopher Doyle’s unique and captivating cinematography, combined with Wong Kar Wai’s near seamless direction has understandably lead to Chungking Express’ place as one of the great films of the 1990s.

Of course there is no such thing as the perfect movie, and Chungking Express has it’s own problems. One is the frankly irritating repetition of the 1965 hit ‘California Dreamin‘ by The Mamas and the Papas whenever the character Faye appears on screen, which with successive viewings will leave you with an eye twitch.

In addition, while narrative formulas may not be all they’re cracked up to be, some other scriptwriting rules of thumb really do work. One such trick is not to give your characters similar names – it confuses audiences seeing the film for the first time. While Kar Wai’s desire to throw away the rulebook when writing this film is admirable, having the two male leads being named Cop 663 and Cop 223 was probably a mistake. Add to this that there are two characters named ‘May’, and it is possible to question weather perhaps a little artistic integrity could have been sacrificed to spare audience confusion.

Furthermore a generation raised on plot-driven, effect drenched comic book movies can have a hard time sitting through more character focused pieces – but this is more of a general point about the nature of the modern audience than a criticism of the film.

Chungking Express is a phenomenal piece of cinema that will leave film-literate viewers lost for words. This is very much a film-critic’s film and the slow pace can drag for fans of contemporary blockbusters, even with a relatively normal running time. Nonetheless, this is unquestionably a modern classic, a fearless piece of art and a thoughtful reflection on what love means in the modern world.

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