Chungking Express — a movie produced in 1993, directed and scripted by the well- known Wong Kar Wai, is a great illustration how impactful are cinematic symbols that the movie influence both locally and globally even till nowadays. Below, I will first briefly introduce the core concept of symbolic interactionalism and the movie’s plot, then discuss about its importance in local society then and now, and how it affects the oversea Chinese community international-wide.
“The self-concept” and “the object” are two of symbolic interactionalism’s Core (Aldiabat, 2011). For “the self-concept”, “I” is human’s most genuine reaction to the attitudes of the others which gain stimulation from socialization and communication. Thus, internal conversation — reflection, take place, then “I” turns into “Me” which is a set of organized set of definition, attitudes, perception and expectation from generalized others — the attitudes of community in social context (Aldiabat, 2011). “The Object” is anything that can be indicated, including physical, social and abstract objects like ethics. Object has no inherent meanings as they alter via social interactions (Aldiabat, 2011). Agreement on meanings entitle objects with designation which is vital for sensible human communication as human commination is based on the social meanings of objects (Aldiabat, 2011).
Plot of Chungking Express
The movie is split into two parts, both depicting a love story in a hectic city. The first part is set at night while the other is in daytime. Cop 223 and Crop 633 — heroes from the first and second part respectively, are both jilted. 223 met the dug smugger played by Brigitte Lin, whose boss is an Anglo bartender slash drug dealer and betrayed by the Indian Chungking Mansions residents and participants of her smuggling scheme, at a bar and fell in love with her after spending a night with her in a hotel room, watching TV while Lin falls asleep, and she paged him “happy birthday” in the morning. In the second half, 633 falls in love with the counter girl in the food joint called Mid-night Express who has a California dream — Faye, after realizing that she breaks into and “renovate” his apartment with the keys his fight attend ex-girlfriend left in the food joint along with a letter, a “boarding pass of a canceled flight”.
Symbols of Urban Romance
One reason behind the film’s time and space binding influence is its metaphor for depicting urban romantic love. After almost three decades, quotes and stills from the film even appears on social media post and trendy merchants.
The most well-known quotes are “I passed just 0.01cm from her, but 57 hours later, I fell in love with this woman.” (我們最接近的時候，我跟她之間的距離只有 0.01 公分，57 個小時之後，我愛上了這個女人。) and “Is there anything in the world that doesn’t have an expiry date? If memories could be canned, would they also have expiry dates? If so, I hope they last for centuries.” (如果記憶是一個罐頭的話，我希望這一個罐頭不會過期；如果一定要加一個日子的話，我希望是「一萬年」。), which is even adapted in another Iconic Hong Kong movie — A Chinese Odyssey Part Two-Cinderella. The first quote symbolizes the ridiculously casual romance in this packed metropolis via the 0.01 cm closeness and the 57 hours speediness. The second quote is more likely a prayer from the dirt. The film featured even a scavenger will not accept free yet expired canned food and the commonness of labeling an expire date manifests urbanites’ craving for freshness. By putting these emotions and situation under a “microscope”, it subtlety projects the 90s’and present dwellers’ romantic frustrations and wishes that can hardly express by words. Thus, these quotes became important symbols or metaphors for them and us to signify corresponding emotions, generating a set of significant and novel common langue in Hong Kong society for nearly three decades.
Furthermore, the way it depicts the commonality of loneliness, refusal of emotion connection and regret in this city also gives comfort via showing understanding. The four main characters are lonely and isolated. Faye pray for salvation by playing “California Dreamin’” almost throughout the film at ear-splitting volume as it stop her from thinking, 223 and 633 project their feelings on objects — 223 asks a tired convenience-store employee rhetorically to consider how expired cans must feel like about being thrown away and 633 try to seek companions and encourage himself by having conversation with and projecting himself in several objects in his department— telling a bar of worn out soap to have more confidence for example, Lin wear both raincoat and sunglasses as she being careful for no one knows when will it rain or turn out sunny, symbolizing a kind of insecurity (Brunette, 2005). The Chungking Mansion is like Hong Kong society’s microcosm, representing Hong Kong’s diversity of ethnic groups and filled with cultural and language barrier that communication is hard and connection between people is close physically yet weak mentally for the city’s rush that refusal of emotional connection is rooted in Hong Kongers’ mentality (Brunette, 2005). For example, Lin cannot realize betrayal of the Indian gang as she does not speak Hindi. One can hardly feel belonged, and the uncertainties induce untrustworthiness and insecurity that are shared among nowadays Hong Kongers and citizen back then when the movie was launched. Lin drops the blond wig, which was also worn by the bar girl with her boss and so suggests a sort of conformity of the bartender’s racial expectations, when she kills her boss, 223 and 633 both first abandons and end up resurrecting the reconnections from their love ones — the pager for 223 and Faye’s letter for 633 (Brunette, 2005). These metaphors solace and resolve the loneliness and refusal of both the characters and Hong Kongers that there are still people who try to express their love-life trouble through posting and quoting elements from the movie.
Symbols of identity
The food joint Mid-night express in located in central Lan Kwai Fong — Hong Kong’s version of SoHo and the Chungking Mansion is in Tsim Sha Tsui, both places was filled with Hong Kong’s famous yet fading and colourful neon signs. Chungking Express is like Wong Kar Wai’s love letter to his frenetic hometown which then turn into a cultural document to watch and prove of identity for Hong Kongers nowadays and oversea Chinese communities both in that time and now, that they can only see and show others the beauty of the “neon sea”, an old Hong Kong element, through movies, especially Chungking Express, videos and pictures.
Additionally, the emphasis on Hong Kong culinary variety via Mid-night Express, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous interest in American companies and products, for instance, brands such as Del Monte, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Kent cigarettes and United Airlines, music like “California Dreamin’” and “What a Difference a Day Makes”, and fashion items like British raincoats. These quasi-universal international culture signifiers manifest the Hong Kong’s economic status equivalent to what the neologism “Nylonkong” (New York, London and Hong Kong) suggested. Overseas Chinese community like, Ah Beng, which was originally a Chinese working-class male stereotype served as a national joke in Malaysia yet transformed in to a trendy and desirable subculture as these they had attempted to adopt Hong Kong ‘art house’ style though styling themselves and thus found their identity from Hong Kong youthful films like Chungking Express (Chan & Edo, 2015), have started to search for their identities from imitating the Crown Colonyin lifestyle portrayed in Hong Kong media.
Although Wong himself has once denied any certain meaning of the clocks captured in his film in a 2001 interview (Yang, 2009), yet Gina Marchetti, the Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, School of Humanities, at the University of Hong Kong, has suggest that the recurring clock numbers clicking over is a symbol of time moving forward, its obsessive references of time — also as the fact that every individuals seems to own a boarding pass and was considering whether to stay or leave Hong Kong, render this symbol of clock related to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 (Yang, 2009). She also added that with the uncertainty and a sense of being abandoned amidst Hong Kongers at that time is mirrored by the jilted lovers in the movie that no one had the power or say in such decision (Brunette, 2005). Wong himself also vaguely connected Chung King Express with political issue by pointing out that the movie is about how people felt and the way they solve these loneliness and jilted feelings by entertain themselves at that time (Brunette, 2005). These manifest does not only resonate with Hong Kongers back in the 90s yet as well as those nowadays, as the worries about uncertain alternation in political environment, such as the limitation in freedom of speech, and the thoughts of leaving among Hong Kong society has not faded away after the 1997 hand over but instead intensified as time goes. Therefore, whether Wong intentionally included these political symbols or not, they are parts of the reasons why the film plays a vital role in Hong Kong society for nearly three decades as they touch the deepest feelings of concern down in Hong Kongers’ hearts.
Symbol of Hong Kong Movie
Brunette (2005) mentioned that Wong denied the absurdism and long interiors depicted in his film his dystopia vision of this world and claimed that they are because the rush of production and the limited space in Hong Kong. Yet this Hong Kong production style shape Wong Kar Wai’s film into an icon of Hong Kong movies and received great comment globally which greatly increase the proud conveyed in the identity as a Hong Kongers. Thus, the elements and storying telling technique from Chungking Express also become part of Hong Kong culture.
Wong’s signature aesthetic includes the stretch printing in action scenes shot with handheld camera, because of the crowed and tense urban environment, and with accompaniment of heavily inflected background music, such as the chase scene of 233 in the beginning of Chungking Express (Brunette, 2005). French critic Jean-Marc Lalanne expressed his compliment on its graphic expressivity emphasis via editing that cut and recomposed actors’ every movement just like a choreography that the gestures become abstract and unfunctional for a purely musical value (Brunette, 2005). Wong’s second signature aesthetic is “abstract painting”, by capturing 633 and Faye standing frozen while a crowd of anonymous Hong Kongers, soundlessly passes in front of them all in bur as a symbol of the loneliness in this fast-paced society (Brunette, 2005). Narration by off-screen voices of the characters themselves while they “watch” the movie simultaneously with us, as they can predict what is going to happen and their intentions and thoughts, is also his iconic storytelling technique.
These Wong Kar Wai editing style symbolized and represent old Hong Kong and are often imitated by youngest who is trying to attain nostalgic Hong Kong style and being linked to Hong Kong. For example, in the MV of the Hong Kong born China based singer Jackson Wang’s 2021 new single — LMLY, several scenes are seemingly borrowed from Chungking Express.
YouTuber LaurenceNg’s (麦当老劳), a Japanese who studied in Hong Kong, filmed a vlog in 2018 about wandering around Hong Kong in Wong Kar Wai style including element and quotes from Chungking Express in which she talked to a cup of coffee instead of a bottle of beer in the movie.
There are even recreations of the movies’ scenes via video and painting, and tutorials of how to imitate Wong’s filming style on YouTube.
Therefore, it is very clear that symbols in Chungking Express is partly involved in the cultivation of the typical Wong Kar Wai style which in turns contribute to the signature of Hong Kong immensely.
Although Wong might not deliberately symbolize all the audiences’ perceived message in the Chungking Express, which also proved the variabilities in symbolic interactionalism, it undoubtably plays a significant role in overseas Chinese community and both Hong Kong nowadays and past society, by serving as a source of identity. The documentary functions of films and the benefit of cinematic entertainment is evidently illustrated in this essay. To inherit and preserve local culture, encouragement of movie appreciation should be widely spread among the public.