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In transit with 'Chungking Express'

staff note

The Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” appears for the first time in “Chungking Express” around the 42-minute mark of the film. From there, if my count is correct, it appears eight times in total, the second instance occurring not two minutes after the first.

I watched Wong Kar-Wai’s film the night before I left campus last semester, and besides lodging that song firmly in my head for the better part of the following three weeks, “Chungking Express” made a fitting start to my trip home — as it is, in part, a film about transit: Amid the din of 1994 Hong Kong, the movie follows two police officers in the same district of the city, each reeling from a sudden breakup, their urban surroundings marked by subway stations and airport terminals. One character’s ex-girlfriend is a flight attendant; his new love interest, on the other hand, plays “California Dreamin’” quite literally on repeat, longing to escape to that imagined place in the sun. 

The characters in “Chungking Express” live in the thick of a globalized world, and they find solace, accordingly, in the icons of Western pop culture, including that hit single from The Mamas & the Papas (which takes on entirely new life in the wake of this movie). They dream of destinations that, like their love, may as well be illusory. But perhaps more importantly, the constant presence of transit is a reminder of the inevitability of time — of missed connections both literal and figurative, of the arrivals and departures and “expiry dates” that accompany every relationship. 

It’s an effect that’s only amplified by Wong and his cinematographers’ camera work, which in some scenes employs an exaggeratedly slow frame rate that seems to blur time entirely, more than once isolating a single character who seems to move in slow motion while others around him fly by. Elsewhere, a recurring close-up shot of a calendar clicks each day away. And always in the background, still, is “California Dreamin’,” its round-like melody cycling interminably in on itself, its minor key the perfect vessel for the characters’ melancholy: “If I didn’t tell her, I could leave today.”

It was with these images fresh in my mind that I drove home for winter break, a place where my awareness of time can feel most amplified. Visiting home is sometimes akin to opening a time capsule, to re-entering a past preserved in amber: My old bedroom, complete with the memorabilia of my adolescence, remains intact; so, too, do the familiar rituals that accompany each day, the holiday traditions honored, the people and places visited. 

At the same time, though, nowhere is the evidence of time more apparent, manifesting itself in subtle, material changes — like a tree that had to be cut down, or some new structure built at the neighborhood pool, or a family dog that no longer roams about the house — that, ever so gradually, threaten to render past the point of recognition the landscape of my childhood.

I usually find myself surveying those changes while driving, often late at night, when the streets of my hometown are all but deserted. But the very act of driving, for me, is as bound up in the past as what I observe from its vantage point. As a luxury that I’m denied while I’m away at school, being behind the wheel returns me to the numerous drives I took late in high school, a time when, like the figures in “Chungking Express” and like most other people my age, I was occupied by a longing for the fantasy of an unfamiliar destination. On occasion, I would direct my car to what felt like the furthest edges of civilization, or I would bike to a field that overlooked the runways of the nearest airport, from which one could see, silent at a distance, the planes landing by the minute, idling, taking off in every direction.

At the time, driving was a form of escape. Today, it feels more like a retreat. But although my surroundings bear little resemblance to the bustle of Hong Kong, I can identify, then and now, with the characters of “Chungking Express” in their arrivals and departures and expiration dates, in their constant transit.

From my house, I-40 can be traced on a map nearly all the way to Los Angeles. Around the same time that I was driving aimlessly around the Raleigh area, I determined to complete that drive from start to finish. To the date, I still haven’t made the trip — and if I ever do, I’m not sure what I would find on the other end. But in the dead of winter, when all the leaves are brown and the sky is gray, a film like “Chungking Express” seems to make those California dreams a reality.

Will Atkinson is a Trinity sophomore and the Recess editor.


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