Triple Feature

Chungking Express

Happy Together, & 

The Grandmaster

  

January 15, 2020

Three key collaborations from Wong Kar-Wai and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai

 

The unease — obviously of a thrilling kind given Leung keeps returning — has produced a litany of terrific movies. And as Wong and Leung aged together you could sense a director and a performer not only getting closer to artistic self-actualization collaboratively but also individually. Chungking Express (1994) — Wong’s third movie with Leung and fourth overall — was arguably their first shared milestone. It also happens to be a rarity in Wong’s filmography as far as production goes. Worked on around the time he was battling it out in the editing room with his ornery wuxia movie Ashes of Time (with which he wouldn’t totally be satisfied until 2008) almost as a way to blow off steam, Wong discussed it during a preamble to a 1994 screening as something of a wade into a still pond: shot in six weeks in a burst of creative energy, the whole procedure smooth. “Every film [has] their luck,” he told the audience. “Certain films, the process is really difficult: the weather is not right, the cast is not right, the place is not right. So, there is a lot happening during the production. But for Chungking Express, it was the opposite. I would say it was a very lucky film.” 

 

Because the movie, which came to be Wong’s international breakthrough, is a salvo of manic energy, it's hard to detect that smoothness. It isn't all high-spirited zeal, though. Also included, and at a more affecting level, is the comedown inexorable after an explosion. (Though when I invoke coming down I’m not so much talking about the storyline — more the sobered way Wong eventually, and necessarily, treats the material.)

 

Chungking Express is founded on two stories set in and around the Chungking Mansions. Neither of them is related to each other in that meaningful a way and neither is given the distinct vignette treatment. Their pairing has mostly to do with their loneliness and circumstantial 

similarities, not as much the moment when a person from one narrative literally bumps into one from the other. In the first, which takes up less of the feature, a flush-cheeked cop named He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is getting over the dissolution of his relationship with his girlfriend just as he finds himself enamored of an unnamed woman he often sees around the Mansions always in a blonde wig and sunglasses (Brigitte Lin).

 

He doesn’t know that his new object of affection, whom he eventually tries to win over in a bar, is an underworld figure. We see her kidnap the kids of her ill-performing underlings to whip them into shape. We see her gun multiple people down. Wong ultimately lets ambiguity triumph when it comes to the finally fledgling relationship between the officer and the criminal. Will their blooming romance soon enough also come with a redemption arc? Or will it remain a one-night connection, as the feature suggests is most 

plausible?

 

In the second story, Leung portrays a never-named police officer only ever referred to as 663. Like He, 663 is reeling from a breakup; he also around the same time

meets a young woman named Faye (Faye Wong) who works at a salad bar at the Mansions. 663 doesn’t seem to have eyes for Faye, but for Faye, it’s a love at first sight sort of thing. She’s socially clumsy; there’s a bit of Manic Pixie Dream Girl-ness to her. Rather than reveal her feelings, she manages to get a spare set of keys to 663’s apartment (i.e., his ex drops them off at Faye’s booth, knowing 663 often goes there). Faye starts sneaking in when 663 isn’t around — cleaning up, tinkering with the layout of the furniture. Wong throws in some dubiety at the end of this story, like in the preceding narrative — though it comes with a bit more momentousness since there’s a “one year later” element attached. 

 

Both the stories, though inconclusive, ultimately feel hopeful. It isn’t hard to see one of their finales and look on the bright side. Still, when I think of the feature I sometimes gravitate toward the sadder possibilities, because Wong, with Chungking Express, has made a stirring movie not just about feeling overwhelmingly alone but also about feeling bite-sized in a city that seems primed to swallow you. This is an environment where optimism must be accompanied by pragmatism — in a world like this you’re bound to be disappointed by mostly everything. Yet Chungking Express

like a seductively gloomy ballad, gives melancholy a lyricism — not just through the way it’s shot with the verve of a classic-MTV music video but also because Wong knows how to make a missed opportunity or a might-have-been scenario have nearly as much significance as a love seen through.

Faye Wong and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in 1994's Chungking Express.

loneliness. In the seven movies they’ve worked on together, Leung has played men with a bad case of the blues. With each, Wong memorably beautifies his sadness. They seem eternally on the same page, which helps put them in the pantheon of the great muse-filmmaker duos. But such a takeaway is a testament to how rarely what we see on screen lines up with what goes on off it. In interviews, Leung has characterized working with Wong as almost a series of shaky-seeming trust exercises, where you’re not sure where everything is headed, with Wong himself not always convinced points A and B should remain as he had originally planned. "Near the end of every movie with Kar-Wai I tell him I'm running out of energy," Leung 

said in a 2004 interview with the Guardian. “It never gets any easier.”

hen I think of the collaborations between actor Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and director Wong Kar-Wai, automatically I'm hit with a twinge of 

W

Faye Wong and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in 1994's "Chungking Express."

H

is next movie, 1995’s Fallen Angels, was an even-more-stylized drama that felt like a spiritual albeit rethread-esque sequel to Chungking Express. The film after that, Happy Together (1997), feels more

evolutionary. The earlier days of the romance at its center could have been the third vignette featured in Chungking 

Express. Focused on here is the period long after the glowier days of a foredoomed relationship, where the union is lived in to the point where the people living it are left to wonder whether it can weather life’s storms in the long-term. The poignancy of Happy Together comes from the fact that it can’t. The majority of the film dramatizes the battling of the denial. 

 

The film stars Leung as Yiu-fai, one half of a dysfunctional couple who, in the movie, travel down to Argentina to visit Iguazu Falls, a landmark to which Yiu-fai and his boyfriend, Po-wing (Leslie Cheung), have always wanted to go. The journey isn’t as much a leisure trip as it is a Band-Aid of an adventure. By the time the pair head out it’s been proven

that their relationship isn’t sustainable. Yiu-fai is stable and serious; Po-wing is an unvaryingly reckless pleasure-seeker. Yiu-fai yearns for a consistent, perhaps even boringly predictable romance; Po-wing in moments makes it seem as though he wants the same but is prone to going back to his vices, i.e. cheating on Yiu-fai, assuaging his pains with substances. Their romance has become circular as of late: it comes with a renewed honeymoon period, then a noisy dispute, then a breakup, then back to square one.

 

The cycle recurs like clockwork in Happy Together; doom weighs the narrative down from the outset. We’re told early on that Po-wing, usually at the start of another reunion, says to Yiu-fai, “let’s start over.” But this messes up the falls trip, which is conflated, almost, with a kind of final point or benchmark. If you keep starting something over just as it’s begun to make progress, you’re never going to get to anything like a finish line. 

 

The fragmented style of Chungking Express sometimes came to its detriment — with less of it, the movie's emotional colors might have run richer. For the similarly shot and edited Happy Together, fragmentation works much better. The time-jumping and Godardian stakes-changing used by Wong here uphold the emotional swirl coming after or in the midst of a break-up. Seen here is a disorienting mnemonic jumble. The present is always blurred by one's memories. Most smoothly continued from Chungking Express to this film, though, is Wong’s distinctive way of making all this sadness have a romantic lift. It practically sings, if with a tear drenching the melody. In Happy Together, keeping a photo of someone and fondly looking at it from time to time is almost more pleasurable than being with the person pictured. 

 

Not unusually, for Po-wing and Yiu-Fai it's the idea of attaining happiness that gets them to keep reuniting. After a while they conclude that a never-to-be-realized idea might be better left an idea. The final act, though not topped off with a familiarly cheery ending, suggests that one has the potential to arrive someday. Wong gets right the aches and bittersweetness of a relationship running on empty.

T

he most recent collaboration from Wong and Leung, The Grandmaster (2013), does not sound, on paper, like a straightforward successor to their previous partnerships. The movie, a biography of the Wing 

Chun martial arts grandmaster Ip Man (played by Leung), 

erupts with intricately choreographed fight scenes and sometimes has the invigoration of a thriller. But the film, as we come to find, is as sweepingly somber as anything they’ve done. It just happens to have the same hair-raising action elements as Ashes of Time — the only other instance of Wong venturing into action filmmaking.

 

The Grandmaster is ostensibly a biopic; and despite what Ip Man accomplished in his lifetime as a martial artist, it’s his eventual teaching of Bruce Lee that’s framed, in the epilogue, as his acme. But the feature is so often hard to

keep up with, both in terms of character and narrative (the film, typically for Wong, loves to toy with time, jumping from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s and scribbling a lot of what it covers), that it's best to let your senses, rather than your logic, take over. Once it takes a turn for the

heartrending in the last act, the film has started to resemble some of the other features in his filmography. By then, Leung’s Ip Man has lost much of what’s meaningful to him, and a secondary, mournful storyline involving acquaintance Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi) has taken up a lot of the movie. 

 

Wong’s exquisite sense of style, coupled with his emotional aptitude, helps gloss over the movie’s shortcomings: namely its thin sense of character and the way its sequences of carnage are so over-stylized that they seem to prefer the drama of a fist punching a gut in slow motion, in close-up, rather than cohesive editing that gives a melee an obvious arc. There’s a longer cut out there running at 130 minutes that isn’t easy to access. I wonder if, in it, the things preventing the 108-minute version I watched from reaching greatness dissolved. The ambiguity of what could be makes us appreciate, I suppose, what the 108-minute The Grandmaster does well. It’s just a pity that ambiguity — a device exceptionally used for dramatic effect in Chungking Express and Happy Together — is forced on in this case rather than implanted after much Leung-draining, behind-the-scenes fiddling. 

 

Chungking Express: B+

Happy Together: A

The Grandmaster: B+