1994’s hypnotic Chungking Express lives in its own sticky, sometimes granulated, universe. The streets of Hong Kong look violently purple, plum-stained and glistening. Sunglasses shaped like hourglasses plunge against wrinkled bed sheets. Wong Kar-wai’s film is half-action procedural and half-romance. It pops with color and beads with grease. The rain-glazed aesthetic of Chungking Express is simple: Weather as motif. The four main characters rotate, aggressively, between languid sadness and hermetic self-doubt. Both chapters of Wong’s film wade through the torrential downpour of loneliness.
In the first half of the film, an aloof, perennially sullen police officer (Takeshi Kaneshiro) trudges through his day-to-day life after his relationship ends. In the middle of his existential and food propelled crisis – there is rarely a scene in this movie where canned fruit juice isn’t being slurped up with the viscosity of a chilled oyster – our protagonist falls upon a veiled and exhausted smuggler (Brigitte Lin). The serendipitous meeting isn’t as traditionally meet cute as you would imagine. The quips are both barbed and loaded. Brigitte Lin is exquisite in Chungking Express: Her hair rolls and curls like a Six Flags roller coaster, her sunglasses look both slim and curiously wide, and her raincoat draws, furiously, behind her like an ornate cape. She seethes with a cool not unlike Alain Delon’s quixotic and tempered presence in Jean Pierre Melville’s 1967 film, Le Samurai.
The Second story behaves, more or less, like a cushioned comedy. Side characters blot the scenes with zingers. Strange, unnecessary, white lies are woven over telephones. Shower heads provide the sound of rain. But this chapter still embraces intrinsic darkness, even with the playful lavender and cherry tones of Wong’s effervescent color palette. In part two of Chungking Express, another downtrodden officer (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) avoids the reality of a breakup. Witnessing this emotional erosion is Faye (Faye Wong), a snack bar attendant whose personality is both mercurial and reticent. The two characters whirl through a kaleidoscope of chef salads, stuffed animals, and bags of goldfish. It’s a whimsical, sometimes bizarre, marriage of assigned emotions and genuine care.
Wong Kar-wai’s staccato, occasionally flippant, direction serves the film’s hot-glass narrative of longing. Chungking Express is less about love than it is about the luminous tubes of color that we want built around us at all times: Shocks of flamingo pink, slivers of cerulean, waves of violet. We want to feel the adrenaline of electricity at every opportunity. Here is a movie that posits questions about what that sensation means, exactly — and there’s something to be said for its bravely delivered non-answer.