Sunday, October 30, 2011

Chungking Express: Paradox Waiting

"beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella," - Isidore Ducasse, known by his pseudonym Comte de Lautréamon (1869)

Chungking Express is a film by Wong Kar-Wai from 1994. It is a beautiful meditation on paradox, absence and the rule of the heart over the mind. The loneliness of crowds peppers the gritty realism of people getting on with life in the famous Chungking Mansions of Hong Kong. In particular He Qiwu, also known as Cop 223 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro). Qiwu's girlfriend May broke up with him on April 1. His birthday is May 1 and he chooses to wait for May for a month before moving on. Every day he buys a tin of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1. By the end of this time, he feels that he will either be rejoined with his love or that it will have expired forever. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (played by Brigitte Lin) tries to survive in the drug underworld after a smuggling operation goes sour. He Qiqu spends time at a snack bar in the crowded Chungking Mansions, using the phone to make hopeless calls to women he does not actually know ("we were in grade four together" or "has it been five have two kids now") and chatting to the owner who attempts to find him a date.

In the second story of the film, the unnamed Cop 663 (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is similarly dealing with a breakup, this time with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). He meets Faye, the new girl at the local snack bar (played by Faye Wong). She secretly falls for him. The flight attendant waits for the cop around the snack bar, and finds out he is on his day off. She leaves a letter for the snack bar owner to give to the cop. Everyone in the snack bar reads the letter, which is assumed to be the flight attendant's way of telling the cop that their relationship is over. The envelope also has a spare set of keys to the cop's apartment.

The film revolves around the themes of doubles, replacements or doppelgängers and how or if anyone really knows anyone. The doubles in the first story are not copies but dim reflections, fractured similarities recruited by the protagonists from the pain and loneliness that the original bestows upon them.

The paradox of relationships is fully explored in Chungking Express with a brevity and economy that is at times startling, but always beautiful. "Knowing someone does not mean keeping them" (知道一个人并不意味着保持其) says Brigitte Lin's character as He Qiwu tries desperately to engage her, the mysterious blonde woman who we already know he will fall in love with,  in conversation in a bar. But the pair do not meet, even thought they are sitting next to each other, her in her Lolita sun glasses and blonde wig and him stumbling through his words as he wears his heart on his sleeve. People change. He's a cop and she is a drug dealer. They share a hotel room, although he eats and she sleeps. They are miles apart. Upon leaving at sunrise he cleans her shoes with his tie while she continues to sleep, and the world is turned upside down. Surrealism lives and love is madness.

While He Qiwu contemplates his 25th birthday, the blonde woman murders a western man while he waits for another woman in a blonde wig with whom he is intimate. Like a hallucination two dreams collide, one of death and the other of lust. Shadows move off the stage and blood runs with the rain.

There is little between them but they can barely hear each other. Cop 663 and Faye seem to be in two different pictures, but they are speaking to each other. He is elsewhere and she is stuck. Memories betray us. His flight attendant girlfriend has just gone and he is telling us about it in grainy images with audio from the take-off procedure of the flight upon which they met. "Onboard every flight is a stewardess that you long to seduce.  This time last year, at 25, 000 feet I actually seduced one" (板载每次飞行一名空姐你长的勾引去年这个时候25000英尺其实我的诱惑之一).  Is the truth being told?

Nothing lasts and there is no forever.

Who is leaving who in the sad memories of Cop 663? Soon everyone in the snack bar quarter is reading the letter from the flight attendant to 663, the moment of dissolution is shared  before the cop (n)ever reads it. Or has it?  His keys in the envelope make Faye the double (s)he does not know (s)he has. Noise between people is part of (mis)understanding.

By this stage of the film we seem to be swimming in clouds. A person is burnt upon the mind of another and they remain as a presence no matter the distance. What was presence in absence for He Qiwu has become absence in presence for Faye and Cop 663. He returns home for lunch, talking to the closet in the words he used for his flight attendant, but she is gone. Who is there?

She is. The double that we all carry. She inhabits the living quarters of the lonely cop. Watering his plants, talking to his stuffed animals, left behind by his love, and eating his food. Shouting to him as he passes by. Like a living ghost. A memory that answers back. How many of you can there be?

While he is absent, she cleans and redecorates. Changing the track of reality for the dreaming cop. "Did I leave the tap running or is the apartment getting more tearful?" (离开的自来水运行公寓越来越含泪). He is lost and dreams collide around him. Music she chooses becomes his and he remembers it as something it is not. Objects hold memories and as these change so does the man and his world. And then there is love in crowds...or not. One letter can make all the difference. Where do you want to go?

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