The Bittersweet Love Scene from Chungking Express

October 18, 2012

It’s been a while. Today I’d like to talk about my favorite cinematic love scene. It’s from Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s “romantic mystery comedy drama” (according to Wikipedia) Chungking Express.

Set against the backdrop of the blurry rush of modern Hong Kong, Chungking Express is a movie about longing, heartbreak, and the connections people miss, make, and struggle to maintain in a city so fast-paced and full of people. The plot consists of two distinct stories, which overlap only for a brief moment. Both are of men getting over a lost love and possibly finding someone new.

The second story stars Tony Leung as a police officer recovering from a broken romance with a flight attendant. A flashback to this relationship provides Chungking Express with its only love scene. We learn the relationship is over just before the scene begins. Here’s the clip:

There’s a lot happening here. It seems to me that the flight attendant is listening to an airline safety information recording in order to practice her safety demonstration. Tony is smoking a cigarette and playing with a toy airplane. She cracks a beer (it looks like a Heineken) in the kitchen and watches him from the doorway. The camera focus shifts from the toy plane in the foreground to her in the background. “What A Diff’rence A Day Made” by Dinah Washington is playing in the background. If there’s a sadder old love song, I haven’t heard it. It’s hard to tell if the song is just for us, the audience, or also for the lovers. I thought it was just for us because it plays over the cuts forward in time, but the safety announcement also continues unbroken, and I’m pretty sure that announcement is supposed to be audible to the characters. So I’m not sure.

That moment when she’s putting on the imaginary lifejacket, tying it around her waist, and inflating it, and he’s playing with the toy and making airplane noises: movie scenes don’t get any better than that.

Then there’s the chase. The toy airplane wants to make a landing. When she pours the beer, first on herself and then on him, and says “Do you want a drink?” I was a little confused as to why she was speaking English instead of Cantonese. But then I realized that on the plane she would speak English to the passengers, and “Do you want a drink?” would be her most common question. She’s playing “stewardess” for him. Later, I also especially like the realistic landing the airplane makes on her back (notice that another plane has already landed), and I like the one-handed finger wave he gives her from the window, and how she kneels down to wave up at him from the walkway.

The whole scene is heavy with a sense of loss. We know the ending before it begins. It doesn’t seem fair.

In a normal romantic movie, any two characters who share a scene like this would undoubtedly find their way back into each other’s arms later in the film. There are no more love scenes in Chungking Express, not even another kiss. This is absolutely the romantic high point in the movie. Later, Tony half-begins a relationship with an eccentric young woman who breaks into his apartment (the short-haired girl from the food stand at the beginning of this clip), but they have an uncertain future. What’s more clear is that Tony and the flight attendant won’t be getting back together. They actually meet again, near the end of the movie. Tony is off-duty in a convenience store and happens to run into his old lover. They chat, unable to stop grinning at each other, but her new boyfriend is waiting outside. She tells Tony he looks better in uniform. He replies: “So do you.” The lines may read as harsh or spiteful, but that’s not how they’re delivered. The encounter is somewhere between playful and wistful. The new boyfriend is honking now, and she has to go.

After watching their love scene, it’s hard for us to let the flight attendant go. We follow Tony’s encounters with the food stall girl and wonder if they would have the same passion together as the two lovers with their toy airplane. Tony is surely wondering the same thing. But now he has no choice but to move forward, and at the end of the movie we’re left with a cautious optimism for him. Things may or may not work out with the food stall girl, but every day of his life will be filled with new people and new possibilities. It’s a big city, after all.



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