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Friday, March 15, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hong Kong Ode To Broken Hearts

Special To The Seattle Times

----------------------------------------------------------------- Movie review

XXX "Chungking Express," with Brigitte Lin Chin-Hsia, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Faye Wang. Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Varsity. "PG-13" - Parental guidance suggested because of brief violence, mature humor. -----------------------------------------------------------------

A funny thing happened after I left a screening of Wong Kar-Wai's "Chungking Express." I'd found the film a bit light for my taste, and I didn't care much for Wong's flashy camera tricks. I'd resisted the movie for seeming like something you'd find on late-night MTV.

After a while, however, my objections faded and fonder reactions took their place. I'd thoroughly enjoyed the quirky, lovelorn characters and the two-part harmony of Wong's loosely connected stories. I never knew where the movie was going, but I knew that I wanted to go there. I left the screening boosted by the film's infectious exuberance, and I was grateful for a freshness I hadn't seen in any film since . . . well, since I'd seen the Coen brothers' "Fargo" a week earlier. (It's been a good month so far.)

I've never been a big fan of technique that calls attention to itself, but Wong's frenetic blend of slow motion, pixilation, rushing backgrounds and frozen foregrounds (or vice versa) is as integral to this movie as its bubbly story and characters. During a break from his big-budget sword-and-sorcery epic "The Ashes of Time," Wong and his Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle shot "Chungking Express" in a mere 23 days in 1994, using a hand-held camera to capture the racing pulse of Hong Kong's busiest commercial districts. After seeing their film, I find it hard to imagine it being made any other way.

The title refers to the movie's pair of offbeat love stories, the first being "Chungking House," named after the city's trans-global tenement tower packed with tourists, merchants, and a vibrantly shady underworld. That's where Badge No. 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a beat cop suffering from the fallout of unrequited love.

He's so distraught he sets a May 1 deadline to wait for his girlfriend's unlikely return, marking the days by the expiration dates on cans of pineapple (her favorite fruit), and then consuming the entire month's worth when the fateful deadline arrives. That's when he makes another fatalistic bargain: he'll walk into a bar and fall in love with the first woman he meets.

That woman turns out to be a trench-coated, pistol-packin' femme fatale (Brigitte Lin) in shades and a blond wig, and from alternate sequences we've learned that she's a heroin smuggler, retaliating against partners who've left her dangling with a price on her head. Just another night in Hong Kong's neon Tower of Babel.

"Midnight Express" refers to a fast-food joint in the busy district of Lan Kwai Fong, where another young cop, Badge No. 663 (Tony Leung) buys a chef's salad every night for his girlfriend, an airline hostess who left his apartment key - and a dear John letter - at the salad bar.

Holding onto the key and letter is Faye (Hong Kong pop star Fay Wang), an aloof, pixie-ish employee whose theme song (which she never tires of hearing, even though we do) is "California Dreamin'," and who schemes to comfort the lovelorn cop by sneaking into his apartment and redecorating the place as an expression of her own secretive affection.

It's all about awkward obsessions and the full-tilt funk of love in bloom and love gone sour, and Wong handles it all with an upbeat combination of sadness and elation - symptoms of lovesickness perfectly illustrated by No. 663's loopy conversations with a thinning bar of soap ("You used to be so chubby"), his ragged dishcloth and anything else that will fill his lonely void.

Wong is widely admired throughout Europe and Asia, but this is the first we've seen of his work in the U.S. "Chungking Express" is a savvy choice from Quentin Tarantino, who has imported the film under his new Rolling Thunder banner with Miramax Films. A far cry from Tarantino's work or the Hong Kong mayhem of John Woo and Jackie Chan, this is a bright, charming Valentine to Hong Kong and anyone who's ever had a broken heart.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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