Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai made a film called Chungking Express (1994) a few years ago, not really following the conventional way of American narration. Seeing it, you could call it puzzling or incomplete and for this reason, maybe quite difficult to watch. However, the thing is that Wong puts the idea of estrangement, key for his film, not only into the story, but also between the film and us. By keeping some facts unexplained and creating an impression of voyeurism through mise-en-scene, he makes us experience the barriers to the understanding between the people in a city.
American movies usually supply the spectators with every little detail he could need. Although the stories do not always make sense, they evoke a pleasant feeling of wholeness. Action speeds from point A to point B through serious conflicts, everything fits together on the principle of cause and effect, and ending always explains everything1. Also any kind of backstory that refers to the present situation never stays missing.
And here Chungking Express stops being an American narrative. We do not know its characters. We are not sure what He Qiwu’s ex-girlfriend May looks like, even though he dreams about her constantly. We do not know why Faye, the girl from Midnight Express bistro, went to California instead of waiting for her beloved man. And we are completely lost regarding the shady deal between the woman in a blonde wig and the owner of a bar, who plays the jukebox music.
Lot of the feeling of strangeness comes from mise-en-scene and the composition of images. Most of the time, we do not get clear shots of people. Something always stands in our view, shop counter, half-shut door, a corner of a building, or a window. Characters are framed in narrow spaces, often turned to us with their backs. They also wear sunglasses, wigs and caps with a peak. From the images of the film we get a clear impression that they are hiding from us.
At the beginning of the film He Qiwu, the cop from the first story, says: ‘every day we brush past so many other people’. Those people all have their lives, but nobody can see them. The only thing we remember of them is a glimpse of their face. These fleeting moments fascinate Wong Kar Wai. He stops them (pic. 1, 2) and comments them. Each story in Chungking Express begins with characters who meet like this, passing each other. The whole story that follows lies behind this moment. People you meet on the street never become more than a lost memory of a face, but even if you stop for a while and try to find out more about any single one of them, it will be impossible to understand him or her completely.
The narration of Chungking Express puts us to quite unusual position. The story keeps some information about the characters hidden, but also leave us to see their homes and sometimes even to hear their thoughts. We become the passers-by, who got interested in one of the faces. This viewpoint helps us understand how the characters become to know each other. In fact, it puts us very much in the same situation they are in.
The process of becoming to know each other works similarly for the characters and for us as well. We see a glimpse of He Qiwu, chasing the escaped prisoner. He gets the same impression when he bumps into the mysterious woman on the street. Later we learn a little bit more about his ex-girlfriend, jogging and pineapples, which is similar to He Qiwu meeting the woman by chance in a bar, talking to her and eventually taking her asleep to his place. One could draw this parallel with the second story of the film as well. Neither the characters, nor us learn much about each other’s lives. But what matters is that we deepened the fleeting moment enough to become a memory that lasts at least some time.
Narration in Chungking Express does something American storytelling could never do. It composes the picture to intensify its voyeuristic effect. It keeps the character’s backstory hidden from us and slowly allows us to get closer to them during the film. It puts us to the same position they are in, approaching one another. And because of that it makes us directly experience the anonymity and invisible vastness of a city.
- Some films end ambiguously, but even in that situation we should clearly understand the two or three possible endings between which our mind hovers. This state of hesitation still accompanies a feeling of certain wholeness, because of which we seek to see no more.