“Those Two Characters are There, Forever Young”: Wong Kar-wai on Chungking Express
The night before my interview with him, Wong Kar-wai addressed a sold-out crowd assembled for a screening of one of his greatest films, 1994’s Chungking Express. Hawaii International Film Festival’s longtime director of programming, Anderson Le, affably overcame some introductory ribbing by Wong (“Anderson, why do you ask me that question! It was 25 years ago, and after 25 years, it’s still that same question!” he jokingly responded to the first, somewhat innocuous query), and coaxed out some remarkable storytelling and reminiscences from the director.
“Every film [has] their luck,” Wong began. “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. Why? Well, we shot the film in six weeks. Relatively, it was the shortest production time of all my films. Basically, we shot the whole film in just two locations, one in Chungking Mansions. For those of you who’ve never been to Hong Kong, next time you should go there, because I think it’s a landmark. It’s a huge mansion with hundreds of hostels, so people from different parts of the world, especially backpackers, go there. It used to be very different; it was apartments for movie stars in the 1950s, but later on it became like guesthouses.
“This is also the area where I grew up. I know this area so well, so I shot half the film there. To me Chungking Express, it’s like the night and day of Hong Kong. Some people say the film is about this or that character, but I say, ‘No, this film is about Hong Kong, it is my love letter to Hong Kong.’ This is the area that I know. I shot in an area that I grew up. I never went out as a kid, though the area [Tsim Tsa Tsui] is a place for entertainment, for late nights, and Chungking Mansions was the place for nightclubs. It had one of the best ones in Hong Kong called Bayside. [This is also the club where Wong’s father worked.] When the Beatles came to Hong Kong, they had their press conference there. So this is a landmark.
“I shot in the central area also for some day shots. At the time it had an escalator, and our director of photography, Christopher Doyle, lived just next to this elevator. And I thought, ‘This is a good idea.’ I told Chris, ‘Your apartment is the best place for this story.’ So we took it over, and of course we made a mess out of it. We flooded it. Funnily, he’s actually holding the camera and shooting when we flooded his very apartment. ‘What?’ he said. ‘Okay, let’s do it.'”
“You know, though, he got rewarded at the end,” Wong joked. “After Chungking Express, there’s many film fans, especially girls, from Japan—they all came from Japan. Every night he told me, whenever he went back to his apartment, there’s always a few fans there, who say, ‘Ah are you Mr. Doyle, is this your apartment?’ ‘Well yes, do you want to come in to take a look, etc?’ So, he got many girlfriends out of it.”
“We had a very limited budget and limited time. Also, this is the first time someone like Brigitte Lin, who is something like the diva of Hong Kong cinema—this is the first time someone like her worked with a camera that never stands still. It’s always moving, and she’s always standing there with a bunch of amateur players. They were basically travelers who came to Hong Kong, and we asked them, ‘Do you want to be in a film?’ They said, ‘Of course.’ It truly takes a lot of luck. The weather was right. We shot without permits, we were always hassled by the police, but it was a very smooth process, and we finished in six weeks.”
On shooting in Chungking Mansions itself
“I called this film Chungking Express but I’d never been to the actual city of Chungking. I just went there a few months ago, actually. They said, ‘You’ve made a film called Chungking Express, but you’ve never been here,’ so I went there and realized it looks quite close to Hong Kong. But in those days, I based it off Chungking Mansions in the 1960s. There was a nightclub there [the Bayside] and my father worked there. When I was a kid, sometimes my father would ask my mom to go there to dance, but I was never allowed to go to Chungking Mansions. For me it was a place filled with curiosity. Later on we had so many guest houses there, so it seemed like a very dangerous place, not a place for young kids to go. That building was also considered extremely dangerous electrically, as it was wired improperly throughout the illegal guesthouses, and whenever it caught on fire there would be a lot of casualties. So there were also rarely any permits given to shoot there, and no films were shot.
“By the time we decided to shoot there, I sent my A.D. there to spend a month. ‘Just pretend to be a backpacker,’ I said, ‘and live there and give me notes every day, on all the routines, and all the routes between each floor to that floor etc.” When we finally shot the film, basically because we didn’t have any permits, it’s like we were actually staging a robbery. We had a map, since Chungking Mansions has different entrances. ‘Brigitte,’ we’d say, “go inside, and the camera will follow. Security will come, so we will pick this entrance to go out.’ The first time we filmed, since everybody was not prepared, security was not prepared; after all, they don’t expect someone like Brigitte Lin to show up in Chungking Mansions. So then we try again, and then they know, so it becomes like a routine. We had to change every time. Every time we went back around 7pm, which was the security’s lunch break. Chris would go inside with two of our people, our big production people, to protect him, because the security wasn’t happy. It was very dramatic, and Chris got a lot of bruises after each day of shooting. Later on, when we did Fallen Angels, we became like VIPs, as Chungking Express had made the Mansions very famous worldwide. It’s good for the tourists, it’s good for their business, their reputation, so we suddenly had better treatment.”
On the impetus to make the film
“We formed Jet Tone Films [Wong’s own production company, co-created with Jeff Lau], and our first film was Ashes of Time. It took us two years to make. So at the end, we wanted to do a film to rejuvenate us; the process of shooting Ashes was very challenging and painful. In a martial arts film, a human cannot actually fly, so you have to create the whole set, all the costumes. You have to go step by step, so we decided to do a contemporary film, that you can just shoot without doing too many preparations or expensive preparations. At that point, I felt like not just me but my whole team we felt like we were repeating the same thing again and again.”
How Brigitte Lin became involved
“Brigitte before Ashes of Time had done 10+ costume/martial arts films over the course of two years. You get tired of costumes and martial arts films, because each time it would take her 2-3 hours for makeup and costuming. At the end of Ashes, I asked her, ‘Don’t you get tired of this?’ She said, ‘Yes, I am tired of this, I would love to do a contemporary film.’ I said, “I happen to have one. You want to be a part of it? “She said ‘Sure, of course.’ So it’s also about timing, if you find the right actress at the right time of her career, it will make the process easier. But as I said, Chungking Express had a lot of luck.
“With the film, we started one week early with Brigitte [to work on the character]. Something like Sunset Blvd. In her imagination she’s playing Gloria, from the Cassavettes film Gloria, which is a Gena Rowlands character. So we spent two days to having Brigitte playing this actress, this Sunset Blvd. version of her, and I thought, ‘Well, let’s go directly into this Gloria look.’ We started to shoot. For Brigitte, she has made over 100 films, I think Chunking Express was her 100th film. She had tried all kinds of characters, but this is something that really took her off her safety net, because, first of all, she was wearing sunglasses. Why would you want her, the biggest superstar in Hong Kong film, to be wearing sunglasses? For Brigitte, she would spend two hours doing makeup. So you have to wait there. But on the street, you cannot wait two hours. So the best way is to say, ‘Well, she’s wearing sunglasses, then I’m fine.’ So we put sunglasses on her, then a wig, so we could say, ‘Okay Let’s go.’ There’s no rehearsal, no control. For her this was a very fresh experience, something very exciting, and you can see it: she looks different, she plays different, her rhythm is different. So I would rather go for that [and] forget about that Sunset Blvd idea. I don’t do normally do changes—just imagine when you’ve spent time working on your script and idea. The only reason you have to make changes is the situation, the budget, and for [those] kinds of reasons. The other reason is that you feel like you can do something better. In that case, you should not feel afraid to make changes.”
On working with Tony Leung
“Compared to Brigitte, Tony was not as established. That meant he was more flexible; we had worked together since our second film, so we knew each other very well. I don’t know why, there’s this understanding between us. He’s not very curious about what the next film is going to be about, or even what this film was about; he just said, ‘Okay. Let’s do it. Let’s play around, because I know you’re going to change it during the shooting anyway, so let’s just start it.'”
On the English name of the film
“No big reason, I’m very casual with names. The first part of the film takes place in Chungking Mansions, so we have Chungking. The second part of the story happens in this fast food stand called Midnight Express. So I said, “Chungking…Express.’ It’s very cheesy, right?”
On getting funding without a script
“Sometimes it’s better to speak without a script. If you send them a script they don’t like, the chances are poor. But if they ask, ‘Are you done with that script, I need to see it?’ and you say, ‘I’m still working on it,’ then you have about a 60% margin of success.”
On music in the film and working with Faye Wong
“Even though Faye Wong was a singer, she was not an actress. She didn’t have any acting training, so when we began the film she was actually very nervous—specially when we were shooting in Central, which is like the Soho of Hong Kong, at night without permits.In the camera frame you see her in this fast food stand. But behind the camera, there would be 50 or 100 people watching. People would walk by and look right at her. So it was not a very easy challenge. To help her I said, ‘T capture the rhythm of Faye, let’s play this music. She will feel much better.’ When you look at the film, you’ll notice how physically it matches together. Normally you sync the music and sound/image afterwards, but we are actually playing it while we are shooting it, because that would help her to create the spontaneous. She is attracted to music, would pick up the rhythm for the music and feel much more confident.”
On the decision to make both Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro’s characters policemen
“In the 90s the way to get financing in Hong Kong, in most instances, [is by] first presenting the pictures. In most cases you won’t have a script yet, but you’ll have a cast, and you’ll have to tell the distributors what is the premise of the film. For Chunking Express, it’s very hard to explain to them, ‘This is a story about Hong Kong,’ or ‘This is a film about music,’ etc etc. Forget it, they won’t take it or be interested. So you have explain to them that, ‘This is a story about a very dangerous woman in Tsim Tsa Tsui, and detectives are trying to get near her!’ They’ll then jump to say, “Ah, this is a cop story!” So they will take it. That’s why they’re cops.”
On the inspiration to make films
“It’s not because of Hong Kong that I make films; I make films about Hong Kong because I was born in Hong Kong. When I was very young, my mom was a big fan of films, we spent almost every day in the cinema. I love being in the cinema, and in this kind of world. This is the reason that I love making films.”
As an executive producer for younger filmmakers in China and Asia, Wong’s opinion on the Chinese market
“It’s getting very very strong. The market is expanding, and that gives not only Chinese filmmakers, but Hong Kong and Asian filmmakers, more opportunities. As I said to friends, twenty years ago as a young filmmaker you would try to find financing in Europe, but today the best place to get financing is in China. The young filmmakers in China are extremely fortunate. The market is ready for them and there is money waiting for them to make their films. But it is not only Chinese filmmakers—I am producing young filmmakers from China, Taiwan, even from Thailand. We need to find new blood; each generation should have their vantage point, their perspective, their own ways to tell a story. I’m happy to help them and to be a part of their fortune.”
Advice to young filmmakers
“Just do it. First of all, we all went through a process. We all learn most of our technique or skills from other filmmakers. Some of you may say, ‘We learned it from film school,’ but I think that we always have a process to learn, to copy, and at a certain point you’ll find your own method, your own way of telling stories, and that’s fine. I’m always very glad that someone else has [me as?] an inspiration.”
After seeing the film again over 20 years later
“I would give advice to actors and actresses to make more films when you are starting, because it will be there forever. When I look at Chunking Express now, I still feel amazed, like, ‘Wow, how fresh Tony and Faye look like. Those two characters are there, forever young.'”