Wong Kar-wai had built a respectable following after his first two films, As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild, gained the respects of critics worldwide. After the success of those two projects, Wong became the premier face of the Hong Kong New Wave.
But he reached brand new heights with his third film: Chungking Express. Made “like a student film,” Wong crafted together a movie that has stood the test of time better than any of his other work. This affectionate ode to lovestruck young adults is stirring, experimental, and relatable all at once.
With that said…Chungking Express is a strange film, right? The movie contains two stories where characters don’t crossover. There are scenes where the same songs play over and over again. And both stories in the film don’t have any real resolution.
So what exactly is Chungking Express about?
If we observe the main themes and motifs of the film, the answer to that question becomes much clearer. So if this is your first time watching the movie, or if you’re looking for some guidance upon rewatch, then here are the key themes and motifs to watch for that could enhance the viewing experience.
1. The pain of loneliness
The urban environment of Chungking Express is crucial to understand the three main themes of the film. An abundance of buildings, a lack of space, packed to the brim with people—it’s enough to make you feel small and out of place.
That’s at least the case with the main characters in Wong’s breakout film. They are all disconnected, lonely individuals who believe a romantic partner can break them free of their bleak situations. But until they find that partner, ennui and desolation consumes them.
2. Finding your identity
As the characters of Chungking Express painstakingly attempt to break free from their solitude, we see them trying to discover who they truly are. In their urban environments—where there’s a new person everywhere you turn—this can feel daunting. Two of the characters (Cop 663 and the women in the blonde wig) don’t even have names! This is where several of the motifs come into play (we’ll get to those down below).
3. Real love takes time
Because of each character’s depression, they ironically fail to recognize that a chance at real love is standing right in front of them—which leaves other characters in the cold. Real love can be vibrant and uplifting, but you also need the proper foundation for that love to grow. We see the characters of Chungking Express trying to find each other at the right time and place so that their love can flourish.
An interesting repeating element of Chungking Express is the repetition of certain songs:
- “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown
- “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas and the Papas
- “Dreams” by The Cranberries
- “What a Diff’rence a Day Has Made” by Dinah Washington
These songs are often diegetic, meaning the characters themselves are playing the songs in-scene. We can relate this to the theme of combatting loneliness, as well as the theme of finding your identity. The characters are trying to control the mood and direction of their narratives. They find solace in these songs.
You can think about the soundtrack on a surface level: Faye wants to visit California, so she often plays “California Dreamin.'” Or you can think about it on an emotional level: Faye feels lost in the urban environment of Hong Kong and wishes to escape to the dreamy, sunny land of California.
2. Expiration Dates
He Qiwu becomes obsessed with eating pineapple that will expire on May 1 because the woman he loves, May, enjoyed the fruit. The act of eating food that’s about to expire is cathartic for He Qiwu. It’s a strange way of grappling with his loneliness and getting over the breakup.
Meanwhile, we see Faye switch the labels on Cop 663’s sardine collection. This can be seen as Faye’s small way of being part of the cop’s everyday environment. It could also be related to Faye’s inability (and desire) to control time and space in Cop 663’s life.
Two different characters in the movie go to airports: the woman in the blonde wig and Faye. The former uses the airport as a transport for her drug business, while the latter boards a flight to California.
Both instances are revealing of how characters fight their loneliness. The woman in the blonde wig remains in Hong Kong—she stews in her solitude and pushes others away. Meanwhile, Faye needs to escape the urban environment so that she can find herself and be ready to love the cop.
Let’s not forget the final lines of the film (major spoiler alert here, by the way). While writing a boarding pass for the cop, Faye asks, “Where do you want to go?” To which Cop 663 responds, “Wherever you want to take me.” At the end of the movie, the cop makes it clear that his destination is her destination.
Two women wear blonde wigs; two men are cops; two women are named May; two women become stewardesses; both Faye and Cop 663 work in the kitchen—yes, there are lots of “doubles” in this movie. But what does that mean?
You can see two of the themes at play here. The easy answer is that the doubles represent a search for one’s identity. Often, a character’s new job (like Faye becoming a stewardess) represents a new direction in life (she needs to escape Hong Kong to collect herself). But on top of that, we see characters actively inserting themselves in other characters’ lives by taking on those new roles (a way of fighting loneliness and forcing love).
I know—that’s a big word. But it’s meaning is simple, and it’s something you’ll recognize in Chungking Express: the tendency that some people have to attribute personality and human intentions to inanimate objects.
This, obviously, can be seen as the characters’ struggle with loneliness. The way Cop 663 talks to his towels and soap; the symbolism that He Qiwu acknowledges when eating the pineapple; how Faye interacts with objects in the cop’s apartment. It’s all representative of how each of these characters is dealing with the inability to find romantic connections.