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.


Animation as a Tool for Expression: Examining the Original and Live Action Lion King

By Charlie Donnelly

Prominent film theorists and filmmakers disagree about the role of animation in cinema, with the philosopher Stanley Cavell claiming that “cartoons are not movies” (Frank 24), a stark contrast with educator Hannah Frank’s conjecture that “all works of celluloid animation [are] photographic in origin” (Frank 23). While we’ve discussed the role of animation in cinema in class with varying opinions, there are certainly instances when animation possesses an expressive quality lacking in traditional photographic cinema, especially seen in the differences between the original 1994 animated version of The Lion King and the 2019 live action remake. Although some feel that live action possesses the most varied capabilities as a mode of cinema, I will argue that animation has unique powers of expression in creating vivid and recognizable characters, establishing connotation and theme, as well as creating heavily stylized worlds with their own distinct visual iconography.

Continue reading

Inside Bresson’s Truth – Cinematic Life In A Man Escaped (1956)

hero_EB20111121REVIEWS08111129995AR

by Ben Ratchford

It is often said of Bresson that his films, through their mechanical nature, their minimalist approach to their presentation of human emotion and experience, portray more passion and depth than could be achieved by “showier” directors. Bresson  expresses this as one of his goals in filmmaking in an interview from 1973.

BressonQuote

Continue reading

Color in Spider-man: Into the Spiderverse

Screen Shot 2019-12-12 at 7.59.40 PM

by Nick Nowicki

Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse is a superhero film that tries to emulate the experience of reading a superhero comic book. The film moves away from the live-action superhero paradigm and fills the screen with bold colors, halftoned graphics, and word-boxes that one would see in the comics. Color in particular plays a variety of roles in establishing character traits and developments throughout the film. This post analyzes three main uses of color in the film. First, I will examine how color is used to establish good and evil figures in the film. Next, I will focus on how color is used to emphasize the emotions of characters and the overall tone of a scene. Finally, I analyze the role that color plays in signifying turning points in the narrative arc and various character arcs.

Background on Comic Book Color

Four colors serve as the basis for most of the colors we see in early comic book prints and Into the Spiderverse: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The CMYK color model (K being a “key” color, black) stands in contrast to the RGB model, as cyan, yellow, and magenta subtract red, blue, and green from white light, respectively. So, instead of white being the sum of our basis colors, as is the case in RGB, combining cyan, magenta and yellow produces black. It was of course cheaper to simply print pure black instead of combining all three inks.

Screen Shot 2019-12-12 at 10.12.23 PM

Continue reading

Chiron’s Male and Female Relationships in Moonlight

giphy

by Tomi Kolapo

Introduction

Moonlight by Barry Jenkins is a film seen through the point of view of the main character, Chiron. The film remains in Chiron’s perspective even as the character grows to be a teen and young adult. Over this time, the viewer gets to see Chiron interact with the people around him. Underlying these interactions is the fact that Jenkins makes sure to characterize as a shy, emotionally scarred individual. Thus, it is notable that he is able to form deep connections with some people. Among, the people he interacts with the most, Juan, Kevin, Paula, and Theresa, there appears to be a gender divide in the level of intimacy he has with these individuals. Aspects like the amount of contact, type of contact and color of the scene indicate the connection level difference between male and female. This serves as an indicator of Chiron’s sexuality.

Continue reading

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, A Masterclass in the Intersection of Sound and Animation

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

by Aditya Tandon

Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse hit cinemas with a storm in late 2018 as movie-goers of all ages came together to watch a new kind of Spider-Man film; not just because of the biracial protagonist, the presence of multiple spider-(wo)men, or the flawless comic-book styled animation, but because of how seamlessly all these pieces came together. It was a movie of many firsts, and it surpassed all expectations, later going on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. I must confess, however, the first time I heard about the film and all the fanfare around it, I assumed it was just another super-hero movie being propped up by a loyal fanbase. It was only upon finally watching it that I realized how grossly mistaken I was; I noticed the enormous detail that went into both the animation as well as the plot, and how much the film was able to achieve through the intersection of animation and sound. All of this comes together in what is perhaps one of the most iconic scenes of the film, Miles’ “Leap of Faith,” embedded in full below.

Continue reading

An Elephant Sitting Still: A Sontagian Read

by Kelly Mu

For me personally, Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was perhaps the most impactful reading of the quarter. Its defiance of a long tradition of hermeneutics seemed relatable but also revolutionary. It shed light on a question that I have always struggled with, whether in reading literary works or watching a film. That is, how am I supposed to engage with a piece? Do I critically analyse every imagery and cinematic technique, or simply let my emotions consume me? An Elephant Sitting Still, a four hour Chinese film by the deceased director Hu Bo, was a chance for me to do both and reflect on their effectiveness.

Continue reading

Alien: The Terror of Not Being Terrified

by Julian Spencer

I don’t think there’s any genre that’s as hard to pull off as horror. The percentage of horror films, games, and books which are critically acclaimed (or, for that matter, even well reviewed) is uncharacteristically low. It’s not that these works have an issue with actually scaring the viewer; even the most experienced filmgoers can’t help but feel an adrenaline rush when a monster suddenly appears with an obnoxiously loud sound. Rather, it’s the fact that not all types of fear are enjoyable. When the shock of a jumpscare dies away, we’re left feeling like the subjects of a middle school “gotcha” prank, more frustrated than interested.

The distinction is in creating a horror which is enjoyable — one which inspires dread, doubt, and uneasiness — rather than immediate fear. This is exactly what the Alien franchise does so well. Recently, I dedicated a weekend to the original 1979 film and the tangentially based 2015 game Alien: Isolation. On a surface level, the two mediums are remarkably similar; as I explored the Nostromo, I was continuously stunned by the accuracy with which everything from the doors to the weapons to, of course, the alien, were recreated. On a surface level, they are practically indistinguishable. Though it was wonderful to relive these aspects of the movie, what brings me here today is how well the unique sentiment of the original picture is captured in the game.

Continue reading

An Exploration of Sound in A Man Escaped

A man escaped title pic

by Niky Charouzová

Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is set in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany and through the revealing nature of the title itself, depicts the themes of liberty and confinement. The film follows the imprisonment of Fontaine, a French soldier during World War II, who throughout the film devises an escape plan from the prison and uses the materials from his room to aid him. He ends up having to escape with his cellmate, François Jost, with whom he ends up walking away into the night after they have succeeded. The black and white film is unlike many others mostly due to its lack of special effects or emotion of its characters, which helps draw significant attention to perhaps the key component of the film: sound, or rather, silence. Additionally, the fact that the film is devoid of these special effects forces the audience to focus on the actual events of the storyline without any distractions. Many times throughout the film, however, sound is even more important to the story than the image itself, and if the image is restrictive, sound often guides us and replaces it to some extent.

Continue reading

Spirited Away and ‘the Erotics of Art’

4E459376-D88C-4340-8846-223FD4BCC644

by Rami Kablawi

Hansel and Gretel is a story that remains with me from my childhood. It was the fairy tale my mother repeated to me most often, with my sticky fingers and penchant for lying. Even as a second grader, the thought of a witch that would cook me alive for my sweet-tooth did little to instill in me any desire for temperance. It wasn’t until I watched Spirited Away (2002)—that I marveled in disgust and fear at the transformation of Chihiro’s parents into pigs—that I learned to put down the cookies.

Why is this? How does Miyazaki’s world in Spirited Away arise such strong reactions from its viewers, and does the work of a fairy tale without relying so heavily on its formal narrative structures? Hansel and Gretel need their Witch, as a personification of the ills of greed, to carry out the moralizing message of their tale. Animation transcends the need for such interpretive plot devices; even more so than live action photography, it is capable of making the moving image convey meaning on an affective and sensorial scale. Through its use of exaggerated features, body-morphing, and the grotesque, Spirited Away achieves just this: the creation of a world beyond our own, one that leaves its audience hanging onto themes of generosity, environmentalism, and individuality, without ever requiring its audience to interpret their meaning through a dissection of the film.

Continue reading