The film begins with #223 lamenting a relationship that's gone south with an unseen woman named May. As #223 mourns prettily--gulping down pineapple, phoning unavailable women by the dozens--the Blonde negotiates the confusion of an indoor bazaar known as Chungking Mansions and orchestrates an elaborate smuggling operation. What follows next is less a typical love story than a series of stuttering connections, near-misses, and tender happenstance. In the film's second act, the virtual lovers are yet another cop, known only by his badge #223 (Tony Leung), and a counter girl named Faye (Faye Wang), who works at a fast-food joint called Midnight Express, and who pulls off one of the most deliriously romantic gestures this side of Lubitsch.
A film about time, serendipity, the hard shimmer of night, and the erotics of camerawork, Chungking Express is a genuine wonder--dazzling, bewildering, intoxicating. It's also very fast--breathless, even. In many of his films, Wong Kar-wai's camera always seems on the move, as if he were searching for a way to break through the solitude that wraps around his characters, his story, his city. Even so, in each of his films there are also stretches when nothing seems to happen save the sweep of a second hand. (The films are forever slowing down and picking up speed.) One of the director's favorite strategies is to accelerate everything in the frame except the actors. He keeps the actors motionless and shoots at 10 frames per second, then prints the "slowed" footage at double the rate it was shot. In these scenes, the world seems to rush by as the players scarcely move.
In the first act Chungking Express, there's a crucial moment when badge #223 emerges from a smear of color. As the city hurtles past, it's as if he has slipped out of time and space. And, in a sense, he has: He's eased out of the here and now and into a Wong Kar-wai film--that fitful place of neon, smoke-clogged rooms, and heartbreak, of sentimental cops and the tough women who may or may not love them. It's a place where relationships remain elusive and desire eternal, but also and finally a place where stories of ecstatic passion always find their perfect analogue in Wong Kar-wai's ravishing aesthetic. Here, love may be imperfect, but filmmaking is inviolate.
Manohla Dargis is the film critic for the L.A. Weekly.