The cinemascape of Hong Kong, at least in my experience, has been one of a hit-and miss nature – mostly miss. There was a time when Hong Kong films would always be at the top of the domestic box office. Studio heads were raking in cash left, right and centre, and like any good thing, it didn’t last. Cinema in Hong Kong became commodified, constantly releasing the same thing over and over again, relying on star power and tacky marketing rather than quality writing, acting and directing to bring in an audience. Wong Kar Wai, however, stands tall above the rest, a diamond in the rough. One thing that really bothers me about Hong Kong cinema is the almost careless use of music in a large majority of the films, in particular, dramas, so much so that many movies seem like feature length music videos. While the same comparison has been drawn about Wong’s films in the past, there are innate differences, which I hope to discuss in this paper. I will be discussing Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film, Chungking Express, focussing on Wong’s use of music and how it acts as a commentary on the themes of the film, such as love, loneliness, and urban isolation. I will be exploring how Wong’s choice of music, and the way in which he uses it, makes Chungking Express such an amazing and unique film.
Wong’s film can be said to have what’s known as universal appeal, and this has a lot to do with his use of music. Collaborating with the likes of Frankie Chan and Roel A. Garcia, Wong Kar Wai has incorporated a diverse range of Asian and Non-Asian musical cultures into his films. Across his films, the likes of Ernersto Lecuona, Los Indios Tabajaras, Xavia Cugat, the Mamas and the Papas, Massive Attack, the Flying Pickets, Marianne Faithfull, Astor Piazolla, Caetano Veloso, and the Three Amigos, and Ennio Morricone supply their works to what is often referred to as Wong’s ‘global jukebox’ (Stringer 2002). In Chungking Express, the multicultural musical fare is in full swing. From the Bollywood-esque tunes used in the Chungking Mansions sequence to the chilled out Jamaican music used in the bar, Wong Kar Wai uses world music to great effect, anchoring our perceptions of times and places in the film to the film soundtrack. Even the languages spoken intermix freely (Brunette 2005). In the scene where #223 meets Briggite Lin’s smuggler character, he asks her in four different languages, “Do you like pineapple?” This pastiche of music, together with the film’s striking visual imagery, provides the viewer with a ‘sonic tapestry’ evoking a polyglot culture that is very much the Crown Colony (Brunette 2005), its rhythmic presence in the construction of shots alluding to Wong’s musical sensibility (Wright 2002). However, in spite of Wong’s frequent use of famous Chinese popstars as actors (Andy Lau, Jacky Cheng, Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Faye Wong, Leon Lai, Karen Mok), not a great deal of Cantopop ends up being used in his films. By devaluing local music in favour of international sounds, one can interpret the choice as a tease – denying expectant fans songs by their favourite artists (Stringer 2002). In fact, the repeated use of California Dreaming can be seen as a comment on Hong Kong’s increasing level of Americanisation and cultural standardisation, and highlights that the song is an item for consumption: mass-produced, identical each time it is played and readily recognised to a global audience (Cameron 2006).
While it’s safe to say that Wong Kar Wai uses certain songs and pieces of music purposefully and deliberately, whether it be to evoke emotion, characterisation, or to carry one of the many themes that permeate his films, it is also fair to say that sometimes he just uses music for the sake aestheticism, with no discernible link to the film’s themes or plot. An example that comes to mind from Chungking Express is the scene in which we flashback to #633 and his air hostess girlfriend are enjoying each other’s company in his apartment. What a...
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