A Cantopop Dream Girl’s First Film Reverie

A Cantopop Dream Girl’s First Film Reverie<em></em>

If you weren’t a devotee of the Cantopop world in the early 1990s, the casting of Faye Wong in Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994) may not have caught your attention. Starring in her first major role, the singer looked much the fresh ingenue, cropped coif, tinted sunglasses, and all. Her character—also named Faye—was played with such a frenetic, awkward energy that she may well have been the blueprint for the “manic pixie dream girl” trope.

In Asia, though, Wong had already become one of the region’s biggest pop stars by 1994, and the movie premiered a month after Wong had released Random Thoughts, her eighth album in six years. To put her casting in contemporary terms: imagine a promising but still unproven art-house filmmaker convincing Ariana Grande to star in a low-budget indie film that happened to come out weeks after the release of her chart-topping Thank U, Next. For Wong Kar-wai (WKW), Chungking Express was a breakout international hit, but for Faye Wong, it was one highlight in an already meteoric career. 

Landing a genuine pop star was a kind of capstone for a director whose previous films had already shown a deep love for the power of pop songs. A key scene in WKW’s debut film, As Tears Go By (1988), is built around a jukebox playing Sandy Lam’s Cantonese cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” The mysterious, mesmerizing title scene in Days of Being Wild (1990), set amid jungle foliage, makes use of the minor 1964 instrumental hit “Always in My Heart,” by the Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras. One wonders if, in an alternate timeline, WKW would have made a great, taste-making DJ.

Chungking Express is WKW’s greatest “jukebox” film for many reasons, including its casting of Faye Wong and its prominent placement of pop tracks, plus the fact that the director uses not one but two different jukeboxes in pivotal scenes. The actual number of songs isn’t as extensive as in Scorsese or Tarantino films of the same era, but the four tunes used most strategically in Chungking Express are each repeated at least twice. In the film’s first half (which features a young Takeshi Kaneshiro alongside the legendary Brigitte Lin in her final film role), Dennis Brown’s somber 1973 reggae single “Things in Life” plays four times. In the second half, which focuses on the unconventional relationship between Faye Wong’s Faye and Tony Leung’s Cop 663, we hear Dinah Washington’s 1959 version of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes” twice and the Mamas and the Papas’ iconic 1966 single “California Dreamin’” a staggering nine times.

Most of these uses are diegetic, played on jukeboxes, CD players, or stereos. As we, the audience, listen to the music, we’re also watching people on-screen listening to music. Because of this, the songs in Chungking Express don’t just enhance ambiance, they also craft character, and these two streams flow together sublimely with “Dream Lover,” the Cantopop cover of an alternative rock hit by the Cranberries from 1992, performed by none other than Faye Wong.

Born Wang Fei in mainland China, Wong moved with her family from Beijing to Hong Kong in the eighties to pursue a performing career. Her first record label, trying to avoid associations with the mainland, gave her the generic, Anglicized stage name “Shirley Wong.” Her early albums sold, but after a few years, frustrated with her lack of creative control, she took a hiatus and relocated to New York City in 1991 as a gesture of escape and self-discovery. We can only assume she was also immersing herself in the trans-Atlantic pop scene of that time.

We don’t know if Wong heard the original “Dreams” in New York, but by the time she covered the song on Random Thoughts, the Cranberries’ song had become a signature hit twice over. It was the Irish band’s debut single from the fall of 1992, but they also rereleased it in the spring of 1994, after the massive success of their follow-up single, “Linger.” My friend, music writer Ned Raggett, described it as “a brisk, charging number combining low-key tension and full-on rock,” which is to say it’s a song filled with a sense of taut control but also giddy release. It’s easy to imagine how Wong, seeking to reclaim her artistic autonomy, might have been drawn to it.

Upon returning to Hong Kong in 1992, Wong reclaimed her birth name by changing her stage name to Faye Wong, and she immediately began to score a string of best-selling albums, many featuring covers of alternative rock hits. “Dream Lover” isn’t the only example to appear on Random Thoughts; the album also includes a pair of Cocteau Twins’ covers.

Showcasing “Dream Lover” in Chungking Express so close to Random Thoughts release was surely a savvy marketing move, common in the Hong Kong entertainment industry. However, the use of the song—alongside Wong’s real-life stardom—also works beautifully with the narrative and logic of the movie. From the moment Faye is introduced at the start of the second half, she’s already living in a dream of sorts. When we first meet both her and Cop 663 (Tony Leung), she’s working at her cousin’s food stand and blasting “California Dreamin’” out of a kitchen stereo. It’s so loud that 663 has to awkwardly shout at Faye just to put in his order, but Faye seems unfazed by the volume. With each repeated playing of the song, we’re meant to hear it as a commentary on Faye’s dissatisfaction with the drudgery of work and her weariness of Hong Kong’s gloomy, wet climate. California—“safe and warm”—represents a fantasy to escape to, first in her imagination, later in reality.

“Dream Lover” obviously extends the same “dream” theme, but as it’s also performed by Wong the singer, in scenes featuring Faye the character, there’s a rich meta-text at play. In “Dreams,” the Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan sings of trying to grapple with her sense of fantasy and reality in the context of an existing relationship. Wong’s “Dream Lover” has different lyrics that seem to recast the song as one about a lover who may be real or may be imagined. That ambiguity echoes Faye’s infatuation with 663, which she goes out of her way to avoid making explicit. 663 may be the lover in her dreams but not one she is keen to pursue in reality. As if to stress this point, we first hear “Dream Lover” after Faye has stolen his apartment keys in order to sneak in to dust his shelves, swap labels on his pantry cans, even drug his water bottle so she can continue her clandestine cleaning while he’s passed out. (This probably seemed more quirky and charming in 1994. Today, it’d likely be cause for a restraining order and psych eval.) Faye wants to be in 663’s presence, but only indirectly. She has more of a relationship with his domicile than with him.

That first use of “Dream Lover” is played under a montage of an extended cleaning session, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle shoots Wong with a handheld camera, adding to the already off-balance feeling of the scene. My colleague Brian Hu has astutely noted in a video essay that this shooting style seems to deliberately mirror the aesthetics of Wong’s music videos of the time. Hu’s analysis posits both the movie and music videos were shot in such a way to present Wong/Faye as a “whimsical dreamer,” “a free spirit,” “inquisitive and mysterious.” Moreover, in real life, Wong left Hong Kong to “find herself” in the U.S., and that story would have been well-known to any Cantopop fan watching Chungking Express. Film Faye is so tightly interwoven with Faye Wong that one wonders, if Wong had been unavailable or uninterested in the role, would WKW have abandoned the character or storyline completely?

When I first sat in a Bay Area theater to watch Chungking Express in the mid-nineties, I knew absolutely none of Wong’s backstory, and yet I still found the song immensely affecting, especially when it returns a second time, forming a coup de grace moment during the film’s final scene.

To recap: the last chapter in Chungking Express occurs a year after Faye has decided that, rather than meet with 663 at the California Bar, she’s going to travel to the actual California instead to see if it lives up to her dream. Now a stewardess, Faye drops by her cousin’s food stand only to find 663 there, no longer a police officer but now the stand’s owner. Before, Faye was the one infatuated with “California Dreamin’,” but now it’s 663 playing the song, also loudly, on the kitchen stereo. He is surprised but clearly pleased to see her. She, however, is nervous about having her “dream lover” in front of her and begins to make excuses to leave. At this point, the will-they/won’t-they tension from earlier in the film returns, and as viewers invested in their potential pairing, we’re left anxious that this moment too will end without resolution. 

But 663 then retrieves the letter Faye had left him the night she departed. It’s a hand-drawn boarding pass but rainwater has blurred out the destination, and Faye offers to write him a new one. When asked where he wants to go, 663 replies, “Wherever you want to take me,” and the last we see of the pair is Faye inking a new pass on a napkin while 663 stares with affectionate intensity. One final moment flashes back to the stereo, where “California Dreamin’” had been playing just before. This time, it’s “Dream Lover” that swells up and kicks in before the end credits flash on. 

Ending with a song as robust as “Dream Lover” doesn’t just reinforce the movie’s unique, unpredictable energy, it also captures something of how we often experience dreams themselves: as intense but disjointed bursts of images and emotion that we wake from, momentarily disoriented yet filled with feeling. The exuberance of the song offers a form of musical catharsis for all the deliciously confusing tension that’s built up over the past hour. We don’t know for certain what will happen to Faye and 663 after this scene, but what the sound of “Dream Lover” offers in the moment is a rousing sense of possibility. The song’s sonic verve—with its “low-key tension” and energetic release—fuels hope that our lovers may not be so star-crossed after all, as they pursue their romantic dreams, wherever those may take them.

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