Chungking Express (1994) was the Masculin féminin of the 1990s, a pop art movie about cool twentysomethings looking for love in the city that has replaced Paris as the center of the world-cinema imagination. What Jean-Luc Godard did for “the generation of Marx and Coca-Cola” in the mid-1960s, Wong Kar-wai did for restless Hong Kong youth during the anxious decade that preceded the handoff to China. Masculin féminin (1966) and Chungking Express were the first films in which their respective directors focused predominantly on characters who were around ten years their juniors. This generation gap imparts a sense of distance mixed with tenderness, and also focuses the films on the dominant issue for heterosexual young adults: how to negotiate the desire and confusion they feel vis-à-vis the opposite sex.
Made while Wong was taking a break from the lengthy, difficult postproduction of his only martial arts period picture, Ashes of Time (1994), Chungking Express was intended as a money-generating quickie for the director’s Jet Tone company, and indeed the movie, which was made in three months, start to finish, has a wacky spontaneity that is unique in his oeuvre. Wong piled on the commercial elements: the first half is a nod to the gangster thriller, the second is pure screwball romance. The protagonists of both sections are cops, and the four main actors are all Asian box office attractions: pop music idols Takeshi Kaneshiro and Faye Wong, Hong Kong action/dramatic star Tony Leung Chiu-wai, and veteran actress Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia (the film’s only fortysomething star, coming out of retirement for a cameo appearance as a drug smuggler, fashioned as an homage to another middle-aged cult actress, Gena Rowlands in Gloria). Again comparing the film with Masculin féminin, the female leads in both are played by singers with youth culture followings. But unlike Masculin féminin’s Chantal Goya, a pop singer playing the role of a pop singer, Faye Wong in Chungking Express plays a waitress, albeit one who becomes identified with two songs—the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and a Cantonese cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” by a singer named Faye Wong—which accompany her as she works. While the difference in strategy is minimal—at one point or another, both performers either lip-synch or dance to their own recorded voices—the difference between Godard’s and Wong’s depictions of the female characters is enormous. The Goya character is monstrous in her narcissism and vacuity. On the other hand, Wong is as empathetic with Faye Wong’s waitress as he is with the cops played by Kaneshiro and Leung.
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