In an episode from Seinfeld, Jerry teases George for wanting a book back from a borrower. "When you read it the second time, does the character do something differently?", he asks him. It is one of Jerry's classic retorts, said to mock George's nature. But whenever I watch that episode, it always makes me think about that aspect. Why does one feel the need to revisit a particular narrative? Why do I want to watch a film or read a novel, again – even after knowing all the plot details? What gives a film or a series a rewatch value, for me or anyone else? What can it be if not the experience that it provides?
Perhaps for the same reason, I agree with Martin Scorsese's assessment of plot-driven movies. His films, as he says, are hardly ever driven by plot but by characters. The films that he holds dear to him are those that he can watch over and over and still find the same joy or a rush of emotions that he felt the first time he had seen it. In the same vein, Wong Kar-wai's films are dear to me for the immense rewatch value that they hold. Despite having seen them many times, they do not lose their essence and keep me soaked in the neon-lit world he meticulously builds.
Among his oeuvre that has a majority of heartbreaking films, one film stands apart as a clear charmer, a rare feel-good venture that always uplifts my mood. It is hard to get over the immense joy I feel during and after watching Chungking Express. After the heavy philosophical pursuit through the production of Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai had taken a two-month break from editing the film. And during the same time, he worked on this film with unorthodox filmmaking and non-linear storytelling. What we witness is an amalgamation of narrative fragments with the linking emotion of hopeless romantics.
We come across the stories of two cops, both trying to get over their ended relationships while living in a city that doesn't show any signs of stopping for them. Against the busy backdrop of Hong Kong streets, we first meet Cop 223 – sulking over a girl named May with an undying hope of getting back together. In a chance encounter, he bumps into a woman in a blonde wig, who is seen trying to survive in the drug underworld. While the cop keeps opening up about his feelings in any chance he gets, she makes no attempt to reveal anything about her. It makes up for an eternally charming portrait of a city that contains both of these perspectives.
While trying to satisfy himself with people's pity towards his broken heart, the cop wishes for everyone around him to stop and sulk along with him in his childlike misery. The city goes against his slow-paced, meandering sense of time. Through him, the film shares a captivating portrait of this youthful phase where being stuck in such a pursuit feels like a good investment of time. Completely opposed to him, the lady remains an enigma until the end of this fast-paced narrative, where the rapid cuts and freeze frames showcase a dissonance between their worlds – both emotional and real.
With Cop 663, we see an introverted man getting over his break-up without sulking. Like the chance encounter from the previous narrative, he comes across Faye – who works in a food restaurant that he frequently visits. While Faye secretly falls for him, she does not reveal her attraction but rather finds opportunities to bump into him or to get closer to knowing him better. Through her adventurous entries into his house, she tries to cheer him up with the smallest gestures – without ever revealing her feelings towards him. The extended passage of time where Faye is simply enjoying this time in his apartment, gushing over the possibilities of being with him makes the act of loving delightful. It is hard not to fall in love with her cute pursuit.
In this story, we see her as the hopeless romantic who finds the mere thought of pleasing the other person endearing. And unlike the previous narrative, this one takes its time for the characters to explore their range of emotions, to make themselves go through the tiniest bits of realisations in front of us, the viewers – which makes it feel like an extended peek into the lives of these characters. The mundane details gain significance and slowly, the romance blooms. We feel the narrowness, the depth, the confinement through the way the makers explore these spaces.
While the first narrative goes on for less than half an hour of the film's duration, the second one takes about an hour or so. The change in the time spent in their respective narration goes along with the pace of the lives of these characters. With his frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai creates an impeccable sense of both space and time. A rather lighthearted film with conflicts one can easily resonate with, the locations and emotions take precedence over a conventional plot structure. The inescapable joy comes from the streets, the alleys, the restaurant, even the cop's apartment that they shoot in their signature style.
The dizzying effect of the music gives Chungking Express a distinct personality on its own. California Dreamin' becomes an anthem of love, where California in itself becomes a symbol of love and escape for the characters. Faye Wong's rendition of Dreams by The Cranberries is interwoven in the narration, which gives the film an exhilarating quality. What A Difference A Day Made becomes significant not just for the mood but for its relation to the story. Along with these music tracks, we get a sense of a frozen place in time – where all that matters is to dance to these tracks and get immersed into the world of daydreaming. With the same play of moods through the cinematic techniques, Chungking Express becomes a film that always puts me in a refreshing state.