Film Journal: Chung King Express

I thought to watch a film about time on New Years Day, about how expiration and end points have less to do with death or termination than with memory and discontinuity. In the 1990s, the relationship is expressed in globalization, airplanes, and the distinction between formal security and informal migration—of people and commodities, which converges in the global city. Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 cinematic classic Chung King Express demonstrates the attempt by its characters to anchor a chaotic urban existence within sensorial strictures of arrivals and departures. Qiwu, a police officer, attempts to avert the impending pain of a recent break-up in a binge fest of canned pineapple. Meanwhile, Hong Kong as hub in the global drug trade is projected through flashes of movement where transactions between a mainland smuggler, South Asian mules, and Hong Kong textile workers exhibit the informal yet cosmopolitan disorder of a Hong Kong neighborhood. The story falters at an airport where the mules—with money and drugs intact—abandon the smuggler. At a neighborhood take-out, which specializes in chef salad, shawarmas, and pizza, this story gives way to another story about another police officer’s failed relationship with a flight attendant. Throughout all of these stories, arrivals and departures, and the anxiety of remaining in ones own domesticated national space—the space of the police officer—remind me that many movies of the 1990s (such as the contemporaneous Thai film Romantic Blue) were propelled toward airports.

At one level, the narrative and its nostalgic imaginary of the West in the Mamas and Papas “California Dreaming” and Faye Wong’s cover of The Cranberry’s “Dreams,” seem to paint this lifeworld as less real. On the other hand, the story opens a transnational imaginary that, in its realism, would materialize in Thai films like Last Life in the Universe (2003)—which employs the same cinematographer. Yet there is something more uniquely gritty and beautifully unrefined about Chung King Express.

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