Chungking Express: What is the importance of cinematography and editing in creating meaning and generating response in Chungking Express?
Chungking Express explores the themes of loneliness, transience and identity within the environment of the city. Director, Wong Kar Wai, and cinematographer, Christopher Doyle use high energy visuals and heavily edited colour to explore these themes. The overall result is a fairly pessimistic view of unrequited love- all heightened by the energetic editing and shooting styles.
The theme of identity is strongly alluded to through the cinematography of Christopher Doyle- particularly through his use of shots with a focus on reflection and refraction. These shots reflect the sense of confusion within their identities felt by all the characters, and are a unifying motif within the film. The speed and chaos of the city are also reflected in the cinematography, particularly in the opening and montage scenes- there is heavy use of motion blur, which compounded with the handheld, cinema verité shooting style thoroughly and accurately depict life in the city. Loneliness and transience are highlighted as the characters on screen are alone, despite being surrounded by hundreds of rushing, blurred people. This is also explored through the use of time lapse: in a particular shot of cop 663, waiting in a bar, his actions are slowed down, while the rest of the scene is sped up and people are, again, a transient blur; this plays to the theme of time. Time and dates are given huge importance in the film; perhaps alluding to the Handover, which shook Hong Kong in the late nineties. This heavy focus on time and numbers is illustrated through the names of the police characters, intimate distances between people, and sell by dates. The notion of expiration is universal, especially in portraying the notion of transient love.
The use of colour in the film is also very prominent; many of the scenes are coloured with dark and muted gels, particularly green and blue tones- signifiers for depression. These tones depict the all encompassing feeling of isolation within the sprawl of the city. Equally, the lighter moments in the film are usually accompanied by a play on lights- refractions and lens flare through windows. The lighting changes constantly- different colours and lights pulse, creating the highly concentrated and punchy visual look. Its ever changing nature brings the viewer into the mindset of the characters, and also reminds them of the ever-changing nature of city life. Particularly the city of Hong Kong, which itself embodies transience, with its focus on capitalism and development.
Framing is also used to generate meaning in the film. Doyle uses the camera to isolate characters within the frame – cutting them off and framing them narrowly within shadowed frames and doorways. This framing technique is almost metonymic of the world it aims to portray; alluding to the small living spaces and cramped conditions which characterise much of Hong Kong’s city lifestyle. This in turn reminds the viewer of the loneliness faced by certain characters in the film, in some cases driven to talking to dish cloths and stuffed toys.
Another way that Doyle creates meaning in Chungking Express is through a lack of focus- several of the scenes aim to focus on how light and colour interact within the room, instead of creating a clear-cut image of the protagonists – for example; the scene with Brigitte Lin’s character sitting in the bar. The lack of focus could also be considered, to an extent, as a symbol of a lack of focus, or even confusion/disorientation for the characters themselves.
The editing in the film gives the film much of its punchiness through style, and skillfully knits together the two narrative structures, which echo each other in the way that they share the themes of love, and isolation in the city environment. They are told in succession and in loose chronological order. The looseness of the narratives is attributed to the dreams and desires that characters in both tales share. Instead of following narrative conventions, Wong Kar Wai seems to focus on cycles and routines, exploring his themes more abstractly, and contrasting the plights of each character. This unconventional narrative structure gives the film an esoteric quality, but greatly helps to explore the themes- alluding to the sense of routine confusion which haunts each character’s life.
There is also extensive use of slow motion and pauses. This style of editing also alludes to the prominent theme of time in the film. It even is unsure whether the two stories in the film are happening concurrently or not. Otherwise, the film’s editing could be described as MTV style- the cutting is very quick and punchy, and cut to the beat of the repetitive, electronic music. The film has subsequently been described as having “high octane visuals and action”, due to its editing style. Many of the scenes are highly saturated, and some are equally desaturated- creating noise in a scene with heavy focus on visuals, or embodying a more sombre sense.
Both cinematography and editing contribute greatly to the success of the film, and how its meaning is put across. The themes of identity, transience, unrequited love and loneliness are all referenced constantly through film language, as well as the narrative of the film which makes these themes its basis. This lends itself to the massive success which the film had- numerous awards in both the Hong Kong and Asian film scene, as well as being internationally renowned and put in the criterion collection.
Christopher Doyle, bar room brawler and cinematographer par excellence (perhaps one of the greatest working today) gives some pretty forthright opinions on Carlos Miranda’s Cinematography Oscar for LIfe of Pi.
WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS FREQUENTLY REPEATED VERY STRONG LANGUAGE.