1994, Movies

Chungking Express (1994, Kar-Wai Wong)

This is a maddening, bizarre and provocative film that has dated really poorly from the time when it was greeted rapturously in the West.

There is some extreme technical ability and innovation in this film. In particular, there are (at least) two shots in which the film speed seems to be different in the foreground and the background, which I just cannot figure out how they did it. If those shots were in another film, I would have been losing my mind.

But some of the other stuff – the sort of choppy slo-mo – has aged to a ridiculous degree; it does not look good and it looks like it was done with technology from another time. Moreover, the score sounds like it is from an American ’80s neo-noir. I wonder if the people who loved this movie in 1994 saw it in 2020 for the first time – or even 2014 – if they would have loved it now whether due to the “innovative” film techniques that look dated now, or due to that saxophone and stand-up bass.

I think so much of what people loved about this film was contextual: few had seen anything like it, at least in some time, and it was likely a surprise, made as it was during Ashes of Time. And, like I said, there are some shots in this movie that seem impossible.

But this is a very flawed film:

The first story is so much better than the second story, but it’s the second story that takes up the longer run-time. The first story has more humour and more mystery. We both felt like it could have been turned into a feature, even though neither of us particularly liked the protagonist. The plot of the first story sets you up for one kind of movie and the plot of the second takes you to a very different, disappointing place. That was probably deliberate, and part of some vague pseudo-philosophical statement the two stories are supposed to be musings about.

I think so much of what I disliked about the movie really comes from the second story:

  • The male character is completely uninteresting, despite being played by an incredibly successful actor. He is a lonely cop who collects stuffed animals and obsesses over his ex-girlfriend.
  • But the female lead is much worse: she is, as Jenn put it, a manic pixie dream girl crossed with a stalker. If you flipped their genders there’s no way what she does in this film would be acceptable. Moreover, the film gives us no explanation as to why she would do the things she does. We’re just supposed to accept this as normal behaviour. It’s not.
  • The feeling and pace of the first story disappear in the second.
  • The second story uses “California Dreaming” to a degree to which you might want to kill any surviving members of the Mamas and the Papas, and maybe anyone else involved in the recording process. There are two other songs used in this story, and one is also played twice. (That’s annoying, but nowhere near as annoying as the frequency with which “California Dreaming” is played.)

I think if the first story had been made into a feature I would have liked this film, or maybe I would have even loved it, depending upon how the plot was spread out. But the second story is not successful, and it’s kind of mystifying watching it and thinking about all the praise this movie got just because it’s different.


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