WONG KAR-WAI IS THE world's finest unknown auteur. Unknown, that is, to U.S. audiences. In Asia and Europe the 37-year-old Hong Kong writer-director is either a box-office sensation or a cult hero. Now that Quentin Tarantino's distribution company is releasing Wong's cool-jazzy 1994 romantic comedy Chungking Express, we get to catch up.
The plot: two stories, set in a late-night, neon Hong Kong. Or, actually, the same story, told in two variations: a cop thinks he's in love with one woman, then is drawn to another more mysterious one.
The first episode is the old tale of the innocent policeman and the blond killer. She (Brigitte Lin) sells heroin to some sharks from India; he (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is moony about a girl who left him "because I've become more and more unlike Bruce Willis." But he can't let go. His girl liked pineapples, so each day he buys a can that expires at the end of the month, then eats all 30 in a binge of self-pity. By the time he runs into the blond, her drug deal has gone sour. Does he catch her, or even catch on to her? No: he takes off her shoes as she sleeps, and later she leaves him a message wishing him happy birthday. That's enough for a rapturous moment of modernist romance. He'll hold on to that memory forever. "And if it must have an expiration date," he says, "I hope it'll be 10,000 years."
Another cop (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) has an affair with a stewardess he first seduced at 30,000 ft. But when she leaves, he goes amiably nuts, brushing the fur of his stuffed animals, talking to a bar of soap ("You've lost a lot of weight--you need more self-confidence!"). He's just the lost soul for a fast-food cook (punk pixie Faye Wang) who sneaks into his flat each day for some erotomaniacal housecleaning. It's a match made in Hong Kong heaven.
Chungking has enough wit and pace to keep any mall crowd entertained. But it's the cinema verve of Wong's five films to date that makes them wholly his, whether he's doing gangster films (As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels), young-rebel dramas (Days of Being Wild) or kung-fu sagas (Ashes of Time, a film so beautifully bizarre it might be the first Martian-arts movie). The elements of his visual style: nightscapes (bars, beds, jukeboxes); sulky boys in white shirts; anomie punctuated by awful violence; murky lighting, as if scenes had been shot underwater and daubed with squid ink; and--Wong's trademark trope--pixilated slow motion that gives every fight end-of-the-world import and makes even the moping of a fast-food girl look majestic.
Wong made Chungking in just 23 days, and the film's mad-dash energy is nicely reflected in his quartet of stars. Wong, himself a star of cinema's future, has already shown that he possesses a uniquely '90s voice, eye and spirit. You'll simply have to get to know his work. And Chungking Express--fast, smart, irresistible--is a great place to start.
--By Richard Corliss