At the time that Chungking Express(1994) was being made, Hong Kong was undergoing changes and moving ever closer towards the millennium while another historical moment, its handover to China in 1997, was just round the corner. There seemed to be so many possibilities for the future; both bad things and good things could happen. Citizens of Hong Kong became increasingly anxious about the unknown future. They were worried that political changes would result in a decrease of freedom, an undesirable change in lifestyle, and a negative effect on the economy. Yet at the same time, they were happy to be part of their motherland again. Now, with the help of China’s abundant resources, Hong Kong could continue to excel in its economy and diverse culture, and even further push the country’s prosperity.
In this paper, I will show how the portraits of the characters in Chungking Express, apparently a film about love stories, represents the Hong Kong citizens at that time. The four characteristics I will explain are as follows. First, I will talk about loneliness, distance and isolation (Lacher, Los Angeles Times 26). The loneliness of the characters parallels the way people of Hong Kong were separated from the people in Mainland China. Secondly, I will talk about the sense of expiration. One of the characters in the film has an obsession with expiration dates to things such as canned pineapples and romantic relationships. This very obsession had been very common among people in Hong Kong during the last few years before 1997, but this expiration date was that of the city of Hong Kong. They thought that the day of handover would be the "expiration" of the Hong Kong they were now in. Thirdly, I will examine the idea of uncertainty. The way that people in Chungking Express are uncertain about their love is the same way as Hong Kong citizens were unsure of their future. Lastly, I will end with the discussion of optimism (Rayns 48). The characters often fail in love relationships, and they always feel insecure about the new ones they begin. Hong Kong citizens were insecure as well. While the characters find ways to remain hopeful despite failures in their relationships, the people of Hong Kong also found ways to cope with their anxiety.
During a perplexing period such as the three or four years prior to the handover, Chungking Express emerged through the vision of Wong Kar Wai (the director and writer of the film). He saw what his fellow Hong Kong citizens were going through. At this time the typical Hong Kong citizens, i.e. not the powerful politicians and business tycoons, had little control over their future. One of the very few ways to take control was to save money for themselves, in case the change was so turbulent that they had to flee the island. They were very desperate, not unlike the characters in Chungking Express. In fact, the characters in Chungking have been made in order to reflect this mentality of Hong Kong people, and the parts were tailor-made to suit the actors(Cheng 24). The director himself said in an interview that the film is very much about Hong Kong (Lacher, Los Angeles Times 26); it reflects the way that people felt about 1997 at that time. It was not a new thing that themes about 1997 appeared in one of his films; this was a frequent topic that he dealt with in his previous films (Rayns 16).
The characters in Chungking are basically lonely people who prefer to talk to themselves inside their heads rather than to others, as seen in the frequent use of internal monologues in the movie. They are desperately looking to fall in love, and they are not at all sure about their chances of success, thus insecurity is a feeling they often have. The whole film is two offbeat stories about falling in love(Cheng 24) These stories seem to be narrated in sequence but in fact they overlap with each other in a peculiar way. The characters of the first story eat at Midnight Express, a fast-food restaurant, and so do the characters from the second story. There are some instances in which a character from the second story shows up in the frame for a few seconds while the first story is still in progress. Putting the characters from story two into the frames of story one does not help to develop the plot but it allows the audience to be acquainted with the characters of story two in advance while they are still catching up with story one. It also leaves the audience feeling unsure about which story they should be following, thus bringing out the idea of uncertainty in a subtle way. There are numerous instances in which the film introduces its different themes in such unnoticeable ways as this.
Loneliness and isolation, though, is a theme that is quite obviously and explicitly asserted in the film. The lonely feelings and isolation of the characters in Chungking Express and their distance between each other symbolize the distance between Hong Kong and China. Voiced-over monologues have been used extensively in the film to bring out important messages. The fact that the characters listen to their often self-indulgent internal monologues so frequently tells in itself how lonely people in Hong Kong can be, not to mention the contents of the monologues such as those in this one by the young cop Wu which appears in the very beginning of the film: "Everyday we brush past a lot of people. People who may become our best friends, or people we may never meet." In here, he is complaining about how hard it is to find a true friend in the hustle and bustle of city life(Schaeffer S07).
Not long after the beginning of the film, a myterious drug dealer wearing a blond wig, designer trench coat and sunglasses comes into the scene of a crowded tenement building downtown, Chung King House (from which the film got half of its name). Her unrevealing way of dress tells us that she is isolated from the rest of the crowd. She is gorgeous, but pathetically lonely, and afraid of intimacy; this is most obvious in the bar scene in which she resisted the young cop Wu’s flirtation. People in Hong Kong were just like her when it comes to their attitude towards the people in Mainland China, who were about to be united with them in one nation. People of Hong Kong have generally high standards of living, and they were like the gorgeous drug dealer. But facing the ‘crowd’ composed of 12 billion Mainland Chinese, they were afraid. They wanted to be separated from the Mainland people in some ways. One of the reasons is probably the lack of knowledge of them, just like the drug dealer’s lack of knowledge about the crowd she is among. It always feels safer to keep away from the people you know little about than to deal with them. Another reason is the fear of competition. A large part of the new generation of Mainland Chinese are very competent youth, and the youth in Hong Kong face their competition in the job market after the handover. Staying away from the Mainland Chinese seemed to make Hong Kong people feel more secure and sure about themselves.
Let me now move on to the second theme. A lovesick, lonely young plainclothes cop, numbered 223, named Wu, has recently been dumped by his girlfriend. Somehow he is convinced that everything expires, whether they are canned pineapples, Cling Wrap, or relationships. Destiny leads him to cross paths with the even more lonely drug dealer whom he thinks is mysteriously sexy (Elley 58). Wu falls in love with her the night before his 25th birthday and loses her the next day. However, he starts to believe in love again when he receives a page from her saying "happy birthday." He hopes that the fond memories of her will stay forever in his mind, because he is almost sure that he will never see her again. "If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years," thinks Wu, touching his chest where his heart is.
Being a romantic young man, Wu has a peculiar philosophy of love (Elley 57). He is obsessed with the thought that everything has an expiration date. Relationships have expiration dates just like canned pineapples soaked in syrup, which is his ex-girlfriend’s favorite snack. He starts to buy one can of pineapples everyday starting from the day they break up, and he only picks the cans that would expire on May 1. May is the name of his girlfriend, and May 1 is his 25 birthday as well as one full month away from the day they separated. Because May has broken up with him on April’s Fool day, Wu is sure that she was joking about it, and gives her one month to come to her senses and call him back. He says in a monologue that if May 1 comes and May has not call to say happy birthday, their relationship will expire along with the pineapples. May 1 comes and May has not called to say happy birthday. In his disappointment, Wu eats all the thirty cans of pineapples in the same night and goes to a bar where he vomits before he meets the beautiful drug dealer.
The expiration dates of the pineapples can be seen as the expiration of the pre-handover Hong Kong, only that the expiration day for Hong Kong was July 1, 1997 instead of May 1, 1994. ‘Expiration’ was the view of many Hong Kong citizens held towards the handover, thus folks in Hong Kong had an attitude towards the future of their hometown that was parallel to the attitude Wu had for his romantic relationships. They had a strong fear that the prosperity of Hong Kong will expire on the day of July 1, 1997, and they were not sure if they would be as lucky as Wu to get a second chance.
The second and more involving story moves the spotlight on to another young cop, #663 (he does not have a name), and Faye. Faye is the pixiesh girl who works at Midnight Express and has a crush on cop #663. Cop #663 has recently broken up with his girlfriend who is a flight attendant. At night, he looks at his wet towel and asks it why it is crying, looks at his much-used soap bar and asks it why it has lost weight. He gives warmth to his shirt by ironing it because he thinks it is wrinkled due to mourning over the loss of his love. He thinks his household objects are as frustrated as himself about the departure of his girlfriend. He talks to them as if they are the ones who have been dumped. It is himself that he is trying to comfort when he is talking to them. Faye, on the other hand, is indulged in her own world, and gets herself engrossed into the song "California Dreaming" all day and everyday to stop herself from thinking. She likes to daydream and this song really is about dreaming. Accidentally getting a key to #663’s apartment, Faye sneaks into it and rearranges his belongings completely, hoping that along with the physical change of his apartment, his mind will also change and his thoughts for his ex will turn to her. Ironically, she ends up ditching #663 on their first date; one year later, she comes back, having become an air hostess herself and traveling around the world. We do not know if cop #663 will live with Faye happily ever after, but for the moment, they are reunited, and the movie comes to an end.
This part of the film deals with the third theme--uncertainty. Like Wu and the drug dealer, cop #663 and Faye feel very uncertain and insecure about the next step they have to take in their relationships. Wu eats all 30 cans of pineapples in frustration when he realizes he has lost May and the drug dealer dresses up in defensive clothing to set her distance from other people; whereas cop #663 talks to his belongings to soothe his own feelings. Faye has her California Dreaming to let her escape from the hassles of daily life. She lays down her love for #663 by rearranging his household objects, hoping to lead him from his old life with the air hostess to the new life with her. They do crazy things for love, whether to cope with the loss of it, to avoid the hurt of it, to deal with the changes of it, or to express it. The strange things that they do can be paralleled by the things that Hong Kong people do to cope with their anxiety for the handover. Faye has her California Dreaming, and people in Hong Kong had their karaoke bars. As not many people might know, Hong Kong people love karaoke.
When they came to think about their feelings towards the handover that was about to come, Hong Kong citizens were happy to be returned to their home country, but they were worried about the negative political and economic changes that may happen. Since there were too many possibilities, there was no way for them to know for sure whether it would be wise to stay in Hong Kong or to move somewhere else, to buy more stocks or not, and so on. Because the uncertainty was so great, more often than not people felt insecure, and in addition to the pressure they got from work, it was excessively stressful for them. Since there was no way to "solve" the worries they had about 1997, and there was nothing they could do to influence the political situation, the best way seemed to be escape. Like Faye, a lot of people in Hong Kong chose music for escape. Karaoke was an entertainment that was and still is one of the most popular entertainment of the people in Hong Kong. Since the beginning of the 1990s the number of karaoke bars had been increasing and still is, and the handover is probably one of the causes.
Despite their failures in love, the characters in Chungking Express find hopes for themselves(Rayns 12). They all have a genuine optimism. Although they look drowsy all the time, their energy can be seen in the way they think and act. Afterall, they are still young. Wu jogs to cope with the loss of May. Cop #663 has broken up with his girlfriend too, but he is sure that one day she would come back to him. Although towards the end of the movie, not only did his ex not come back to him, but his new love Faye ditches him on their very first date. Faye and cop #663 are to meet in the bar California but instead of going to the bar, Faye has flown to the state California in America, the place she has always dreamed to go to. Cop #663 says to himself in a monologue: "disappointed? Not really. Go home and sleep, she’s not coming," he goes on saying, "yet actually, she did go to California that evening, only it was the other one. We were in different Californias, with a 15-hour difference between us. It must be 11 A.M. in California, USA. I wonder if she’ll remember our 8 P.M. date here." He still thinks that Faye remembers their date at the appropriate time although she has chosen not to come. He has faith in her.
Before the handover, it was a common fear of people in Hong Kong that a lot of the opportunities they now had would vanish somehow after 1997. That was why during the early nineties, a lot of people emigrated to other countries. In around 1995, though, many of those who had emigrated came back to find work in Hong Kong. Although they were afraid, the fact was that the economy of Hong Kong was still proved to be strong, and it suddenly seemed that the future would be better than what they had once thought. They were no longer completely intimidated by the potential harms that the handover may bring to Hong Kong. They had some faith in Hong Kong's future, just like the faith that 663 has in Faye. Cop #663 believes that Faye will remember their date and she will come back one day, while people in Hong Kong started to believe that good times were going to knock on their doors after the handover.
In an interview for Sight and Sound magazine, Wong Kar Wai mentioned that Days of Being Wild, one of his earlier films, also dealt with themes about 1997. Days was centered on the different feelings about staying in or leaving Hong Kong for the handover. In 1994, that was not so much an issue then, therefore Chungking Express, he said, was more about the actual feelings for the handover itself. He explained that in Days, the characters were unhappy, but the people in Chungking Express knew how to entertain themselves (Rayns 16). The characters of Wong Kar Wai's films have "graduated" from worrying over whether to leave Hong Kong or not to contemplating how they feel about the handover. The characters in Chungking feel happy, and through this film the director invites the Hong Kong audience to adopt an optimism about things they cannot control, such as the handover. In the last stressful years before 1997, such a portrait of hope must have brought inspiration for the frightened citizens who were about to experience the greatest political change in their lives.