Behold! I’m running my first lap around a new track: a 500-words-or-less film review format. What can I accomplish within tighter constraints? This will be give me practice in saying more with less — good exercise for any writer.

A few thoughts on
Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express

[For this third viewing, I watched the Criterion Collection edition. These comments contain some spoiler-ish plot points.]

In a jukebox, three display-only CDs pirouette, catching and refracting rainbows and golden light, seemingly animated by music, and presumably full of their very own songs — and as they spin, their edges never touch.

It’s a perfect picture of the close-but-not-quite romances between characters in the two Hong Kong stories that make up Chungking Express, Wong Kar-wai’s whimsical, melancholy 1994 masterpiece.

Look at these two mopey cops—played by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung—both recently jilted, both caught in a routine circuit of their beat and their hangouts. They’re both bound for close encounters with mysterious women: one a drug dealer trying to escape her boss’s tyranny (Brigitte Lin, solemnly opaque in sunglasses and a yellow wig); the other, a minimum-wage cafe worker (Faye Wong, so wide-eyed and mischievous that she probably inspired Jeunet to make Amelie).

Takeshi Kaneshiro in Chungking Express.

Okay — so, you can picture the jukebox. Now picture a bin full of tins of canned pineapple, containers marked with expiration dates to remind us that they will soon pass their prime, and their time of maximum sweetness is running out. That, too, speaks about these characters.

Or, dig if you will the pictures of goldfish aquariums, insisting that this is a story about hermetically sealed worlds in which characters drift and dash, dreaming of worlds beyond their routines, surrounded by reflections and distortions that make us wonder who’s dreaming whom. (Note how often characters are seen through glass, pressed against glass, confined by glass.)

In both stories, luminous women are illusory, elusive, enigmatic. And the more I spend time with this film, the more I suspect they’re just fantasies — Mandarin Pixie Dream Girls living in the imaginations of crush-prone police officers — not real characters caught in unexpected encounters. Both women seem curiously maternal: Purse-carrying Woman in Wig doesn’t want a relationship but leaves a birthday card for her boyish guardian; Cafe Counter Girl advertises herself with every move of her window-washing dance, but what she really wants to do is clean her man’s house, make his bed, dust his shelves.

Uniforms play a big part for both men and women here. And as audiences long to see these characters break out of them, these restrictions are the source of the energy, the constraints that control the tension of viewers’ longing.  Chastely gazing at one another in private spaces, their longing burns brighter than any sex ever could.

Still, while its ideas of love are as feverish as an adolescent’s dream, I can’t deny that Wong’s world is one of lasting, substantial pleasures. These flirtations may be as glossy and shallow as the soundtrack’s pop songs, but they represent longings for magic, for transcendence, as deep as any “California Dreamin’.”

It’s also a masterwork of crowded composition, breathtaking montage, and glorious motion. These characters lean into glass, enraptured. And so do we.

(Note: This is by far the very best film in which Jim Davis’s Garfield has a major role.)