Wong Kar Wai has continued to refine his filmmaking technique over the ten years since Chungking Express brought the director attention in the West, and his ragged, freewheeling fourth film now seems very different to the more composed style of In the Mood for Love and 2046. It's a film predominantly about surviving heartbreak, but Kar Wai also celebrates the colours, sounds and pace of his native Hong Kong.
Two policemen hang around the busy the Midnight Express snack bar, never meeting but both sad and lonely after recent relationship break-ups. Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is convinced his girlfriend will come back to him by his 25th birthday, one month after she left, but when she doesn't he finds himself talking to a mysterious blonde-wigged woman (Brigitte Lin) in a bar. Meanwhile, Cop 633 (Tony Leung) has caught the eye of the snack bar owner's cousin Faye (Faye Wong), who seems to be developing a somewhat unhealthy obsession with him – and his apartment.
Although all of these characters spend time daily at the snack bar, Kar Wai divides his film rather than weaving the two stories together. The first part is shorter and sketchier. The girl that Cop 223 ends up meeting in a bar is in fact a drug runner, who is in serious trouble with her bosses after losing a shipment of heroin. She has little interest in talking to this friendly but melancholy man – ironically a policeman – but they get drunk together anyway. The second part is funnier but no less poignant. When Cop 633's ex leaves her door key at the snack bar for him to pick up, Faye takes it and without his knowledge starts spending lunchtimes in his apartment – cleaning, introducing her own belongings and scouring his bed for evidence of female company.
These people are lonely and a little unhinged, prone to obsessive behaviour. Cop 223 buys a can of pineapples with a May 1st use-by date every day until then (his birthday) – when his ex has not returned by date, he eats the whole lot in one go, making himself sick. Cop 633 has on-going conversations with objects in his apartment, encouraging them not to become too despondent now that his girlfriend has left, while Faye's habit of whiling away the afternoon at his place is definitely in stalker territory. And yet sympathetic performances from Kaneshiro, Wong and the always terrific Leung, and the presence of philosophical, confessional voiceovers, make these habits seem funny and endearing rather than weird. Particularly amusing is Cop 633's reaction to the changes that Faye makes to his home; it takes him some days to notice and even when he does he presumes it is the apartment itself recovering from the break-up rather than something more sinister.
Just as Kar Wai succeeds in welding two separate tales together and making it feel like one complete film, so he juxtaposes the sad melancholy of his characters with a dizzying portrait of Hong Kong life. Chungking Express opens with chase – Brigitte Lin is pursued through the busy streets by police, which Kar-Wai captures in blurred, jolting snapshots, the colours of the city swirling around her as she makes her escape. Elsewhere, there's a terrific shot as Cop 633 sits drinking coffee and moping at the snack bar, Faye gazing dreamily at him – they move in slow-motion while all around them the crowds whiz by at high speed. Most of the film is shot with handheld cameras, and supremely talented Hong Kong-based Englishman Christopher Doyle deserves much of the credit for the film's stylistic flourish; his work on Kar Wai's films and the likes of Hero and Infernal Affairs have established Doyle as one of the world's best cinematographers. The film also celebrates the island's cultural mix – there are Chinese, Japanese, English and Indian characters and the soundtrack is often a disorientating mix of languages.
Chungking Express is as chaotic and open-ended as the lives of its protagonists. There are no tidy resolutions (although both stories end on optimistic notes) and the director observes from a distance, sympathising but passing no judgements. Kar Wai has perhaps made more accomplished films since, but few as heartfelt.