Chungking Express

By Hong Kong standards of the time, Chungking Express was well represented at film festivals across the globe. In 1994 it travelled to Berlin, Toronto, New York, Chicago and London. That November it was invited to Stockholm, where it was joined by Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Derek Jarman’s swansong Blue and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which won the festival’s Bronze Horse Award.

Chungking Express did though blag a FIPRESCI prize, while Faye Wong picked up the Best Actress Award, the corresponding award going to John Travolta.

Quentin Tarantino made a personal appearance at the festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. This strikes me as at least a little strange as he’d only made two feature films at the time – albeit they were two exceptionally good ones.

The festival circuit was heaven to Tarantino, scooting around the planet, meeting fellow film fanatics and cramming in as many movies as he could see. The one he adored most in Stockholm was Chungking Express. Well, it wasn’t going to be Blue, was it?

Around this time he was toying with a plan to distribute some movies along with producing partner Lawrence Bender. The films the pair had in mind to release were to range from hard to find exploitation classics to newer, hip and underseen movies that could benefit from the Tarantino Seal of Approval. An imprint was set up in conjunction with – cough, cough – Miramax, named Rolling Thunder (after the 1977 cult favourite) and the first release was Chungking Express.

Here, QT motormouths his thoughts on the film, gives us some background detail on Kar-wai, and draws some parallels between Kar-wai and the French New Wave, which many reviewers of the time were also doing. Tony Rayns, for example, compared Chungking to Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) and as Quentin points out that’s where the name of his production company came from.

Feel free to play the Tarantino drinking game – every time he says ‘alright’ knock back a shot. Alright?

Set in the hyperactive, neon drenched cityscape that is Hong Kong, Chungking Express is both written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. It consists of two complementary stories, both concerning cops recently involved in break-ups.

The first is a sweet and sour tale that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as He Qiwu (Cop 223), who has been dumped by his girlfriend May on April Fool’s Day. ‘So I took it as a joke. I’m willing to humour her for a month.’

Qiwu is very briefly drawn into the world of an enigmatic woman played by Brigitte Lin, who is never seen without cheap sunglasses and a blonde wig. The cop is too caught up in his own problems to ever suspect that May could be the type of woman who could kidnap a child, and be majorly involved in a drug smuggling ring. In fact, he’s more interested in pineapple rings and has become obsessed with buying a tin of them every day that will expire on the 1st of May. At which point he believes he can move on and maybe find someone new.

The second, and longer, story stars Tony Leung as Cop 663, a regular at the same snack bar that his fellow officer frequents.

He had imagined that he and his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) would stay together for the long haul but instead they have recently changed course. Luckily, you might assume, he immediately catches the eye of new assistant Faye, a girl with a boyish pixie cut – that reminded some of Jean Seberg’s hairstyle in Breathless – and a dream to travel to California, which is why we repeatedly hear The Mama and Papas’ Californian Dreamin’ throughout this segment. The lovelorn policeman fails to pick up Faye’s interest in him, though.

This is quirky stuff, not a million miles away from some of the indies being made in America at the time and Faye Wong gives a startling performance. She also plays an important role in the soundtrack, singing a cover of The Cranberries’ worldwide hit Dreams, renamed here as Dream Person.

VARIOUS

Like QT, The Cocteau Twins were big Chungking Express fans and Faye Wong was a big fan of the Cocteaus, repeatedly mentioning in interviews that they were an influence on her sound along with a number of other Western acts like Bjork and Tori Amos, in addition to more local performers like Taiwanese folk singer Teresa Teng.

Originally from Bejing, Wong had moved to Kong Kong and began a singing career in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1991 she spent six months in New York, and when she returned to Hong Kong her music would become more eclectic. By the time of hooking up with the Cocteaus, she was a major star in Asia.

This meeting of East and West could have benefits for both, potentially helping the Cocteaus make inroads into the lucrative East Asia market, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, while it would also lend some extra credibility to Wong, and further mark her out from her more mainstream Cantopop rivals, Wong being highly critical of the commercial Hong Kong pop scene of the mid-1990s.

A snippet of her version of Bluebeard was also included in the Chungking soundtrack, where it was renamed Random Thoughts ( Wu Si Lyun Seong), and this became the title of her album of 1994, which also contained a further Cocteaus cover in Know Oneself and Each Other (Zi Gei Zi Bei).

Here’s Random Thoughts, which you could argue adds the square root of hee-haw to the song, but certainly demonstrates that Wong possesses an exceptionally enchanting voice.

On the Hong Kong edition of the eighth and final studio album of the Cocteaus, Milk and Kisses, the band included two versions of Serpentskin, one sung by Elizabeth Fraser, and one where Fraser duets with Wong.

Wong later recorded an acoustic version of Rilkean Heart (Reminiscence) for her 1997 eponymous album, and Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde wrote a new song Yu Le Chang (Amusement Park), especially for her.

‘[We] thought it might be a fun thing to do, as her voice seemed to be in a similar range and style to Elizabeth’s,’ Simon Raymonde explained in The Quietus, discussing their work together. ‘I think it was an interesting collaboration and while it probably didn’t work out as we might have imagined, I think musically and sonically it all worked out fine.’

Here’s that aforementioned duet, Serpentskin.