Chungking Express: Paradox Waiting

James Barrett
6 min readOct 23, 2014


“beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” — Isidore Ducasse, known by his pseudonym Comte de Lautréamon (1869)

Chungking Express is a film by Wong Kar-Wai from 1994. It is a beautiful meditation on themes of paradox, absence and the rule of the heart over the mind. The loneliness of crowds peppers the gritty realism of people getting on with life in the famous Chungking Mansions of Hong Kong. The film revolves around the themes of doubles, replacements or doppelgängers and how or if anyone really knows anyone. The doubles in the first story are not copies but dim reflections, fractured similarities recruited by the protagonists from the pain and loneliness that the original bestows upon them from memory.

In particular He Qiwu, also known as Cop 223 (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro). Qiwu’s girlfriend, whose name is May, broke up with him on April 1. His birthday is May 1 and he chooses to wait in hope for May to return for a month before moving on. So every day he buys a tin of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1. By the end of this time, he feels that he will either be rejoined with his love or that it will have expired forever. The cop He Qiqu spends time at a snack bar in the crowded Chungking Mansions, using the phone to make hopeless calls to women he does not actually know (“we were in grade four together” or “has it been five years…you have two kids now”) and chatting to the owner who attempts to find him a date. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman in a blonde wig (played by Brigitte Lin) tries to survive in the drug underworld after a smuggling operation has gone wrong.

In the second story of the film, an unnamed Cop 663 (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is also dealing with a breakup, this time with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). But he meets Faye, the new girl at the local snack bar (played by Faye Wong). She secretly falls for him. Meanwhile the flight attendant waits for the cop around the same snack bar, and finds out he is on his day off. She leaves a letter for the snack bar owner to give to the cop. Everyone in the snack bar reads the letter, which is assumed to be the flight attendant’s way of telling the cop that their relationship is over. The envelope also has a spare set of keys to the cop’s apartment. Faye takes the keys and secretly gains access to Cop 663’s apartment.

The paradox of relationships are fully explored in Chungking Express with brevity or economy that are at times startling but always beautiful. The mysterious blonde tells He Qiwu as he tries desperately to engage with her; “Knowing someone does not mean keeping them” (知道一个人并不意味着保持其), in their fleeting conversation in a bar. But the pair do not every actually meet, even thought they are sitting next to each other, with her in her anonymous Lolita sunglasses and blonde wig and him stumbling through his words drawn from memories as he wears his heart on his sleeve. Furthermore he is a cop and she is a drug dealer. They share a hotel room, although he eats and she sleeps. They are miles apart. Upon leaving at sunrise he cleans her shoes with his tie while she continues to sleep, and the world is turned upside down. The sun rises, Surrealism lives and love is madness.

While He Qiwu contemplates his 25th birthday alone, the blonde woman murders a western man while he waits for another woman in a similar blonde wig with whom he is intimate. Like a hallucination, two dreams collide, one of death and the other of lust. Shadows move off the stage and blood runs with the rain.

There is little between them but they can barely hear each other. Cop 663 and Faye seem to be in two different pictures, but they are speaking to each other. He is elsewhere and she is stuck. Memories betray us. Then his flight attendant girlfriend has just gone and he is telling us about it in grainy images with audio from the take-off procedure of the flight upon which they met. “Onboard every flight is a stewardess that you long to seduce. This time last year, at 25, 000 feet I actually seduced one” (板载每次飞行是一名空姐,你长的勾引。去年这个时候,在25000英尺,其实我的诱惑之一). Is the truth being told?

Nothing lasts and there is no forever. People change.

Who is leaving who in these sad memories of Cop 663? Soon everyone in the snackbar quarter is reading the letter from the flight attendant to Cop 663, and the moment of dissolution is shared before the cop (n)ever reads it and it becomes real. Or has it? His keys in the envelope make Faye the double (s)he does not know (s)he has. Noise between people thus becomes part of (mis)understanding polluting memories even before they are planted .

By this stage of the film we seem to be swimming in apparitions like in a hall of mirrors. A person is branded upon the mind of another and they remain as a presence no matter the distance. What was presence in absence for He Qiwu has become absence in presence for Faye and Cop 663. He returns home for lunch, talking to the closet in the words he used for his flight attendant, but she is gone. Who is there?

She is. The double that we all carry. She inhabits what the lonely cop thinks are his empty living quarters. She is watering his plants, talking to his stuffed animals left behind by his lost love, and eating his food. Shouting to him as he passes by. Like a living ghost. A memory that answers back. How many of you can there be?

The mirror image of love is held by us in our memory

While he is absent, she cleans and redecorates. Changing the track of reality for the dreaming cop. “Did I leave the tap running or is the apartment getting more tearful?” (我离开的自来水运行或公寓越来越含泪). He is lost and dreams collide around him. The music she chooses while hiding in his apartment becomes his and he comes to remember it as something it was not before he even remembered it. His objects hold memories and as these change so does the man and his world. His secret companion changes his world by changing his memories by changing his apartment. And then there is love in crowds…or not. One letter can make all the difference. Where do you want to go?

Originally published at on October 23, 2014.



James Barrett

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.