Chungking Express: The Midnight Gloom and The Unpredictability of Existence

Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994)

There are a lot of things in common between He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), the two main characters from the two split parts of Wong Kar-Wai’s sui generis Chungking Express. The most obvious similarity being their profession as a police officer living their lives in Hong Kong’s underbelly. But the most apparent commonality between the two is their personal journey coping with heartbreak presented in two distinct times of day: night and day. While there’s already quite a number of analyses out there on the human condition and relationship dynamics pictured in the film and while they will be addressed here as well, I think there’s a lot to be said correspondingly in Wong Kar-wai’s decision to set the film’s important moments at midnight, depicting it in not only in the sense of time but also as its own physical location Midnight Express, a place where most of the characters’ lives intersect and where the film transitioned into the second part (and still continued its role).

There’s also a lot to be said in Wong Kar-wai’s illustration of chances that are prominent in his films. From two married men and women who happen to be next-door neighbors who experience chance meetings with each other at a noddle stall in In The Mood for Love (2000) to Chungking Express’ characters brushing shoulders as strangers before their meeting. These chance meetings often come when the characters’ are at their lowest and are longing for something they believe to be unreachable and sometimes things they did not even know needed. And while these fortuities can bring joy and relief, Wong Kar-wai often emphasizes the fleetingness of such happenings albeit showing also the beauty of their otherwise short-lived disposition. He later expanded this idea of fleeting eventful meetings in the spiritual sequel (that was supposed to be his third arc of Chungking Express) Fallen Angels (1995), a film that I will also write about in the future. 

The Midnight Express

Midnight itself is the darkest time of the day as it is also the polar opposite of noon, the brightest part of the day. That is if it could be reasonably placed inside the standard definition of a day as it is also a time of transition between one day and the next. If it was translated to the human condition, midnight represents the darkest, saddest, and loneliest period in a person’s life. It’s a time of contemplation and regret, often accompanied by thoughts of wondering what could have been done right. This period of loneliness, and the concept of loneliness itself, is undeniably not a foreign topic for Wong Kar-wai films. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who is practically one half of the Wong Kar-wai duo, said himself “The best films I’ve made is when I fell out of love…and I think that loneliness is one of the most beautiful experiences in life”. It is reasonable to assume how this decision of setting would be an intentional one to convey this effect.

These ideas were reflected very clearly in Chungking Express at one of the first scenes of the film where He Zhiwu rests his shoulder restlessly at a phone booth in front of Midnight Express, the takeaway food stall that is very much the central location of the film. He is seen making various phone calls to his old friends, some even not remembering his identity. This weird act was catalyzed by his off-screen break up with his girlfriend on April 1st in which he seemingly thought it was an April fool’s joke before realizing the opposite. What Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character was doing at the phone booth is both sad and endearing. This portrayal of loneliness doesn’t really paint it in a negative light per se but rather a whimsical depiction of the beauty of being lonely, something the filmmakers behind the film are no strangers with.

Wong Kar-Wai articulated in an interview with the Filmmakers magazine that “To me Chungking Express, it’s like the night and day of Hong Kong. Some people say the film is about this or that character, but I say, ‘No, this film is about Hong Kong, it is my love letter to Hong Kong”. In a sense, he was saying that the region itself is the main character of the film (as with most of his other films), and how the characters interact with the cityscape is the byproduct of the environment and in turn, the specific time of day they are currently in. And of course, the symbolism is clear when he presented He Zhiwu’s lowest moment as a character at the pertinently-named Midnight Express, a physical environment that is in parallel with He Zhiwu’s state of mind and the city’s time of day.

He Zhiwu calling his old friends

Wong Kar-Wai stated “In Chinese, there is a term which is very difficult to translate into English, it is something like “chances.” It means: Why am I sitting here having this interview with you instead of somebody else? Why should we meet here? This is about chances, and I think all my films are about chances”. This is very much in line with the concept of midnight in this film being a time of contemplation and a time of revelation as most of the characters experience their defining moments at this period. In fact, He Zhiwu himself somewhat narrates this concept in a manner that suggests he’s reliving the encounter from the future when he brushed shoulders with the mysterious blonde woman (Brigitte Lin) he would fall in love with later in the film.

What he said in the interview also brings the question of why the Midnight Express? This seemingly mundane point de rencontre becomes recurring in not only Chungking Express, but also the subsequent Fallen Angels. I argue that there may not have been any special reason for this other than to highlight this unpredictability of chances. After all, the area surrounding the messy and shady Chungking Mansions where the film takes place in may not be the expected picturesque location of a conventional meet-cute in other romance films.

The chance meeting of He Zhiwu and the mysterious blonde woman

In fact, Wong Kar-wai’s freewheeling attitude to filmmaking back when he shot Chungking Express (and later Fallen Angels, a story that was supposed to exist in Chungking Express) accentuate the notion of chances as filming took only six weeks and they even began shooting without a finished script—the events that transpired in the film may very well be coincidences in their own rights spurring from Wong Kar-wai’s impromptu ideas.

The film transitioned from its bleak, noir Hong Kong nightscape to daytime after a one night stand that did not quite happen between He Zhiwu and the mysterious blondie. This was also after He Zhiwu’s depressing yet somewhat comical journey eating as many cans of pineapples with an expiry date of May 1 as he could—the date being his birthday that happened to be tomorrow as well. The big break that he was waiting for after his midnight expedition came as he randomly meets the enigmatic blonde woman at a bar after promising himself he would fall in love with the next woman that walks in. But of course, with his narration over the film’s event, he also predicted the eventual failure of any sparks happening between him and the woman. He mentioned the song “Love Dies at Dawn” in his narration, which it did after their uneventful night at a hotel. But the emergence of sunlight brings new hope as the blond woman wished him a happy birthday through his pager that he has been constantly checking for any new messages all night. 

He Zhiwu at the bar before meeting the blonde woman.
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