The Expiration of Time and Love: Analyzing Speed of Motion in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express


by Meagan Johnson, Emily Nagler, Dylan Kanaan, Joalda Morancy, and Haina Lu

California Dreamin’-The Mama’s and the Papa’s (to supplement your reading)

The context in which Wong Kar-Wai actually made Chungking Express is interesting to note as it relates to the techniques he uses to alter speed of motion in the film. According to Quentin Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai was actually working on a different/epic movie, he had been editing for multiple years but had felt stalled in the process. Just as a writer needs to take breaks at times to look at their work with an objective lense, he felt he needed to step away for a bit, and decided to use the time to put out a quickly produced / quick hitting film, which would become Chungking Express. The context in which he made the film – moving from editing a film that was long, slower paced in time, to producing a film that was quick paced in time, and then returning back to the slower paced one – is in various ways actually reflected in his treatment of time in Chungking Express. As the remainder of this post will discuss in different ways, Wong Kar-Wai manipulates time through film techniques that alter the speed of motion. This manipulation of time is not meaningless however, the ways in which he does so is to reflect how time moves differently for different characters/situations, connecting us closer to their stories– instilling empathy in many respects. While Hong Kong films, at least at the time, were known for their fast paced approach, Wong Kar-Wai created a film in Chungking Express that is both fast and slow. And perhaps, his approach and reason to this was in-part to reflect how he perceives time as moving at different speeds within his own career.

The Chase

Step-printing uses an optical printer to repeat frames, so that in the end, the scene kind of looks like a flip-book. The process, more simply, is basically the duplication of a film frame, creating an interesting type of motion that is hard to define without visuals, but easy to recognize when you see it. In the opening scene of Chungking Express, when Cop 223 is running after a suspect, he is in focus, but the background isn’t, which makes his background look like a blurry string of neon lights behind/around him. The visual effect places him clearly in the scene, but also removes him from it, as the background is blurry and almost seems as though he is not entirely in the same place as the background. The scene is not in slow-motion or fast-motion, but a kind of different motion that is slow and fast at the same time. The step-printing effect aids in both the film’s illusion of time and feeling of isolation. The constant stream of neon lights, the hussle and bussle of the market (never failing to unveil the seedy undergrounds of the city), and the crowd of people is a common sight in Hong Kong food markets, yet Cop 223 is facing two struggles. One, his affinity towards true love has backfired. His love has ended their relationship and the second part of the movie shows Cop 223’s fight to stop the expiration of love and time. In a dream-like performance, Cop 223 wonders the city hoping his ex-girlfriend will chalk their break up to a practical joke. When he realizes this is an impossible scenario, he searches through the city to find his next meaningful love, or at least to feel close to someone again: “ This was the closest we ever got. Just 0.01 of a centimeter between us.” 


The Letter

In part two of the Chungking Express, Wong Kar-wai’s signature step-printing is back: fueled by the combination of slow motion, time-lapse, and motion blur in a single frame. Cop 663 is also faced with the betrayal of love, in this case from an airline stewardess. It is worth pointing out that part two of the film follows much slower, romantic sequencing in comparison to the first. Yet, the concentration of time that elapses when Faye presents the hand-written note to Cop 663 from his ex-girlfriend is just as listless as the feelings of romantic loss. Instead of seeing a physical change to Cop 663 in this time of mourning, the audience can reflect on how the cinematographers feel about both Faye and Cop 663. In this lapse, we can imagine Cop 663 reminiscing on the life he had with the airline stewardess for the last 5 years. Yet, we can also imagine Faye’s longing for the cop, along with the realization her newfound crush is still emotionally invested in his previous relationship. As twenty-two seconds of step-printing plays, only Faye and Cop 663 remain still, while the rest of the world turns. Although the specificities of the letter are never revealed to the audience, the moment of Cop 663’s acknowledgement of the letter allows for two scenarios: He won’t read it, thus the heartbreak will never be materialized OR he reads it and spirals into emotional pain. The movement between the characters, allowed by step-printing, creates noise in an otherwise silent scene. Time is both the killer of his relationship, while Faye sees time as the nourishment for her budding romance. The subtleties that underlie change is the ultimate heart of the film, and these scenes of step-printing appear to be a mockery of the situations we cannot control. 

the letter

The California Restaurant

During one of the last scenes of part two of Chungking Express, we see Cop 663 in the California restaurant. After learning Faye’s secret, he decides to ask her out on a date and brings her to this restaurant that represents her dreams and aspirations. But time goes on, and Faye does not seem to be showing up. Wong Kar-wai’s use of step-printing is used to effectively communicate to viewers how Cop 663 is feeling. In this moment, it seems like he is separated from the world around him. As people go by him in the background, Cop 663 is slowly moving within the foreground. This can represent how time and the world around him is continuing even as he wallows in his sadness, waiting for his date to finally come and rescue him from it. The dialogue in these scenes also plays into his loneliness. He describes Faye’s lateness as a flight delay, and later says that the flight was cancelled, signaling that Faye would not be showing up. These descriptions tie into the fact that Cop 663 has yet to let go of his past where he is in love with a flight attendant, and can only seem to describe time and events through terms that can help remind him of the past. Even the music in the background, some sort of slow jazz, captures the slowness and dullness of the moment. The step-printing effect and the other crucial aspects of the film together create this somber tone that seems to continue to encompass Cop 663’s lonely life.

california restaurant

The Cup of Coffee

Faye offers Cop 663 her note after he tells the snack bar about his breakup; in a little over one minute, Wong uses the step-printing process twice to show the perspectives of both Faye and the heartbroken cop. For him, time slows down around him as he drinks his coffee; absorbed in his own residual feelings for his ex-girlfriend. He steps out of this trance as he leaves Faye and her letter behind, who returns to work diligently cleaning the counter at a normal pace. The scene then cuts to focus on a cup of coffee that Faye has brewed after her hours, and step-printing is used again to show her sipping the cup of coffee and grimacing at the flavor. Though there are no more people walking in and out of the frame, the intentional disjointedness of the step-printing process tells us that time is still passing outside, but moves slowly for Faye inside the shop as she tries to sort out her unrequited feelings. Unlike utilizing actual slow motion, step-printing allows for the manipulation of specific frames such that one can be drawn out for a different number of repetitions. Since it is also manually copied, viewers can tell when the placement or angle of the scene shifts slightly, such as in stop-motion films. Here, the shakiness of the transitions add to the cinematic effect in the ways the viewers can interpret and empathize with Faye’s feelings. Perhaps she is annoyed with herself for trying something she doesn’t like; perhaps she wishes to experience the same kind of feelings the cop is experiencing through solidarity; or perhaps she doesn’t understand what it is about coffee that he just enjoys so much. Most likely, she is feeling some combination of all of the above, and her disappointment at her predicament is clear. Placed directly after the other, the viewer experiences the emotional arrays of both characters who are isolated in their own worlds. As hard as Faye tries to empathize or place herself next to Cop 663, she struggles to step out of or make sense of her own emotions.

cup of coffee

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