In 1984, the Hong Kong film scene began to gain global attention after half a decade of consistent reinvention and maturation. During the early eighties, filmmakers such as Patrick Tam and John Woo had developed a distinctive, highly stylised aesthetic that appealed to scholars as much as it did to casual cinemagoers. These directors took cues from western cinematic traditions and combined ideas found in the European arthouse sensibility with their own techniques, drawn from their still developing national cinema.

This period is often referred to as the Hong Kong new wave, and in a similar manner to its French namesake, it acts as shorthand for an era in which the city's cinematic output was defined by the cultural shift surrounding it. However, today's article does not concern a film that emerged from this new wave, but instead one that was borne from the 'second wave' of Hong Kong cinema that burst onto the arthouse circuit a decade later.

Fig 1: Chungking Express (1994) Dir: Wong Kar-Wai


Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express (1994) is inherently linked to the both the first and second wave movements in the sense that it both carries on the cinematic tradition of Hong Kong exploring its own westernisation, and that its director was active during both waves. The majority of Kar Wai's films take place in Hong Kong and films such as In the Mood for Love (2000) and Days of Being Wild (1990) established a consistent onscreen identity for the city itself, one that is present throughout most of his narratives.

Before delving into the scene in question, it is maybe useful to quickly sketch an extremely condensed history of Hong Kong as a city around the time of the first waves coming. From 1842 until 1984, Hong Kong was a British colony. Negotiations took place in 1984 that outlined the transference of sovereignty back to China and resulted in the Sino-British joint Declaration, and on June 30th of 1987, this cultural shift became change written in law. The population of Hong Kong suddenly assumed a dual nature, a generation was bound to the westernised element of the British Colonisation, but with the return of the state to Chinese ownership, there was a degree of confusion surrounding the city's cultural and ideological identity.

Fig 2: Chungking Express explores the dual identity of Hong Kong. Above we see its protagonist visually split into two entities, symbolic of the fractured cultural psyche.


Chungking Express is perhaps one of the highlights of Hong Kong cinema during the 1990's, a culmination of the growing stature of the cities output on the international circuit and a perfect example of Kar Wai's stylistic embracing of American and European ideologies present in the Hong Kong psyche. Kar Wai's style here is a blur of constant motion and activity, all held together by an exquisite eye for detail, a distinctive fashion sense, and a killer soundtrack - my focus for this week's dissection.

The director has often been noted for his use of music, and for me, it is one of the defining features of his body of work. The track list for Chungking Express alone reads like a Wes Anderson (before Wes Anderson was a thing) tribute mixtape - The Cranberries, The Mamas and the Papas, Dinah Washington and Dennis Brown to name but a few. But this specific attention to detail in terms of music is not simply cool-for-cools sake indie posturing, but instead goes some way in delivering poignant subtext regarding the previously outlined fractured Hong Kong psyche.

Fig 3: The Anglo bar owner and his Chinese employee wearing a blonde, westernised disguise.


The first instance of Kar Wai's use of song we will be exploring takes place in the first story of the film's two-part narrative and concerns Chungking Mansion's resident drug dealer / bar owner, and his employee who attempts to seduce him. The Drug dealer is white, and the only white male in the entire film, and takes the woman into the back of the bar where she plays with a blonde wig we have previously seen the protagonist wear. The Anglo male insists on her wearing the wig, only returning the affection once she does so

It has been noted that this gesture could be symbolic of her confusion regarding her own cultural identity, and that with this action she is seeking to conform to the white man's racial expectations. However, playing throughout the scene is the aforementioned Dennis Brown, with his reggae song 'Things in Life' acting as an equally important stylistic choice in terms of relating the concept of a fractured national identity that the film deals with.

The scene presents us with a melting pot of cultural identities - The Anglo male, the Chinese woman, the Jamaican Reggae soundtrack and a series of French new wave style jump cuts that punctuate everything. Here the use of soundtrack goes some way in presenting the interaction between westernisation and traditional Chinese heritage, and the Hong Kong identity at large, as one defined by its trans-cultural nature.

Fig 4: Faye Wong dreams of California


Elsewhere in the film, the recurring use of 'California Dreamin' by The Mamas and the Papas becomes explicit shorthand for the competing dimensions of the Hong Kong nationality, and the song is used as an obvious, deliberately blunt longing for the westernisation of the preceding decades that our protagonists had grown up in.

'California Dreamin' and 'Things in life' are only two examples in a vast collection of instances in which Kar Wai's has used western music to reinforce his conclusions surrounding the city's, and by extension his own, cultural identity. Throughout Chungking Express and the less seen but equally brilliant Happy Together (1997), Fallen Angels (1995) and As Tears go by (1988), the incorporation of American, European and continental music into the soundtrack, often alongside compositions by Chinese musicians, acts as a direct allegory for the identity of the dual influenced Hong Kong handover citizen.

Perhaps the soundtrack is one of the less appreciated intricacies of auteur directing, but Kar Wai is one of the current innovating figures in the element. His use of soundtrack here, and across the rest of his filmography, is one that does not simply function to fill the void of silence, but instead to further reinforce his ideology, and deliver complex thematic content in the form of an expertly selected playlist.