Chungking Express, seeing

Two weeks ago I watched Chungking Express, inspired by the Hong Kong episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown that features the idiosyncratic cinematographer Christopher Doyle. As Bourdain and Doyle talked about the influence of the camera on how we perceive and interact with the real world, I thought: I should see one of the films they are mentioning.

After I watch an outstanding film, sometimes I’ll look back at the trailers and check out those DVDs from the library too. I’ll also, more rarely, seek out movies with a particular actor. With Chungking Express, I thought: I should see more films by Wong Kar-wai. How did I not know about him before?

The first vignette takes place during the spring of 1994. We apprehend this because our protagonist is going from store to store in search of canned pineapple with an expiration of May 1, 1994, the date he will give up hope of reuniting with his girlfriend. This slyly humorous plot device reminded me of how I used to mark time towards the end of Mookie’s life, looking first at bottles of shampoo, then at gallons of milk, wondering if they would last longer than he.

Certain memories of spring 1994 are vivid. Friends and colleagues at Andover surprised me with a birthday party. I interviewed for a job at Bard College. My students in Bartlet wore T-shirts screen-printed with Mookie, including when they played a concert on the lawn behind the dorm.

25 years ago, the protagonist was 25 years old, and I was near that age too. Half a lifetime ago.

I truly attended to Chungking Express, engaged by the snappy cinematography, fine acting, and iconic locations like Chungking Mansions and the Central/Mid-Levels Escalator. But also because of the subtitles. When watching at home, with many distractions available, it can be challenging to watch any film, and most of the Chinese films I’ve watched before have focused on action. This time, the subtitles helped to focus my attention.

I intended to watch it again, because it strikes me as a film that rewards multiple viewings, but someone else has requested it from the library. Good on them. I will watch another Wong Kar-wai film instead, having just requested Ashes of Time Redux and Fallen Angels. And I am awakened, after also watching Crazy Rich Asians with the children this past week, to how enjoyable a film can be when it takes on a different cast.

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