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Musings from the Edge of Forever

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My Top Hong Kong Films of the 1990s — WKW is A-OK

Chungking Express

Lesson learned from watching Chungking Express and Amelie: stalking is totally okay…if you’re a doe-eyed cutie

I’d wager vital parts of my anatomy that Chungking Express is probably the first Wong Kar-Wai film that most Americans saw. It took the top slot in the Reader’s Poll, and although I didn’t vote it #1, I probably would’ve if you’d asked me ten or eleven years ago. When I first saw this flick via Quentin Tarantino’s now defunct Rolling Thunder label (The fact that they never released Rolling Thunder itself  boggles the mind), and I honestly didn’t know what to think of the movie once I’d finished it. Confused, challenged, yet strangely exhilarated, Chungking Express was like no Hong Kong movie I’d seen before — and that’s actually saying something if you think about how weird, wild, and downright nutty Hong Kong cinema can get. Interestingly enough, it was an experience that I would have repeatedly when watching other Wong Kar-Wai films.

But back to Chungking Express: I have to admit that I kinda thought that what I was feeling toward the film was “dislike,” and yet, when describing the film to my mother over the phone, and she said, “Wow, that sounds good!”

My response: “Really?”

Mom: “Yeah, sounds like you liked it.”

Mom was right, although I didn’t know it just yet. Puzzled by my reaction, I watched the movie again. And again. And guess what? I really fell for it. Faye Wong is an absolute dream. Her take on the Cranberries’ song is actually my preferred version, and howzabout that ending? Chungking Express contains the very best ending in a Wong Kar-Wai film to date. The film concludes at precisely the right moment, giving us something beautiful, open-ended, and above all, hopeful.

Wong Kar-Wai has a real knack for making movies that may seem pretentious and self-indulgent to certain segments of the audience, but can alternatively touch the lives of other audience members, often in a very profound way. It’s not so much that WKW was his finger on the collective pulse of disaffected twenty/thirtysomethings everywhere. It’s more than that — his films are particularly moving if you see it at the right moment in life — especially at a moment of transition or loss. In some ways, Wong Kar-Wai’s films perfectly capture Nick Carroway’s feelings at the end of The Great Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…And one fine morning–

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (Fitzgerald 115)

I’ve already written about Ashes of Time and its Redux at length elsewhere on the site, and I honestly don’t have anything to say about Happy Together beyond, “It’s good!”, so I’ll use the remainder of this space devoted to 90s era WKW films to talk briefly about Days of Being Wild. It’s a challenging movie, and that ending is a headscratcher, especially if you don’t know the context (I can’t imagine what first-run audiences thought — in HK or elsewhere without knowing it was intended to set up a sequel). Although I know the film ends there, for me, the movie actually concludes a bit earlier with a moment that almost gives Chungking Express’s capper a run for its money. I’m referring specifically to a scene in which we see nothing but a lonesome image of an empty telephone booth and hear only the plaintive sound of the phone ringing, as the person on the other end of the line is waiting for someone to pick up — but he’s not there nor will he ever be again. Without a line of single line of dialogue, that scene encapsulates the cinema of Wong Kar-Wai perfectly.

*     *     *

Introduction: Top Hong Kong Films of the 1990s
Part 1: Tian Mi Mi
Part 2: Once Upon a Time in the Cinema
Part 3: Jackie Chan, Man of Action
Part 4: A Cop Named Tequila
Part 6: Epilogue

2 Responses to “My Top Hong Kong Films of the 1990s — WKW is A-OK”

  1. Emcee Hao Says:

    i went through the same thing and even wrote a paper for my film class how i was disappointed with chungking express. but i actually loved it. realized it after watching it the 5th or 6th time.

  2. dennis Says:

    i totally agree about how watching wkw at the right time in your life can be a life-changing, path-altering experience. to share briefly i was head over heels this particular girl who dumped me. and i saw chungking which was cool, but the movie that really got me was fallen angels. and then came ashes of time, and days of being wild, and happy together. they each had a longing for lost love that i felt so profoundly, yet at the same time they each end up on such an optimistic upbeat note. ultimately thats what i love about wkw. he articulates the pain that we feel at the lowest moment in our lives through every sight, sound, and subtext in the movie and once he makes us relive it with the pain and humor and insight, he gives us a pat on the back as we step out into the sunshine.

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