The 'Chungking Express' Soundtrack Makes Repetition Beautiful
By hearing the same songs over and over, we enter a daydream: one expertly detailed with the nuanced pains and pleasures of life.
Still from 'Chungking Express'
Explore the deep, dingy bowels of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions for long enough and you’ll stumble across the Midnight Express snack bar. You’ll know you’re there; a song gives it away. As chef’s salads and slices of doner meat find themselves tucked tightly into wraps of tinfoil, “California Dreamin’” by The Mamas and The Papas slinks out into the dead of another dismal night. For a distracted and dreamy cashier, the song is a passport to a world an ocean away.
The cashier’s name is Faye, and she’s one of the central characters in the film Chungking Express. Beloved by Frank Ocean (it sits between Eraserhead and Raging Bull on his favourite films ever list) and Quentin Tarantino, the film is responsible for turning a chaotic hotel-cum-bistro-cum-sari-shop into a bona fide holiday destination for avid cinema-goers and arch-romantics.
If you’ve yet to see it, the film’s story is cut into two. In the first half, the recently dumped Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) spends each day buying tinned pineapples and pining for the lover who fled him on April Fool’s day. In the second, another broken-hearted policeman – Cop 663 (Tony Leung) – bumps into and subsequently falls for Faye (played by Faye Wong). Though different, both stories tell a tale of hope, the unknown, and the repercussions of chance.
Like Frank Ocean, the film is a firm favourite of mine. Part of that is down to acceptance. First, I prefer familiarity and comfort, and films like Chungking Express leave me feeling like I’ve just eaten a kilo of spaghetti carbonara in the bath. Second, I love schmaltz, and as luck would have it, Chungking Express mutates itself into a very schmaltzy movie. And third, the soundtrack is a gorgeous, sentimental selection of songs that – despite being minuscule in their number – offer a strange, fuzzy feeling rolling around your stomach, even after watching the movie alone in the dark time and time, and time and time again.
Though I remember Chungking Express so much I could watch it with my eyes closed, that would be a mistake. Wong’s long-term collaborators Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau make the city look gorgeous. Woozy blues are shot through with slashes of neon; the piercing striplights of late-night supermarkets glimmer and glow next to adverts for exotically American brands like Coca Cola and McDonalds; and Brigitte Lin (who meets the first cop), forever in Hollywood sunglasses, is wreathed in smoke, an icon of her own making. Essentially: the city is alive in every frame, and yet it also feels artificial – as though the film is aware of its very being as a film. From the way it happily blends genre (noir meets screwball comedy) to the convention-adhering conclusion, there’s no attempt to convey reality as it is, and the movie is all the better for it.
This idea of artificiality in most obvious in the Chungking Express soundtrack. Yes, the film features just a few songs: ”Things in Life” by Dennis Brown, “California Dreamin’” by the Mamas and the Papas, Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” and Faye Wong’s Cantonese cover of “Dreams” by the Cranberries”. But these are used repetitively, telling the whole story, circling back on themselves, punctuating the entire film. Each of us, the soundtrack seems to suggest, is doomed to a life lived under the shadow of an inescapable series of repetitions. We will make the same mistakes over and over, never sure of how the knot can be untied.
Perhaps the best example of the film’s commitment to the possibility and power inherent to repetition is to be found in its endless use of “California Dreamin”. This song acts like a semi-colon, propelling us into the zaniness of the second half, where Leung and Wong’s game of cat and mouse has that aforementioned gorgeously sappy and happy ending. The tune dominates the story, reminding us constantly that the figures Wong presents us are ciphers for the kind of loneliness that accompanies metropolitan living – all of them, across both stories, wants to escape, and for Faye Wong’s pixieish, mischievous character, it is a literal transplantation she’s after. California or bust.
In lesser hands all this repetition could be trite, rendering the film little more than a series of music videos threaded together with the barest strings of narrative. Wong, however, manages to make each successive play of each song feel increasingly significant, as if just one more spin can resolve everything.
Then there’s the film’s most memorable scene, and one that’s most overtly indebted to the kinetic pleasure of the music video as a medium (watch a fan-made version above). Having been given a letter – a parting gift from the stewardess – to deliver to Cop 663’s apartment, Faye lets herself in, and sets to rearranging the place. This scene of strange, charming, domestic invasion is set to her soaring rendition of the Cranberries’ already soaring enormo-pop hit, a song as full of joy as anything that’s been released before or since, an open-hearted, wide-eyed, bolt from a cosmos where life is enjoyed rather than endured.
Here, in the world of Chungking Express, that audio visual combination stands in for a kind of intimacy that most of us routinely and regularly attach to love interests. OK, most of us don’t sneak into someone’s house and roll around on their bed with a magnifying glass, but we all think about doing that, right? Right! Or at least, we all allow ourselves those kind of daydreams where domesticity meets devotion, and we can speak the unspeakable, without words getting tangled and in the way.
This idea – that the romance we learn in films can have any analogous relationship to reality – is what makes me love the film and the soundtrack so much. The first half is gloomy, doomy, knowingly thick and heavy and dark, all cigarette smoke and portentous silence, and then in the space of a chord – and “California Dreamin’” really does crash into the mix, when the viewer is introduced to Faye and her kebab shop – we’re somewhere lighter and freer, and more hopeful.
Life doesn’t tend to end like a film. So we circle back to old favourites, more than happy to be led into an unspooling of sentimentality. On sad days, I think this might be the only real purpose art, of any form, truly serves: watch something enough, listen to it, experience it and imbue it enough and it might just be enough to make another day worth it. So we eat our popcorn, and drink our drinks, and hope that when the lights come on we can do it all over again. And so I watch the film, the ending arrives, and I smile. Then Faye Wong sings again: “Oh my life is changing everyday / In every possible way / And oh my dreams / It's never quite as it seems /Never quite as it seems.”
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