Monday, 15 February 2010

Chungking Express, Identities and Labels

Chungking Express
concerns two policemen in search of love in the vibrantly modern milieu of poly-ethnic Hong Kong. Amongst the faceless throng (the policemen are only known by their numbers - what's in a name when 'Boy meets Girl' can suffice?) is emphasised the clinical nature of time and the ephemeral taste of emotion here in rundown Chungking Mansions.

Intimacy is rare and proximity in and of itself is cherished - a centimetre here, a millimetre th
ere. Love is transient. It can be consumed like a can of pineapples and violently expelled from our bodies once its expiration date has passed. Lovers can be 'tried' or sampled like a pizza or a "cheesy salad".

Chungking Express gives us a platonic, unspoken connection as well as a more traditional, swooning romance. In the first story a drug-dealing woman (Brigitte Lin), touched by the simple selfless attentiveness of her sad-sack suitor, seeks to leave that life behind her. She wipes out everything associated with that identity, culminating in the killing of a man who models his girlfriend in her image. As she walks away from the murder she discards her wig, her former identity, and in the near distance flashes a neon sign advertising her new purity (see photo):

"Snow White"

The concepts of identity and labelling are ubiquitous. In the second story the various characters' identities are portrayed as permeating all that they own and do. In this sense their identities seem fixed. Cop #663 (Tony Leung) anthropomorphises all his possessions. In his withering soap bar he sees his own depression at the departure of his girlfriend, funnily enough the selfsame depression he sees in its overweight replacement.

His whole apartment is representative of his heart, an amplification. When it is accidentally flooded he reproaches it for its tear-soaked sentimentality. It
cannot go on without his former girlfriend either. Later, stood up by Faye, one of these inanimate objects finally turns the tables on him, giving him a reality check. The beer bottle responsible is summarily drained as punishment.

His former girlfriend's identity is also fixed. She is an air hostess (that is how she is referred to in the credits) and that role is her life's uniform. She seduces him to the sound of an airline safety routine and he lands model planes on her naked back. Towards the end she is finally apart from that role and literally invested in a new identity - a biker's girlfriend, appropriately clad in black.

The waitress with whom #663 falls in love (helping him forget the air hostess) sneaks / breaks into his flat ("You asked me to visit sometime!") and rearranges it. She is effectively invading his heart and remaking him in her own image. She leaves traces of herself on his soul. By the end of the film he is clothed
in products she bought and left behind. When she swaps the labels on his tinned food, she is forcing him to snap out of his hazy pining and see the world in a new way. She is producing within him, inadvertently, the symptoms of (new) love: that everything looks different, smells different, tastes different.

These are extreme measures but it shows how difficult it is to alter these fixed identities. Nevertheless they can be altered precisely because that unwavering nature ("I don't like thinking") is, deep down, empty. These people are waiting to fulfil roles in the same way the blank plane ticket awaits a destination.

The role of 'girlfriend' is up for grabs. Faye wears a heart on her t-shirt as if she is tailor-made for it. When his former girlfriend appears Faye compares herself not so much to the air hostess herself (her height, her legs, her comportment) but to the position of 'girlfriend'. Evading capture after another session decorating his flat, she hides in the cupboard thus unknowingly mimicking something the air hostess used to do. She therefore fulfils in his mind too that 'girlfriend' role (interesting that she drowns a toy plane in his aquarium during one of her 'redecorations').

To rouse himself from his lovesickness, he must change more than just the labels. He says about his dripping and dejected towel:

"Despite the change of its look it still remains true to itself"

He must go further. Eventually, though initially attracted to the label, he allows Faye into his heart to take him wherever she wants to go, to vitally and significantly change and be changed. Faye too must learn to look past the labels. Incessantly she listens to 'California Dreamin'" as an escape from the mundanity of her job. When she goes to California for real the dream is just as boring as reality. Happiness is internal; it is not to be stuck on.

In the first story the cop's former girlfriend May bemoans the fact that he has become "more and more unlike Bruce Willis", her label for the perfect man. Again, as morning breaks in on his encounter with the drug-dealer he cleans her shoes because his label for that woman demands it: "A pretty woman like her should always have clean shoes". Only when they allow themselves to break out of these expectations, these incorporeal dreams and these defining roles do they fully connect.

When they connect, though, it's quite a sight. After the cop asks her out she serves dozens of customers with a wide, manic grin and a barely contained jubilation.

Chungking Express highlights that in a cold urban climate love is the one thing that can find the space in the crowd to change us and our identity and do more than just apply labels. Chungking Express
is electrically energetic and full of catchy invention. It is a cute, doe-eyed fairytale bubbling with crumpled anguish and ecstatic frivolity. But, above all things, what better metaphor could there be for the blissful state of love than a woman redecorating a man's house to sign her name on his heart?


  1. Stephen,

    This is another superb article from you. It's lovely how you look at the movie through a single theme and argue it out. Top stuff.

    This is my favorite of the Wong Kar Wai movies I've seen so far. Somehow, I can't help but feel he is the more "instantly lovable" and "sell-able" version of Tsai Ming-Liang.



  2. Huh, I've no idea how the "And" made its way into the previous comment.

  3. Haha!

    Thanks again for the kind words, JAFB!

    This is my favourite one of his films too. I prefer his earlier films (Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels) to the later (In the Mood for Love, 2046, My Blueberry Nights), though they're all good.

    "Somehow, I can't help but feel he is the more "instantly lovable" and "sell-able" version of Tsai Ming-Liang."

    I see what you mean. I'd never thought about it like that before.