Chungking Express (1994)
Written and Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Faye Wong, Takeshi Keneshiro, Valerie Chow Ka Ling, and Jinquan Chen
102 minutes, PG-13
Paulette and I broke up in the summer between my third and fourth year of high school, mere days before I was set to embark on my senior year. Halfway through that final two semesters of public school, I met Michelle. We dated casually, occasionally, until the summer after I graduated. We dated exclusively until she graduated and moved away to Valparaiso, Indiana for college. During that year that we were somewhat on-again/off-again, I casually dated four different women that I had met through my various endeavors in the theatre. Michelle and I resumed our exclusivity again in 1996. We were soon engaged and got married in May of 1997. If you follow this blog with any regularity, you already know that marriage did not last very long.
By the end of 1999, Michelle and I were divorced. By the time the papers were officially signed and stamped, I had been dating a woman named Sara for more than a year. We were dangerously co-dependent, however, and that relationship had fizzled out by October of 2000. The corpse of that coupling was barely cold before I was enamored with Judy, who broke my heart. The bridge of that heartbreak was remarkably easy to cross once I met Elizabeth. We were also debilitatingly co-dependent (albeit for different reasons) and had given up the ghost by May of 2002. Soon thereafter, I found myself in a sexual relationship with Elizabeth’s former roommate, Rebecca. This pleasant diversion lasted for a couple of months, but it eventually ground to a halt when I fell hard for Trish. Trish and I co-habitated for a vast majority of our time together. This was an especially awkward situation since I conducted relationships of some sort with numerous women during the too-frequent break-ups that Trish and I endured during the tumultuous four years that we forced upon one another. In that time, I had meaningful relationships that lasted for a month or more (only to be ended by my inevitable reunion with a woman that I lived with) with Lisa, Christina, and Cara. I even considered getting back together with Elizabeth for a brief stint during that era. By the time I began to get serious with Amanda, the woman who is now my wife, I was renting a room in Trish’s house, but we weren’t together anymore. We were, in fact, actually taking great pains to keep separate schedules, all the easier to avoid the disdain we each harbored for the other. My wife and I have been together for fourteen years.
The point . . . and I promise you that there is, in fact, a point to this relationship recap . . . is that I have never done “alone” very well. It’s a truth about myself that I would have, at the time, denied if directly asked, but is, in retrospect– hindsight being what it is– an unavoidable fact. This aspect of my personality was not something that only hung over my romantic relationships either. It was an element of who I was for nearly as long as I can recall. In high school, I would go after class to the public library and do homework or read horror novels because I knew that there would be nobody at our farmhouse in rural Gibson City for the first several hours after I returned home. Once I moved out of my parent’s house, I always had roommates. I usually had weekend plans with friends booked many, many weeks in advance. Hell, even when I was making my living as a full-time writer of stage plays, I was choosing to write in bars. I was working alone, yes, but I was also surrounded by people.
There’s nothing wrong with that, right?
Inherently, no. Especially when referring to the friendlier, more platonic, relationships in my past. I was always careful to not wear out my welcome and give people a break if it seemed that they might be growing tired of my neuroses eventually taking center stage in every human interaction. I can’t help but feel guilt, though, for the effect that my unique idiosyncrasy had on women who committed no crime other than be interested in loving a man who would have quickly found someone else to take their place had they not come along when they did. Some of those relationships– the longer, more exclusive ones (ie., Sara, Elizabeth, and Trish)– were obviously doomed from the start, but what of the more casual ones that I now realize I used as placeholders between bouts of monogamy? There are at least three women in my past that I legitimately cared for who would probably think more of me now if I had been honest with myself at the time and admitted that maybe, just maybe, that what I needed more than a pretty new girlfriend was a serious heart-to-heart with my own damaged head. Instead of, you know, bailing on them as soon as they began to offer commitment, the one thing I was constitutionally (and borderline psychotically) incapable of providing. Bottom line: I hurt and irrevocably damaged quite a few people that didn’t deserve it, and I now have remorse over that.
This remorse– let’s go ahead and call it guilt— is at the very heart of why I have grown to love Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express as much as I do. To be fair, I have always admired the film. I saw it for the first time in 1995 when I was employed at a Blockbuster Video. The movie was a year old at the time, but had received an American DVD release courtesy of Quentin Tarantino, who was an ardent admirer of the director’s work. It was a New Release, and my staff and I were frequently inundated with questions from customers about it. That first viewing was a private party in the home of one of my supervisors. That initial screening fostered a long and meaningful conversation betwixt my co-workers and I about the merits of this particular offering. All of us, to a man, were especially impressed by Wong Kar Wai’s technique. Even if you didn’t like the story, there was no denying that it was a great-looking movie made by a man who loved the art of filmmaking intensely.
I saw this film many, many times over the subsequent years. I had gone so far as to bootleg the lone video cassette in the stock of our store so that I could bring the movie to gatherings and share it with friends. I saw it on big screens at various art theatres in my travels. I recall, in particular, a screening in Austin, TX at the Alamo Drafthouse where I became very annoyed with my companions who went on ad nauseum about how the entire film was ruined for them by the pacing of the first story. They were irritated with the narrative structure and didn’t care anymore by the time the plot became passably interesting to them in the midst of the second half. This opinion, quite frankly, pissed me off and we argued, for a goodly while, about how Chungking Express was (emphatically) not a film about narrative. “It’s a showcase of technique,” I kept insisting, only to be rebutted every step of the way by companions who couldn’t give two lumps of crap about technique if the movie presented was boring.
I took personal offense to this use of the word “boring” because that was the absolute, bottom-of-the-list, last word I would use to describe Chungking Express. I was hard-pressed at the time to explain why, but this movie spoke to me. It was the kind of story I dreamed of telling so succinctly, and it was presented in a manner that mirrored the visions of what my own films might look like were I lucky enough to get the opportunity to make them. I didn’t care that the plot had no obvious trajectory, that the structure had no true climax, that the first story (the film is split into two separate, unrelated set pieces) didn’t, in fact, have an ending. To me, this film was about finding a sense of self in an increasingly-disconnected world and I could relate to that. My friends felt duped by my exuberant praise of this movie because I hadn’t considered that my own love for it was too personal an experience for us to collectively share. They wanted a film that they could enjoy, and I had recommended a movie that I was at heart living in. They wanted escapism, and I was too held captive by my own experiences to consider Chungking Express as such.
What is this film about, you ask? It’s about the two vastly different experiences of two heartbroken police officers who frequent a run-down deli in the Chungking Market district of Hong Kong. In the first story, we meet Cop 223 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has convinced himself that his recent break-up is an elaborate April Fool’s Day prank. He decides to wait out the entire month before finding a new girlfriend, marking the days with cans of about-to-expire cans of pineapple (his ex-girlfriend’s favorite fruit), just in case she decides to give up on the gag. On the final night of the month, he meets Woman in Blonde Wig (played by Brigitte Lin) in a deserted nightclub. He can’t decide if she’s a sign that he should move on. In the second story, we meet Cop 663 (played by the always-great Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who has just ended a long-term relationship with a flight attendant (played by Valerie Chow). He is so lost in his own heartache that he remains completely oblivious to the flirtatious advances of Faye (played by Faye Wong), the cashier at his favorite lunch-break deli, to the point of not noticing that she regularly breaks into his apartment and rearranges his belongings.
The structure of making the point with two different stories is an interesting one. Both protagonists are, inherently, doing the same thing, but they are both going about it in different fashions. Cop 223 unintentionally finds himself by forcing himself to remain celibate. Cop 663 finds himself by refusing to even consider another woman until he has forgotten the previous one. In short, both men– whether by design or accident– spend the movie doing the one thing that I could never do myself: prepare themselves for unity with someone else by being alone. They are doing what I always should have done, but could never bring myself to manage.
Personal connections to films change over time, there’s no question. Recently, I spoke of Network and how it was a favorite movie for so long because I related so strongly to a line of dialogue that, ultimately, had little to do with the film’s main thesis. Over time, the film began to mean less because I couldn’t relate any longer to that quote and I wasn’t that enamored of the rest of the movie. Chungking Express had the opposite effect. I could never, until recently, articulate why the film meant so much to me. Imagine my surprise to discover that I wasn’t relating to the characters because I was doing what they did, but rather, because I was always unable to do the things I was admiring them for. It wasn’t so much that the film was speaking to me. It was trying to tell me what to do. If I had been listening, I could have prevented a good amount of debris in my wake.
After my best friend Stephen died in 2006, I began the process of bettering myself. Initially, the work began with purifying myself from painkillers and the hold prescription narcotics had on me, but it was clear to me that addiction was not only the mental illness that had its tendrils wrapped around my life. Working on my temper was certainly an element of this, but I was beginning to become fully cognizant of my personal difficulty with being alone. Over the ensuing months, counseling helped in this regard– my counselor had defined it, specifically, as an acute fear of abandonment, stemming, more than likely, from my fatherless childhood. By the time I had begun dating the woman who would become my wife, I had been single for almost an entire year. In fact, I had known this woman for a good number of months before “making a move”. I knew when we met that I was a work in progress and not much good for anyone, my personal attraction to her be damned.
In the beginning months of 2020– when the pandemic lockdowns began– I became very much aware that the work I had done over the years to be a better person had not cured me of old problematic behaviors. Believe me when I tell you there is no better test of your ability to handle being alone than being forced to spend every second of the time you are not at work staring at the four walls of your living room. Without my wife and children around as a constant barrier from my personal demons (a self-imposed quarantine due to the nature of my day job had us living in different households), I began to slip mentally and emotionally. Depression began to rear its ugly head. I began to consume more alcohol than I would on a normal night at home. Worst of all, I became stubbornly inattentive to my wife’s own inabilities to cope with real life, and I self-righteously refused to give in to my own long history of co-dependency on others. I didn’t need her to figure things out for me, an attitude that never took into account the possibility that maybe she needed me.
That was a somewhat scary stretch of a week or two, culminating mere days before our 9th wedding anniversary with the angry proclamation that maybe we shouldn’t stay married anymore. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and we both refused to call the other’s bluff. Instead of splitting up, I asked her and my children to move back into our home. We were just going to have get through the pandemic together and worry later about potential exposures to COVID if they happened. I was, for a moment, angry with myself that I had, once again, fallen into the trap of not being able to function on my own, but it was easy to see the difference between this situation and those in my past. In short, a woman I’ve been married to for nine years is not the same thing as the women over the years whom I regret treating as placeholders.
My wife and I worked our differences out almost as soon as they had moved back in. Earlier this year, we celebrated our 10th anniversary and are both more pro-active about taking time to talk to one another about the things that are wearing us down. At a certain point in there, I resumed seeing a counselor, so that I could rely on my wife without expecting her to rescue me. I have realized, through counseling, something somewhat bothersome: I may never be “better”. Depression and the symptoms and behaviors that act as its flotsam and jetsam are always present. They are camouflaged well, but they are also persistently tightroping on the edge between my happiness and ability to keep it together. Mental health is fickle sometimes and meaner than hell.
Readers, by this point, might be confused. They may be missing the connection between my love for a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese film and the admission that I am not as self-sufficient as I would like to pretend. To be fair, the connection may be tenuous. The connection may only exist because I created it, but I do know this: for three of the last five times I have watched this film, I was alone in a hotel room halfway across the country. I was exhausted from long hours at work, and I was missing my wife and kids. This film– a quirky, romantic comedy from Asia that is more concerned with technique than tale– has become my go-to viewing, my cinematic comfort food.
I see myself in these two characters– Cop 223 and Cop 633– though my relation to them has adapted itself over the decades since I first fell in love with them. Then, in 1995, I related to their heartache. I connected with their fumbled yearnings for love. Over time, I began to recognize that these two characters were not looking for love, but they were running from it. As backwards as their methods seemed to be, they were trying to prove to themselves that they did not need the love of a woman to be happy. They needed, instead, to be happy with themselves. Now, far removed from my circumstances when this film first hit my radar, I recognize that this film is only about romantic love on the most surface of levels. The representation depicted of romantic love is only a conduit for the real message: This is a film about two men that want to better themselves. They want to be better. The better they are for themselves, the more they have to offer those who might reciprocate the love they have to give.
I am a work in progress. I have been for a long time. I will continue to be so for a good while. It’s important to me that I admit that. It’s important to me that I acknowledge that, no matter how far I have progressed with my mental health over the years, I still always have more work to do. To that end, it’s important to recognize my flaws. I am certain that I have idiosyncrasies that drive those close to me insane: I am flighty in my desire to connect more than occasionally, I am frustrated easily when I have difficulty connecting, and I am quick to interrupt in conversation, perhaps so excited that I am connecting that the filters in my head just cease operating on a polite level. I’m working on it. I want to be better. Not just for me, but for others.