Poet of time: Wong Kar-Wai on Chungking Express

In this interview from our September 1995 issue, Tony Rayns catches up with Wong Kar Wai on the set of Fallen Angels to talk about the Hong Kong director’s achingly cool romance Chungking Express, one of the defining works of 90s arthouse cinema.

Wong Kar-Wai on six scenes from Chunging Express

Tony Rayns
Updated:

Faye Wong in Chungking Express (1994)

Faye Wong in Chungking Express (1994)

The location is tacky beyond anything the most brilliant production designer could have devised: a grimy beauty salon hidden away one floor above street level in a corner of Tsirnshatsui, Hong Kong’s tourist centre. Hard to say if the lurid green walls and coloured light bulbs are authentic 60s tat, or represent a forlorn 70s attempt to catch up with fashion; either way, nothing has been done to mitigate the massive wear and tear of the intervening decades.

Wong Kar-Wai and his designer William Chang have chosen this place as a setting for a killing in Wong’s new film Fallen Angels. It’s two o’clock on a hot April night, and the place is crowded with Indian extras: mostly men, but also a few women and one babe-in-arms whose father is fussing around anxiously wondering when they can go to bed. The hitman played by singer Leon Lai bursts in, causing the Indians to scatter in panic before one of them is gunned down. When I ask Wong Kar-Wai about the scene he’s shooting, he grins and says, “Tonight, I’m doing John Woo.”

This feature was originally published in our September 1995 issue

This feature was originally published in our September 1995 issue

Two months later I catch up with the unit once again, this time shooting in a decrepit apartment building in the back streets of Wanchai with two of the film’s other stars, Takeshi Kaneshiro (Cop #223 in Chungking Express) and Charlie Young (the mysterious silent girl in Ashes of Time). Young is rampaging through the building in search of someone, bawling threats up and down the fire-escape stairs; Kaneshiro plays her mute sidekick, backing up her anger with guttural noises and gestures of violence.

Again it’s in the small hours, and not surprisingly the residents are complaining about the noise. The scene turns out to be a retake of material already shot once; the difference being that the cinematographer this time is the increasingly masterly Chris Doyle, who shot Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and most of Chungking Express, but had to stop working on Fallen Angels in April when he was called to Shanghai to resume work on Chen Kaige’s new film. Wong wasn’t satisfied by most of the stuff shot by fill-in cameramen; hence a hastily arranged schedule of retakes. The film is supposed to premiere in Taiwan at the end of July.

However Fallen Angels turns out, Wong is already well established alongside Stanley Kwan as one of the few distinctive and original authors in Hong Kong cinema. Public interest in his movies has fluctuated alarmingly (Days of Being Wild was a major flop on first release, Ashes of Time was a financial disappointment relative to cast and cost, Chungking Express was a surprise hit), but his critical standing has risen steadily, as has his international reputation.

Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995)

One obvious reason for his erratic box-office performance is that, like Kwan, he seems more comfortable away from genre than suits the taste of the Hong Kong audience. Another is that his predilection for casting top stars against type or in unusual roles flouts industry wisdom. But stars queue up to work with Wong Kar-Wai. In a film industry notorious for the sketchy and amateurish nature of its training, many actors see Wong as a director who can bring out their best. Chungking Express (Chongqing Senlin, 1994), which tells two separate stories linked more by theme and mood than narrative line, seems the polar opposite of the films which precede and follow it in his filmography, Days of Being Wild (A-Fei Zhengchuan, 1990/91) and Ashes of Time (Dong Xie Xi Du, 1994).

The obsessed, embittered, haunted and intermittently hysterical characters of those movies seem a world away from the relatively relaxed modern city types who populate Chungking Express, their neuroses so unremarkable that they’re as normal as you or me. But as he explains in the following interview, Wong sees the difference simply as one of degree. All of his characters are afflicted by the same problems of loneliness, insecurity and inability to commit; it’s just that the ones in Chungking Express have found ways to cope which the others haven’t.

Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin in Chungking Express

Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin in Chungking Express

The protagonists of both stories in Chungking Express are lovelorn cops ditched by their girlfriends. In the first story, Plain-Clothes Cop #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is counting the days since his girlfriend gave him the push, a process which meshes in his mind with the countdown to his next birthday. Chance brings him into contact with a fascinating older woman (Brigitte Lin) with whom he spends a chaste night, unaware that she’s a big-time heroin smuggler who has just shot an absconding drugs courier and will gun down her two-timing supplier next day.

In the second story, Uniformed Cop #663 (Tony Leung) mopes at length over the fact that the air hostess he succeeded in seducing at 35,000 feet has discovered choice and left him for another man. He is unaware that he is an object of intense romantic passion for the young woman (Faye Wong) who serves fast-food at the late-night snack bar where he stops for coffee, and even less aware that she is in the habit of entering his apartment while he’s out, to clean and re-decorate it. Both stories mix their romantic melancholy with a great deal of humour.

Faye Wong and Tony Leung in Chungking Express

Faye Wong and Tony Leung in Chungking Express

Wong turned director in 1988 to film his own script As Tears Go By (Wangjiao Kamen), originally intended as the first part of a trilogy by Patrick Tam. The film is an idiosyncratic riff on the plot and themes of Mean Streets, set in the Triad-ridden backstreets of Mongkok; the protagonist (Andy Lau) is an enigmatic hitman dragged into trouble time and time again, by his excitable ‘disciple’ (Jacky Cheung).

It’s Wong’s most generic movie by far, but it’s high-octane visuals and step-printed action climaxes set him several notches higher than the average Hong Kong gangster-movie director. The subsequent films have lifted him to another level entirely: he has become not only a supreme visual stylist but also a poet of the kinds of love that tear people apart… and just occasionally bring them back together again.

He is also a poet of time. No other director since the (distant) heyday of Alain Resnais has been so attuned to the effects of time on memory, sensation and emotion. Few other directors have ever imbued their movies with such a meta- physical sense of time at work: dilating, stretching, lurching, dragging, speeding by.

In teaming up with Chris Doyle, the Australian-born cinematographer who almost never uses a tripod and is known for his highly physical engagement with the action of the films he shoots, Wong has found the perfect co-conspirator for his adventures with pacing and rhythm. Doyle’s fluid takes lend themselves equally to dynamic jump-cutting (Chungking Express) and moments of stasis (Ashes of Time); they also allow Wong all the leeway he needs for his improvisatory work with actors.

And William Chang, Hong Kong’s answer to the late Ferdinanda Scarfiotti, completes the triangle with a design sense that’s completely in tune with Wong’s need for sets and locations which evoke the past, recent or distant, or which testify to the effects of time. Together, the three of them make one of the most charged creative teams in present-day filmmaking.

Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai

Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-Wai

Wong Kar-Wai has been through three night-long shoots in succession on Fallen Angels when we finally sit down to talk in the coffee-shop of the hotel he’s using as his temporary base. He’s tired, and the interview is an obvious distraction from more urgent matters of script revision and further reshoots. But he’s cheerful and forthcoming…. and insists that he now feels more optimistic than he can ever remember being before. I only wish I could print some of the gossip we shared.


You studied graphic design at Hong Kong Polytechnic, but you entered the film industry as a scriptwriter. Which is more important to you, the writing or the ‘look’ of a film?

My ideas about writing changed as soon as I started directing. As a writer, I wanted my scripts to be perfect and fully formed. As a director, I know there are always factors beyond my control. Many things in any film cannot be planned concretely in advance. The best you can do is visualise what you want, and then respond to what’s there once you go on set. Nowadays I start from a fairly loose script and tend to write the dialogue on the day of shooting. On Chungking Express, for example, I would sit in the coffee shop of the Holiday Inn on Nathan Road writing the lines and then go two blocks down the road to Chungking Mansions and give them to the actors just before we shot.

The ‘look’ of my films has been developed over the years with William Chang and the cinematographers. I’ve known William for many years; we’re from very similar Shanghainese families, and have a lot in common. We don’t need to talk much; there’s an instinctive mutual understanding. I first worked with Chris Doyle on Days of Being Wild and didn’t really get on with him at first. It was later that we became friends. He doesn’t have a strong technical background, but he’s exceptionally good with light. That was actually a problem for him on Ashes of Time, because most of it had to be shot outdoors; he’s much more experienced with indoor shooting in con- trolled-light conditions.

I started making Chungking Express with Lau Wai-Keung as the cinematographer, but he had to leave to work on a project of his own and I ended up asking Chris to take over after running into him in Tokyo, where he was working on the post-production of Stanley Kwan’s Red Rose, White Rose. He eventually reshot some parts of the film that I’d done before he joined the production, partly to unify the film’s ‘look’ and partly because I’d rethought some sequences and wanted to redo them.

Days of Being Wild was a reaction against my first film As Tears Go By, which was full of harsh light and neon. I told Chris I wanted to do a ‘monochrome’ film, almost drained of colour. It’s a film about different kinds of depression, and it needed to be very blank, very thin in texture. That created many problems for Chris: many filters, few lights, very hard to control focus. That’s one reason it took so long to shoot.

Fallen Angels is tricky in a different way. We’re shooting it almost entirely with wide-angle lens, with the actors very close to camera. We’re again not using many lights, and there are constant problems, with face-shadows. The reason for using short focal length lenses is that you get a feeling of seeing the characters from a distance even though you’re very close to them.

Ashes of Time (1994)

Ashes of Time (1994)

Both Ashes of Time and Chungking Express use a lot of voice-overs. Is that because you want to extend your way of writing at the last minute into the editing process?

In a way, yes. But voice-overs are very important anyway. Nowadays people are more likely to talk to themselves than to others.


Do you read a lot?

Yes. My father forced me to read the Chinese classics while I was in primary school. I was in Hong Kong by then, but my elder brother and sister were still in Shanghai and we stayed in touch by mail. In China, they had very limited access to good fiction — Balzac, Tolstoy, not much else. I wanted to keep up with them, and so I tried to read the same books. I found that once you were through the first 200 pages, Balzac is great! Later I moved on to Raymond Chandler and John Steinbeck and some Japanese novelists. Nowadays I read mostly autobiographies: Maria Callas, Muhammad Ali, Tennessee Williams.

Several people have noticed a connection between Chungking Express and the novels of Haruki Murakami, and I notice that many of the music cues on the soundtrack CD have been given titles drawn from Murakami’s books.

I especially liked his early novel Pinball ‘73 and his short story A Girl, She is 100%. Now that he’s started worrying about the onset of middle age, I’ve kind of lost interest. But he and I are about the same age, and we had very similar formative experiences: we were both marked by what I call “Seventh Fleet culture” in those years between the Korean War and Vietnam. We both bought the music, the cigarettes, the lifestyle; seeing big foreigners on the streets made a strong impression on us. What I identified with in his books was the sense of being a certain age: of being not yet so far out of your twenties that you’ve forgotten them, but not yet feeling middle-aged.

What was the origin of Chungking Express?

Once we finished shooting Ashes of Time we took a much-needed break and I found myself thinking that I should make a small film for myself. As a writer-director, I have many ideas for films that never get developed. You’re sitting in a coffee-shop and an idea comes up, but there’s no time to take it further. It might just be a gut feeling, it can easily evaporate. Anyhow, Chungking Express was based on two ideas that came to me like that. Originally there were three; the third is now the basis for Fallen Angels.

The first story changed a lot during filming. Brigitte Lin was supposed to be retiring from the screen after shooting Chungking Express, so we originally conceived her character as something like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. She loved this: she was forever trying on wigs and acting to herself in the mirror. It was a very simple story: she responds to a newspaper advertisement for an actress, happens to meet the Takeshi Kaneshiro character and later stands him up. Eventually we kept the wig and the idea of a non-romance, but our model changed from Streetcar to John Cassevettes’s Gloria.

Why are the men in both stories cops?

Partly because Hong Kong movies are supposed to be action-orientated; they’re full of cops and gangsters, and I chose cops. Partly because I like the idea of uniforms and service numbers.

Do you see the film’s characters as having the same kind of symbolic dimension that the characters had in Days of Being Wild?

Days of Being Wild centres on various feelings about staying in or leaving Hong Kong. That’s less of an issue now that we’re so close to 1997. Chungking Express is more about the way people feel now. In Days, the characters are not happy with their solitude; it’s the same with the characters in Ashes of Time. The people in Chungking Express know how to entertain themselves, even if it’s just by talking to a bar of soap. They know how to live in a city.


Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Did you seriously try to recreate the Hong Kong of the 1960s in Days of Being Wild?

I researched the period for nearly a year, right down to finding out what a steak cost in a restaurant at that time, but then realised I’d never be able to recreate old Hong Kong in such detail. The original idea was to set the first part of the film in 1963, the year I arrived in Hong Kong as a child. After doing the research, I moved it back to 1960. There was a sense that we were moving into a new page of history, with the election of Kennedy and so on. Hong Kong people were starting to become seriously ambitious. The whole world was waking up to something new. I set out to describe three contrasted types: the immigrant from Shanghai (the Leslie Cheung character), the Hong Kong native from Cheung Chau island (Andy Lau) and the rootless drifter (Tony Leung). [Leung plays the protagonist of the film’s aborted second part, glimpsed only briefly at the end of the film as it stands].

Since I didn’t have the resources to recreate the period realistically, I decided to work entirely from memory. And memory is actually about a sense of loss – always a very important element in drama. We remember things in terms of time: “Last night I met…”, “Three years ago, I was…”. But the game that Policeman #223 plays with the sell-by dates of cans of pineapple rings in Chungking Express is something different again. That’s simply his way of making every minute of his life count for something.

Is there a sense in which Ashes of Time is the missing second part of Days of Being Wild?

I’m still always trying to understand the character played by Andy Lau in As Tears Go By. He’s a gangster, and I don’t know what he thinks or what motivates him. The other characters are easy to understand: I know exactly what the cousin (Maggie Cheung) and the impulsive kid (Jacky Cheung) are thinking. But not him. My curiosity about this character carried over into the characters played by Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time. In that sense, Ashes does represent a continuation of Days. But Days was not a genre film, and Ashes is. Usually I find that genre conventions get in the way of dealing with certain areas of character psychology, but one of my inspirations for Ashes was The Searchers – a film which suggests how you can get inside an apparently opaque protagonist. In Ford’s film, I’ve always been extremely touched by the relationship between the John Wayne character and his sister-in-law, which you see only in the way she passes him a cloth. It must amount to about three seconds of screen time, but the hint is enough.

You used to write scripts for Patrick Tam, whose films are notoriously misogynistic – in fact you wrote Final Victory, which may be the most misogynistic he ever made. Are you generally more interested in male characters than female characters?

It makes no difference to me. In Days of Being Wild, the original concept was to start out focusing on men and gradually shift the focus to the women. Part two would have centred on the Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau characters, showing how they try to overcome the traumas caused by their failed love affairs. And I think that Maggie Cheung’s character in Ashes of Time is the pivot around which the whole story turns. But it really makes no difference. Sometimes the setting is just as important as any of the human characters. I sometimes use an image without any actors in it at all, like the phone booth in Days of Being Wild. You can show change by showing things that don’t change.

So where are you going in Fallen Angels?

The spirit of the film will be a continuation of Chungking Express, but the story has been developed a lot since I decided to turn it into a feature in its own right. It’s a story about the two sides of a coin. It begins with the literal flip of a coin, and then moves into two parallel stories with two sets of characters. But they intersect much more than those in Chungking Express.

How does it relate to your feelings about nostalgia and regret?

It’s all about ways to keep yourself happy.

~

Wong Kar Wai on six scenes from Chungking Express

 

1. Brigitte Lin handing dollars to a group of Indians in a Chunking Mansions hostel

This is from the first story: Brigitte Lin (in raincoat. shades and blonde wig) is hiring these Indians to courier heroin out of Hong Kong. It was very funny shooting these scenes, because we never got the same Indian extras twice. The only guys who turned up regularly whenever we needed the extras were the one sitting next to Brigitte and the one above him on the upper bunk: they’re from different Indian provinces and have some kind of love· hate relationship. I’ve used both of them again in Fallen Angels. I even thought of keeping the others’ passports in order to get them to come back when they were needed, but it never worked.

I lived in the Tsimshatsui district when I was a kid, and befriended a very cosmopolitan group of people: westerners. White Russians and lots of Indians and Pakistanis. I remember that I was always much bigger physically than the Indians and so I was amazed the day when the boys suddenly had beards and the girls had breasts. My reasons for using Indian and Pakistani extras in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels have a lot to do with those childhood memories.

 

2. Tony Leung and Valerie Chow in underwear with toy planes

This is a flashback to Cop #663 (Tony Leung) and his ex-girlfriend (Valerie Chow) in the heyday of their romance. I had to decide what the ex-girlfriend should do, and a number of different things came to mind which made her an air hostess. One thing was the miniature planes which I remembered from my childhood: we had to search long and hard to find some for the film. Another was the song ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’ sung by Dinah Washington, which I remembered being used in a Pan Am commercial years ago. Once the girlfriend’s job had been decided, we had to figure out which airline she should work for: it was decided only on the morning of the day we shot with her, when my line producer Jacky Pang called up a friend of hers who worked for United and borrowed a uniform. When Faye Wong reappears at the end of the film as an air hostess, she was supposed to be working for Cathay Pacific. But Faye looked awful in the Cathay uniform and so she became a United stewardess too.

 

3. Takeshi Kaneshiro using a public phone, with Faye Wong in the background.

This shot is from a sequence that’s not in the final version of the film: we shot it at a fast-food stall which wouldn’t let us back, and so we ended up doing all the fast-food counter scenes at Midnight Express. This scene was reshot there, with Kaneshiro in a different shirt and Faye not wearing shades The scene marks the transition from the first story to the second; it’s where Kaneshiro passes up the chance to date Faye.

Kaneshiro is from Taiwan, and I didn’t realize that he was part-Japanese when I started working with him. He told me during the shoot that he could speak Japanese, and so I decided to use that. Actually, he seems so natural when he speaks Japanese it felt like shooting Japanese soap opera in those scenes.

Faye Wong was also a newcomer to film (she appeared in one other movie with the pop group Beyond), and se was very tense at first, especially in dialogue scenes. When I realised this, I kept her in the background for the first few days, and shot stuff between Tony Lung and the manager of the fast-food counter. I wasn’t sure that she’d be able to hold the viewer’s attention without dialogue, but her body language was great from the start. And after a few days she relaxed into the role: no problems at all.

 

4. Faye Wong holding toy plane in Tony Leung’s apartment.

This shows Faye Wong alone in Cop 663’s apartment, and it was photographed for the poster, not for the film. We posed her and asked her to play around with the miniature plane. The apartment we used actually belongs to Chris Doyle. We searched for ages for the right location, and Chris finally suggested taking a look at his place. I liked only two things about it: one was the curtain, which you can see in this shot, and the other was the fact that the Mid-Levels escalator passes right outside the window.

Chris was very upset by what we did to the place during the shoot. We flooded it, did a lot of other damage, and completely screwed up his fax machine – which he desperately needs to communicate with all his many girlfriends. He was furious with us at the time. But just recently two Japanese photographers came to shoot the place, because of the film. And so it’s become famous now!

 

5. Brigitte Lin in Chungking Mansions corridor with Indian extras.

This is from early in the first story, where Brigitte Lin is recruiting potential drug couriers in Chungking Mansions. We actually used three locations for these scenes: one in Chungking Mansions itself, the other two in Mirador Mansions next door. I scouted around these buildings to find suitable locations, and I remember knocking at the door of one particularly shabby apartment. A very fat woman answered, whispering something that I couldn’t understand and pointing to the apartment next door. Next door was a junkie who kept saying, “Don’t shoot here.” With the heat, the smells, the noise, the whole experience was hellish. That’s what I wanted to capture.

We shot this at the very end of a long day when everyone was exhausted and in a foul mood – with the exception of Brigitte, who kept her cool and helped coach the Indian extras. She was incredibly patient, and very professional. Similar situations arose during the shoot of Fallen Angels, but I had no one like Brigitte to rely on this time.

 

6. Faye Wong in toy shop with Polaroid camera: Brigitte Lin on sidewalk outside.

Chungking Express (1994)

This is Faye Wong’s only appearance in the first story: she’s buying a cuddly toy in the shop, and impulsively photographs Brigitte Lin who’s waiting outside. I had the two women looking at each other, each thinking that the other might be her younger/older self; eventually they pose for a photo together. All of this was drastically shortened and simplified in the finished film, because we weren’t able to shoot the follow-up scene for the end of the film: Brigitte was no longer available by then.

My original intention was that the two stories should intersect more than they do, and that the four main characters should all meet at least once somewhere in the film. One ending I wrote had all four of them in the transit lounge of Taipei Airport at the same time: Tony Leung was waiting for a connecting flight to California, Brigitte Lin was being arrested as a drug trafficker, Takeshi Kaneshiro was coming back to Taiwan to visit his family, and Faye Wong was there as an air hostess. This was abandoned when I couldn’t get permission to shoot on the location I wanted in the domestic air terminal. That place had the right feel and was the right size. They offered me the Chiang Kai-Shek International terminal instead, but I didn’t like it. 

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