The Disillusionment of Change: Analyzing the Effects of Urban Isolation and Globalization in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express

Final Project by: Meagan Johnson, Katerina Stefanescu, and Alan Countess

Echoing the mass anxiety felt in Hong Kong during the early nineties, Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 breakout film Chungking Express details the story of two cops searching for a meaningful connection in a somewhat isolated society. The filming of Chungking Express occurred during rather turbulent times in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was being handed over to the People’s Republic of China after being under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom for over 152 years. Its citizens were also in the midst of both a personal and cultural identity crisis. Before Hong Kong’s return to mainland China, pre-handover movies such as Chungking Express served as a political commentary on the fantasies of being integrated into their mainstream Chinese culture. In response to this uncertainty, there began to be an emphasis on time and routine–a way of seeking stability in an unstable and unpredictable world. Chungking Express follows the romantic journey of two policemen pining after a lost love. The film carries motifs of mass global connectivity, intoxicating youth, frustration, and hopeless romance. The film presents a dual narrative, or two stories told in a sequence of each other. In the first story, Cop 223 is blinded by his heartbreak. His ex-girlfriend broke up with him on April Fool’s Day; thus, Cop 223 chalks his breakup to a cruel joke. He lives in denial of what it means to lose someone and remains in a state of fantasy, replaying his memories and his love in his mind. In the second story, Cop 663 holds little hope for his ex’s return. Instead, he falls into a melancholic funk. In both stories, Cop 223 and 663 meet energetic women–a sign of hope and wonder in a disillusioned society. By analyzing Wong Kar-wai’s illustrious storytelling, cinematography, and editing, the film reinforces the idea that living in a city of millions does not always lend itself to forming meaningful human connections. Instead, urban isolation is an exigent circumstance for the characters to reflect on the inevitability of change. 

In the first story of the film, Cop 223’s love interest–the anonymous drug smuggler–attempts to survive the seedier underworld of Hong Kong. About ten minutes into the film (10:14-10:38), we see the nameless woman (Bridgette Lin)’s fellow smugglers handling their product. Despite the danger of transporting large amounts of a controlled substance, there is a mundane-ness to the art of concealing the cocaine. In this scene, the camera focuses on the running sewing machine, the precise cutting of fabric, and crafty shoe-making. In the first few sequences of this shot, the audience could assume the characters are workers of Hong Kong textile factories, not professional drug lords. There is an art to each of their movements; As if each movement of the thread is a part of their body. They have done this a hundred times before. This scene contributes to the overall emphasis on routine in Chungking Express, a way to keep motivated and grounded in a culture suddenly fueled by anxiety. Ironically, this is one of the only instances of structure in the film. While most of the film chronicles its characters’ struggle to make meaningful human connections, this scene illustrates a beauty during utter chaos. Amid the uncertainty, routine connects us and allows us to remain grounded in the few parts of our life we can control.

In continuation of the first story, the beginning of Cop 223’s journey is distinguished by two scenes. The first (1:54-2:47) follows Cop 223, running to catch a potential suspect through the tourist-packed streets of Hong Kong. Moments before he meets the anonymous drug smuggler, the camera catches glimpses of the world around Cop 223 as he sprints past a series of lively individuals. As he gazes against a man with a McDonald’s bag on his head and a large mannequin, we get a sense of the entirely random and disjointed lives of Hong Kong’s citizens. Although they all appear under the ecstasy of the bright street lights and the endless street vendors, very few seem to engage with the masses. The movement of the characters is so impersonal that most of the other characters are blurred as if to strip them of any sense of individuality. Cop 223, surrounded by hundreds, is entirely alone. This scene demonstrates Wong Kar-wai’s rather poetic cinematography, an instance of Cop 223 consciously pushing out those around him to wallow in his pain. Cop 223 hopes not only to get back his lost love but to connect to the world. Cop 223 seemingly believes finding love and intimacy is the solution to overcoming urban isolation. He fishes for a meaningful connection in the second scene (25:40-26:04). While it is evident that Cop 223 is physically alone in the snack bar, he is emotionally shattered. In this desperation, he calls upon the people he had the slightest of a legitimate human connection with–even if it’s someone he knew in the fourth grade.

Wong’s intentional use of creative cinematography techniques highlights the ways in which Qiwu and Officer 663’s interactions with their love interests relate to the film’s overarching theme of pursuing genuine connection amid the loneliness of modern urban life. The first instance of a short yet meaningful interpersonal connection is between Qiwu and the woman in the blonde wig (specifically 28:00 to 32:54). This scene immediately stands out in terms of the warm, orange color of the light that shines on the two characters. In contrast to the preceding and proceeding scenes, this scene’s use of warm, low-key lighting heightens the beginnings of kinship that seem near impossible in the harsh Hong Kong world that Wong previously shows. As the scene progresses, the shallow depth of field shifts from solely focusing on Qiwu to focusing on both of the characters behind the bar. In this way, they are now both the focal point of the scene together, blurring out the rest of the background and thus the loneliness that otherwise permeates their lives and their world. This focus on the two characters and their connection is perhaps most apparent at 32:35 when the bartender informs Qiwu that the bar is closing. The camera is solely focused on Qiwu and the woman in the blonde wig resting her head on his shoulder. Only the voice of the bartender is heard, and the only part of him that is visible onscreen – his shoulder – is completely blurred. Therefore, even though the bartender technically also engages with Qiwu, Wong shows that this is not a meaningful human connection and rather a necessary, practical one. Even though the relationship only lasts for one night and a short birthday message, Qiwu and the woman in the blonde wig’s connection is contrasted to and extolled in comparison to Qiwu’s other less impactful interactions.

For Officer 663 and Faye’s story, one scene stands out in particular (53:50 to 57:05): when Officer 663 speaks with Faye behind the counter of the food shack, leaving her with the envelope containing the key to his apartment. From a cinematographic standpoint, this scene exceptionally stresses how meaningful the lovers’ connection is as compared to the nameless, faceless characters that surround them. The shallow depth of field throughout the film, including this specific scene, means that usually only one person or thing is in focus while the rest of the scene is blurry. In this scene, Faye and Officer 663 tend to be the only figures in focus while the rest of the foreground and background remains blurred. The shallow depth of field enhances the loneliness that these characters feel because only one thing can really be in focus at a given time, heightening the solitude of their lives. Effectively counteracting the loneliness accomplished through the shallow depth of field, Wong plays with time in a really fascinating part of the scene starting at 56:13. As Officer 663 sips on his coffee with Faye leaning over the counter watching him, the two characters move in slow motion. However, the rest of the people walking in the foreground, while completely blurred, are in fast motion, practically looking like unidentifiable colors. Time slows down for the two lovers, showing that they are forming a bond that unites them and will save them from the loneliness they suffer (and that the people in the foreground are just failing to deal with).

Wong uses subtle cinematographic techniques to further extrapolate just how rare the connections between the two sets of lovers are. Employed throughout the film, Wong’s use of shallow depth of field acts both his stylistic trademark and furthers the storyline. By emphasizing the solitude of these characters, the moments when characters are both in focus within a scene are especially striking and further illustrate the significance of finding small moments of human connection amid the loneliness of the ever bustling Hong Kong of Wong’s imagination.

Wong uses sound throughout the film to show the monotony and isolation of urban life. Music plays a large role in the way characters interact, for instance, Faye is constantly listening to the same, loud music. She even says that she likes listening to it loud so that she doesn’t have to think. In this film, Wong portrays urban residents as being stuck in a monotonous cycle of urban life, but also lacking the motivation to escape their dull patterns. By listening to loud music, Faye is trying to simply get through each day by going through the motions. She isn’t looking for happiness in her daily life, just the end of the day. In addition to this, we constantly hear the same song continued from different parts on different days (California Dreamin’). By always showing us the same song from the CD she listens to, Wong creates a sense of flow to Faye’s days. By continuing the song where it previously left off when we see the characters the following day, the divide between days feels subtle. The days have the same pattern, with the exception of personal relationships, which the film focuses on for the plot. Additionally, the choice in the song played throughout the film, California Dreamin’, is purposeful. Faye wants to save up money so that she can travel some day, specifically to California. By using this song as her escape from everyday life, Wong portrays how people focus on far away dreams rather than enjoying where they are. Faye derives no joy from her daily work at the store, she only dreams of a future where she can leave.

In addition to the music used in the film, Wong often uses narration to reveal the inner thoughts of characters or explain some context to the viewer. By using narration to explain context and move the plot, Wong is able to use less dialogue between characters to achieve these purposes. In doing so, he is able to show how lonely characters are. We see this used often at the beginning of the film as He Qiwu thinks about May. He’s inner voice narrates his thoughts on expiration dates and why May left him. This has the effect of showing the loneliness he feels without giving him any other characters to talk to about his problems. Overall, the way Wong uses narration has a similar feel to characters talking to themselves. Wong purposefully uses narration to achieve goals that could easily be accomplished through dialogue, and does this to show how isolated the characters are. 

The film also uses editing to portray a sense of urban isolation. There are many times when the film is edited to have a time lapse effect while the main characters move slowly and noticeably. I find this technique interesting, because in a way, Wong uses the business of the area and the volume of people passing by to show loneliness. In the scene where Officer 663 is stood up in the bar, this effect is used as he puts a coin in the jukebox. We can see his hand slowly move to put the coin in the machine as people rush by behind him. As we see these people pass by as blurs on the screen, we are put somewhat in the perspective of the officer. He is isolated from the scene around him. He doesn’t know the people passing by and he is not interested in them. He just focuses on the jukebox he got change for as he waits for his date who never shows. Even though he was around people the whole time, Wong uses this effect to make the night feel empty and lonely. This effect is also used earlier in the film while Officer 663 drinks a cup of coffee. His girlfriend recently left him and left him a letter which he decides not to read. As he stares off into space and drinks his coffee, we see people move by on the street outside the shop. We are very aware of the passage of time in this scene and get an odd sense of how the officer perceives it. He seems to be lost in thought and unaware of the world around. Again, we get a sense of loneliness and isolation as he deals with his loss.

Throughout Chungking Express, Wong depicts the urban isolation experienced by city residents. Using storytelling, we are shown individuals struggling to find connection in a big city. The plot shows heartbreak where those hurt wallow in their pain alone. Despite the mass of people in the movie, this storytelling shows the lack of ability to reach out to others in urban life. Wong also uses cinematography to express these ideas. The film utilizes shallow depth of field to show the inaccessibility of other people in the city. We see the important characters in focus, but others simply pass by. Additionally, scenes are often filmed with a handheld camera. This has the effect of putting us in the perspective of the characters. Because Wong is trying to portray what urban isolation is like, this is a useful tool to help us understand what characters are feeling throughout the film. Wong also uses sound and editing to show these ideas to the viewer. Sound is used to highlight the monotony of days in urban life. Each day we hear Faye listen to the same song and do the same things. Further, Wong often uses narration as a replacement for dialogue between characters. This creates a feeling of characters talking to themselves since they don’t have close relationships with others. Finally, the film employs time lapses in its editing to show the separation characters feel from the rest of city life, and the other people that pass by from day to day. Overall, Wong builds the film around the idea of urban isolationism. He employs many techniques and aspects of the plot to achieve this, and as a result, provides the viewer with a perspective of what loneliness is like in a big city.

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