Sympathy for Inanimate Objects in Chungking Express

Chungking Express (Hong Kong, 1994) is a film directed by Wong Kar-Wai, with a narrative that is divided into two different stories. The first part of the film follows the life of “Officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro)” while the second one follows the life of “Officer 633 (Tony Chiu Wai Leung).” Although the two stories are separate and consist of distinct characters and events, there are a few elements in the film that show their similarities and differences. In the film, both officers are upset since they are dealing with heartbreak due to recent breakups. This short essay compares and analyzes two specific scenes – one from each story – to emphasize how the two stories are “the same but different”. In both of the scenes, the two protagonists use their loneliness to sympathize for inanimate objects.

In the first story, at approximately thirteen minutes into the film, Officer 223 expresses how he buys a can of pineapple everyday– particularly ones that expire on May 1 st . The reason that he buys a can of pineapple everyday is because his ex-girlfriend, May, loves pineapples and May 1 is his birthday. On the night of April 30, Officer 223 gets frustrated when he cannot find any cans of pineapple that are expired on May 1 on the shelves. When the cashier explains to him that the pineapples are practically expired already, Officer 223 defends the pineapple species by replying in aggravation, “With you people it’s always ‘out with the old, in with the new!’ You realize what goes into making a can of pineapple? The fruit is grown, harvested, sliced – and you just throw it away! How do you think the pineapple feels?” (18:47-18:51) In the second story, Officer 633 conveys his nightly routine to comfort the “sad” inanimate objects in his apartment. “Ever since she left, everything in the apartment is sad. I have to comfort them all before I go to sleep” (57:27). The film continues with Officer 633 talking to a bar of soap with low self-esteem, a crying wet towel, angry plush dolls, and a lonely polo shirt.

These two scenes are similar because they both show the heartbroken officers transferring their sadness onto lifeless items after having been dumped by their girlfriends. Throughout the movie, both characters generally do not have much of a support system to help them handle their unhappiness. Since they are both very lonesome all the time, it makes sense to me that they would result to talking to inanimate objects. Not only are the two scenes similar in plot and theme, but they are also comparable in a visual sense. Both scenes occur on quiet nights. Since the scenes take place during the night time, the lighting in both scenes is very dark and dull-colored. The dark lighting and the lack of background noise in both scenes emphasizes the loneliness that the two protagonists feel in their stories.

Although the two scenes have very prominent similarities, they are also very different. The two scenes are different in three main ways: the focus of the characters, their communication towards the inanimate object(s), and the way the scenes are presented. In the first scene, Officer 223 emphasizes expiry dates and the shortage of time when he refers to the cans of pineapple. His main emotions are frustration and hopelessness because he had been hoping that his ex-girlfriend, May, would try to contact him before the cans of pineapple expire, but time is running out and there has not been any word from her. On the other hand, in the second scene, it is obvious that Officer 633’s focus is on all the suppressed negative emotions he has towards his ex-girlfriend. He accuses a bar of soap of having low self-esteem, a wet towel of feeling sad, plush dolls for feeling angry, and a wrinkled polo shirt for feeling lonely, all when he is really the one feeling these emotions. Another difference is the way in which the two officers communicate with the items. In the first scene, Officer 223 refers to the cans of pineapple that one time to the cashier rather than talks to them directly. However, Officer 633 stated how he talks to the items in his house habitually because he feels as though he needs to comfort them. This dissimilarity shows the distinctive forms and levels of sensitivity the officers have. Finally, the last difference between the two scenes is how they are cinematically presented. The first scene with Officer 223 was just one continuous tracking shot in the grocery store while the second scene with Officer 633 consists of multiple static shots of him talking to different inanimate figures.

Chungking Express contains two distinct stories that are similar, but different. One particular theme that can be described as “the same, but different” is the way in which the two characters communicate with inanimate objects. Although the two scenes considered in this essay may seem at times nearly identical, we can discern differentiations after analyzing both scenes multiple times.

The City as a Space of Multiple, Infinite, Relational Possibilities in Chungking Express

The city depicted in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘Chungking Express’ is one that invites the viewers to ponder about the city as a setting for multiple, infinite and relational possibilities. Chungking Express is a film with two separate plots, comprised of chance encounters between characters, as a result of a shared setting, like the bar and Midnight Express. The characters are lonely and introspective, yet as a result of these encounters that are made possible by the city’s random flux, they form unlikely emotional connections. It is through these connections and the relationships that they establish, that they are able to move on from their failed romances and discover a new sense of purpose and embrace change in their lives.

Wong uses cinematography to capture the multiple psychic possibilities of a single setting. In a slow motion shot, Officer 633 drinks his coffee, while Faye watches dreamily on one side. Meanwhile, the crowd outside Midnight Express passes by in fast motion. Here, a moment is captured between the two of them, even while the rest of the city passes by, oblivious to this moment. As a result, Wong is able to differentiate between the private and the public space of the city – the moment that is shared between Officer 633 brooding about his ex-girlfriend and Faye in a daydream is in slow motion, as it is a significant moment that captures both characters’ state of mind. All this happens while the crowd moves in fast motion outside, indicating that moments like this one is glazed over, from a perspective of a passerby.

The appearances of characters from different plots suggest the possibility that all the characters could have met each other at certain points of their lives, given the shared spaces of a city. Officer 633, Faye and the Officer’s 633’s air stewardess girlfriend make fleeting appearances in the first plot. Yet, despite their appearances, what we know of them is very superficial, until the second plot begins, they are simply one of the ‘so many people everyday… you may never know anything about’ that Qiwu refers to in his voiceover at the start of the film. The idea of ‘proximity without reciprocity’ (Abbas 54) aptly captures the sense of the social spaces within Wong’s Hong Kong.

The use of handheld camera in the introductory action sequences in Chungking Mansions brings to attention the heterogeneity of the city, as well as idea of ‘proximity without reciprocity’. During the sequence, movement is blurred and so are the faces of the innumerable strangers on the street. Wong presents to the viewers a jostling Hong Kong that has barely enough room to walk without rubbing shoulders with everyone, yet their faces are simply shown as a blur. The possibilities of connections are infinite, yet it is only so few of these people with which we actually make a meaningful connection. The city is shared by people from all sorts of backgrounds, a cultural heterogeneity that is also emphasised by the different types of food sold at Midnight Express.

The use of selective focus is also utilised to visually demonstrate the idea of ‘proximity without reciprocity’. Through the innovative use of focus, Faye and Officer 633 is literally 0.01cm apart on-screen. Yet he does not really tell her what he likes, not willing to reveal his true feelings and emotions to an acquaintance, choosing instead to be comically melodramatic in telling her that he likes chef’s salad. Through this shot, Wong effectively illustrates the unspoken emotional distance between city dwellers, explaining why emotional disconnect exists despite the close social proximity of people within a city. At this point, the viewers are forced to question the idea of the city as a space for infinite possibilities, since we are naturally socially inhibited with acquaintances, resulting in the lack of an emotional connection.

However, the resolution of both plots affirm the idea that indeed, the city is a place of infinite possibilities, that we are only constrained by time, as well as the ability to accept change.

The heterogeneity of the city has an effect of inducing change on the characters. Just as the city is in constant flux, the identities and personalities of the characters are affected by their interactions. Change is inevitable as the song suggests, “It’s not everyday that’s gonna be the same way, there must be a change somehow.” Faye transforms herself from a dreamer to actually living out her dreams, by visiting California and becoming an air stewardess. She wears sunglasses and rests her head on her hands in a similar pose as that of the blonde, exuding an air of confidence. Officer 633, too has made a change in the past one year, having bought over Midnight Express to renovate it, while listening to Faye’s favourite song at the same volume. He has broken out of routine and gamely answers Faye that he will go “Wherever [she] wants to take [him]”. Even the blonde agrees that change is inevitable over time, explaining that it may be impossible to truly understand a person since personality is constantly changing. Thus, infinite possibilities are truly possible in a city, where the personalities are in constant flux, only constrained by the limits of time.

Qiwu and the blonde, two vastly different characters, meet by chance at a bar and form an unlikely connection. From a superficial standpoint, the chemistry between the blonde and Qiwu is unlikely, as the blonde partakes in criminal activities and has literally spent the entire day running away from drug smugglers. In contrast with the idealistic Qiwu, who spent his month pining over his ex-girlfriend, she is portrayed as a worldweary and cynical character. Despite their seeming lack of chemistry, the blonde reciprocates Qiwu’s kind act of washing her heels. She sends him a happy birthday message, which he serendipitously receives at the exact moment he turns 25. Because of this moment, he will remember her for all his life, suggesting that the connection is one that is deeply lasting and significant, one that truly transcends beyond simply random chance and coincidence. A freeze frame aptly captures Qiwu’s joy and embodies his wish to keep this memory forever in his heart, never to expire. Hence, the resolution like that of the second plot, suggests that indeed multiple possibilities within a city are possible, that chance and coincidence can be transcended by initiating or reciprocating acts of kindness to provide moments of significance.

In conclusion, Chungking Express presents the city as a random flux, that does not necessarily give rise to meaningful emotional connections, yet there is no doubt that it is a space that has the potential for infinite possibilities. The resolution of both plots inspires hope, that ultimately, chance and coincidence can be transcended by change and time, as well as acts of mutual kindness.

(1139 words)

Works Cited

Abbas, Ackbar. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1997. Print.