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Against the Consensus: 'Chungking Express'

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Monday, Mar 21, 2011
This film is a case study in style over substance. This is not always a bad thing. Godard, a master filmmaker, made a career out of this concept. However, when the style offered is derivative, the idiom looms forebodingly.
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Chungking Express

Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cast: Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung, Chiu Wai, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Valerie Chow

(Miramax Films; 1995)

In this series, I intend to revisit certain acclaimed films with inflated reputations. The films I chose will not necessarily be without merit (I feel Chungking Express is a fine film for example), merely ones which are not as masterful as the critical community would claim. I do not intend to review these films, but rather refute the critical consensus of select “untouchable” works of cinema. First up Chungking Express:


Overwhelming critical praise for a work of art gets my attention; and why shouldn’t it? Critics consume art professionally. The impeccable taste of the most esteemed critics lends reliability. This is why Chungking Express’s high placement (#8) on the “UK Critics Top 10 Films of the Past 25 Years List”, published by Sight and Sound (and the word “masterpiece” floated in various reviews) made it a personal must-see. However, reading such hyperbolic raves beforehand has a tendency to saddle a film experience with impossible expectations. Chungking Express was no exception.
  
The film works as an entertaining and mildly interesting work, but when it tries on the “masterpiece” billing, it wobbles at the knees. Intellectually and emotionally vapid, Chungking Express did not impact me. Due to its hype, I believed I’d be thinking about this film for days after I viewed it. I did, but for the wrong reasons. This film does not raise any complex, ambiguous questions nor does it provide any form of unique aesthetic . A masterpiece of narrative not only raises these questions, but attempts to answer them. A masterpiece of style looks forward instead of backward.


This film is a case study in style over substance. This is not always a bad thing. Godard, a master filmmaker, made a career out of this concept. However, when the style offered is derivative, the idiom looms forebodingly. For a film hinging on its aesthetics, this film offers little I haven’t seen. The hodgepodge of styles it employs from prior, superior films only remind me I could be watching those films instead.On full display are Scorsese’s grit and use of pop song, Godard’s pseudo-philosophical, whimsical musings (“When people cry, they can dry their eyes with tissues. But when an apartment cries, it takes a lot to mop it up”), and many stylistic innovations of the French New Wave (Cop 223’s freeze frame instantly recalled the ending of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). Wong Kar-wai seemingly synthesizes his influences into a film without its own unique voice. The film reads like an Easterner fascinated by his Western heroes.


The first story of Chungking Express is a solid slice of Tarantino-esque genre-pastiche, while the second story slips firmly into 2nd rate Godard. I have yet to see any other works by Wong. I hear great things about In the Mood for Love and 2046. Hopefully, by that point in his filmography he had developed a more unique vision (and hopefully a budget large enough for multiple song rights).


As for the soundtrack, “California Dreamin’” works perfectly in the segue to the second story. If it was only used there, I would have applauded the choice, but it isn’t. It is used over and over and over again. Around every corner, the Mamas and the Papas already widely heard song is waiting to bludgeon you into insanity. This is perhaps the most relentless use of a pop song in cinematic history. Similarly to the incessant one-note soundtrack, the earnestness of Faye’s actual California yearning is borderline embarrassing and serves as a microcosm of the work itself: a naive Hong Kong-er fascinated with delusions of a misrepresented, western culture.


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