“You get what you pay for”, right? Perhaps not every single time; there may be exceptions, but that’s the overwhelming tendency.
As I was suffering through the ordeal of watching Chungking Express (checking the timeline every few minutes, counting down the minutes remaining, because I just couldn’t wait for the movie to be over at very long last), I was reminded of the saying above.
Transferred to the world of art: you’re unlikely to create a masterpiece of art if you, as the creator, put little “standard” effort in its creation. Masterpieces of art typically require monumental effort on the part of their creators – standard effort may not be enough, let alone sub-par effort. Professional movie critics – and fans of this movie, too (who include luminaries such as Quentin Tarantino) – would have us believe that Chungking Express is a masterpiece, despite its having originated pretty much as an afterthought, or perhaps because the director was contractually obligated to deliver some movie to his production company; never mind its content or quality.
So, after I finished watching the movie, frustrated like hell (how could a movie celebrated like this turn out to be so unbearable?!), I proceeded to read about its background…
… and I experienced several “Aha!” moments. The biggest of them was: the director Wong Kar-wai apparently launched into filming this movie without even having completed its screenplay! He continued writing the screenplay on every day the movie was being made. He said, proudly, I think (paraphrasing him), “In the morning of another shooting day, I had no idea how the story would develop over the course of that day; we would just continue ‘making up the story’ as we went along.”
Oh, my god… but it shows, let me tell you! There is zero coherence in this movie. Movie critics and fans would have us believe that this fatal flaw was, in fact, its intended virtue. First, given the chaotic origin of the movie (sincerely admitted by the director), I doubt that it was so.
But whether intended or not, the movie lacks coherence to a degree that made it unpalatable for me. And it wasn’t about lack of coherence, only: I thought the characters in the movie lacked any sort of attraction (apart from their physical traits); watching these two couples, two men and two women, “fall in love” (if you can call the sort of obsessed sex craze depicted in the movie “love”) was excruciatingly boring. The dialogs were trite in the extreme; “profound” like a muddy pool of rain water. How many times do we need to witness the first main male character vainly trying to reach some high-school sweetheart of his on the phone? (Never mind he did so in various East Asian languages; hats off to every polyglott!)
And, oh, if you thought that “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas and The Papas was a nice classic tune, watch out for this movie! Chances are you’re gonna hate this song after you’re done with Chungking Express. Salt, pepper or sugar may be nice additions to your meals – unless you overdo it. A classic song is always nice to hear – unless it’s incessantly blaring at the audience at every opportunity the movie’s chaotic action provides.
As opposed to that, I liked Faye Wong’s Cantonese cover of “Dreams” by The Cranberries (one of my favorite bands… and favorite fruits, too; I happened to drink a glass of cranberry juice prior to writing this review). The recurring reggae tune, however, is nearly as exasperating as The Mamas and The Papas hit; no, not the song itself – but its overuse in the movie.
If there’s something to be praised unreservedly about this movie, it’s its visual style. The handheld camera work is mesmerizing, and you get a good sense of what it felt like to visit Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansion, a sort of modern-day Tower of Babylon, in the early 1990s; it’s safe to assume that not much has changed there since then. You also get several glimpses of “the longest escalator on planet Earth” – from Hong Kong Central to mid-levels. It was quite new when Chungking Express was made.
Faye Wong is ravishing, but that’s beside the point. But, oh, how unrealistic is it when such a paragon of female beauty is introduced to the audience with the offhand remark by the fast-food store owner, “Faye isn’t too bad, either.” Who are you kidding, guys? Would this movie have been as successful if Faye had been truly frumpy and unremarkable? (The Slovak film director Dušan Hanák specialized in depicting “love among ugly people”; and I mean ugly.) It’s highly doubtful, but that is a dilemma for the entire branch of art called “moviemaking”; and in this respect, at least, Chungking Express, despite priding itself on how original it supposedly is, is in fact thoroughly conventional.