Camera Dynamics in Chungking Express (1994)

by Gabriela Horwath, Wyn Veiga, Tomas Pacheco, Mimi Taylor, Joon Choi

Focus Blur – Gabriela: 

Specifically analyzing the first that appears blurry to the audience, the use of pan, tilt, and zoom creates a fast paced shot that allows the film to achieve a dramaticized appearance of the characters in action. In one of the first shots of the film where He Qiwu is chasing an assailant, the image produced by the movements of the camera are shown as blurry. When He Qiwu is first walking through a crowd, the skillful panning tracks him and shows the crowd around him passing by; this further highlights that it is a busy shot. In addition, pan is used as the camera moves alongside He Qiwu while he is running. This effect puts an emphasis on how fast he is running as well as the distance he is traveling.

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While panning is intermittent within the scene, the use of tilt is almost continuous throughout the whole scene as the camera moves up and down chaotically. This movement of the camera adds to the milieu of disorder in the scene as both men are moving through crowds and making quick, jittery movements similar to that of the tilting camera. Moreover, the fast paced tilting also imitates the feeling that a person experiences when he or she is running. This imitation allows the audience to feel even more involved in the scene in particular, as the camera movement feels very close-to-life. Lastly, the zoom in the scene is harder to notice as it blends in with the other movements of the camera. The first instance that is more notable happens when He Qiwu is introducing himself as a cop. To verify this, the camera quickly zooms into his badge pinned to his coat. 

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The second instance of zoom happens directly after He Qiwu has introduced himself. He is still stuck amid the bustling crowd but in this shot, a doll is pushed past him. As the doll passes He Qiwu’s face, the camera zooms in on the doll’s face. This emphatic focus on the seemingly insignificant prop draws our attention to the inclusion of the doll in the scene––specifically, the relationship between the doll and He Qiwu. As the audience finds out later in the movie, this doll resembles a woman that He Qiwu will meet as the doll wears the same wig as the woman. This subtle parallel between the prop and character to be introduced hints at the fact that the woman is wearing a wig the whole time. Her true identity remains hidden while she interacts with the characters in the film. 

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Freeze Frames – Wyn:

The element of frozen frames plays an important role in clarifying the constantly-moving plot of Chungking Express. With there being multiple blurry segments full of pans and tilts, viewers often feel the disorienting effect of urban, crammed life. However, the film also seeks to portray images that stand out from the rest of the scene. This is shown multiple times throughout the scene; however, the beginning freeze frames of the clock, I would argue are the most iconic. The freeze-frame is representative of time throughout the film and signifies the contrast between the rushed lifestyle of the Women in a Blonde Wig and Cop 663’s patient wait for May. The importance of time in the story is what justifies the placement of this freeze-frame at the beginning of the film. As this film progresses, other freeze frames come into focus, all with different meanings based on their corresponding images. For example, the frozen frames of the pineapple cans are also representative of Cop 663’s expiring love as the film continues, an important theme. Overall, the element of frozen frames plays a stark contrast to the constantly moving camera shots throughout the frame. The lack of movement in these shots is in itself a form of camera movement crucial towards better understanding the underlying themes and narrative ideas in Chungking Express.

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Camera-Movement – Tomas:

The camera movement in Chungking Express gives the film an almost documentary-like feel: shots frequently start by tracking or panning towards the relevant action as if catching it for the only time, and many shots appear to be recorded on handheld cameras. This pattern compliments the amount of attention the film puts into outlining the characters’ interior lives, and the lives of the film’s protagonists are certainly in motion. One of the film’s more dynamic moments comes as Faye first uses the stewardess’ keys to let herself into #663’s apartment. After using his shower to fake the sound of rain over the phone to her cousin, her play begins. The scene’s first shot is a close-up of the speaker as she turns on “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas & The Poppas. From there, despite there being no further action in the shot, the camera tracks in just a little bit, starting out the motion that defines almost every shot in the scene. From there, as she plays with 663’s airplanes and stuffed animals, the camera shakily attempts to follow her equally jerky actions. This sequence contrasts with our previous view of 663’s residence, in which he calmly and kindly tends to his soap, rag, and stuffed animals, the camera pausing frequently for him to address them. In this way, camera dynamics are used in order to highlight Faye’s excitement at accessing his apartment and reveal the sense of discovery she feels within it.

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The camera pans with Faye as she ducks behind a curtain

Tracking Objects – Mimi:

The documentary-like style of following action with a handheld camera is also applied to important objects in the film. This choice emphasizes critical plot devices and highlights the loneliness of the people in the story. 

A good example of this is in a few scenes Officer 663’s apartment. Officer 663 talks to the objects in his apartment like they are people, commenting on the soap losing weight, or the towel crying. This quirk shows his deep loneliness, he has to personify the objects around him in order to forge any semblance of emotional intimacy. The camera highlights this by following the objects as he talks to them, for instance from 57:49-58:22 as he “comforts” the towel for “crying” the camera centers around the towel, following the towel as he puts it down on the counter and then hangs it up. 

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Then, during the sequence in which Faye tidies up his apartment and replaces items (1:10:58-1:15:05), the camera follows the objects she interacts with. It follows the flip flops being thrown into the corner, the sardine cans labels’ being swapped, and the new towel she’s using to clean as she hangs it up in the same place the old towel was. These objects are also imbued with meaning and highlight her loneliness. By replacing his items and tidying up his apartment she feels connected to the man she loves, and the camera’s movements show us this. 

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Later, when Officer 663 realizes the towel is new, this is shot in the same handheld style, with a shot right on the new towel, not on his face (1:23:08). 

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This is a moment of connection for these two lonely people, not in person but through the towel. By not showing his face, and focusing on the towel, it allows us to recognize the same towel that was focused on before, and emphasizes how their connection, that ultimately will help heal their loneliness, is not forged in person, but through these objects.

 

Opening Shots – Joon:

 

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The film opens up with a few ominous shots of a dark, gloomy sky. Though the technique of fast-forwarding a still shot of a moving sky is often used to show the passing of time in films, here, the opening shots play a bigger role than just that. First and foremost, the musky sky and the deep voice of the narrator (Qiwu) establishes a noir-like as well as darkly dramatic setting for the film.

In the voice of He Qiwu, the film begins with this narration: “You brush past so many people every day. Some you may never know anything about, but others might become your friend some day” (~1:45). The shots quickly transition into the introduction of He Qiwu, the cop who is running past a packed crowd (1:55). The camera stays focused on Qiwu, but it is clear that the scene is not recorded with a tripod. The intentional choice to shoot the scene by hand may seem off-putting at first sight; however, as mentioned above in the section about focus blur, this choice to track Qiwu’s run by hand creates a feeling of disorientation for the viewer, as if the viewer were running alongside Qiwu in the chase after the assailant. But when Qiwu was ostensibly 0.01cm from catching the assailant, the camera stops tracking either Qiwu or the criminal. As the lady in a trench coat and sunglasses turns around to look back at Qiwu who ran past her in a hurry, the shot holds still. Qiwu then says, “57 hours later, [he] fell in love with this woman” (2:46).

Many people, including myself, often look up at the sky for relief, reassurance, or perhaps remembrance; whatever it may be, the sky is used as a personal moment of reflection––thought. Though the first few shots of the sky are not from Qiwu’s perspective, the narration coupled with those shots provide a moment of thought for the viewers, and foreshadows an interesting encounter between strangers that may have brushed past one another on the street. Moreover, by focusing on the mysterious woman in a blonde wig toward the end of the chase scene, the film also informs the audience that she may be a stranger in that particular shot, but will be much more in the next minutes too unfold. As such, with subtle manipulation of camera dynamics in merely the first three minutes of the film, Wong Kar-Wai is able to achieve quite a bit, establishing a set of expectations for the rest of the film.

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