Chungking Express: Electric Youth
By Amy Taubin
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.
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