Bologna, 22-24 novembre 2013
Double Agents and The Poor Man’s Orchestra: Music and the Aesthetic of the Self in “Chunking Express” (1994)
As an ambassador between present and past, and between local and global cinemas, music has earned pride of place in Wong Kar Wai’s now playful, now doleful recreations. Indeed, their most distinctive characteristic is the breadth and quality of the musical references, ranging from the strategic recycling of recognizable registers and timbres to the explicit citation of pre-existing materials (sometimes even ‘poached’, as it were, from other films’ soundtracks). This approach is apparent in all his films and is in keeping with the director’s desire to control the use of music in the final mix. Notable exceptions are his first feature, As Tears Go by, and Ashes of Time, which features an original, if deeply allusive, score (subsequently rearranged and augmented for the film’s ‘redux’ version). Now here to be heard are the title themes by well known Canto-pop singers recurring at predictably climactic points or the ‘canned’ music that pervades so many dramas and action flicks. When the latter does surface in the mix, it acquires an appealingly reflexive ring.
In Chunking Express, the music invariably occupies its own, discrete zone of the mix, utterly separate from the sound effects. The score, in one word, exhibits a disengaged quality. Loosely synchronized to the particular incidents of the action, its tempo neither consistent nor in striking contrast to the blur of the onscreen antics, music moves at its own pace and of its own accord – as befits the retrospective, phantom scores conjured for as many imaginary films of themselves by the characters (and to which we are privvy like unwitting soul mates). If the synthesizer is shorthand for the orchestra, the Chunking Mansions are the poor man’s equivalent of the exotic locales of a big-budget, Hollywood action saga. In place of an Indian bazaar or an undisclosed location in the Amazons, we get to experience the thrill of a foreign, distant country, populated by unknown and, under a false impression, ‘threatening’ people right at home, a mere crossing from the subway stop in Tsim Sha Tsui (and a ferry ride away from Hong Kong). Wong Kar Wai himself is quoted as saying that the Chunking Mansions are a ‘microcosm’. And a microcosm the building surely is, with shops and restaurants parading merchandise from all over the world and small hotels and bed & breakfast establishments branding themselves after the most diverse, and sometimes extravagant, geographical locations. It is in this delusional place that, at the sound of a Bollywood musical vocal number, we see the wigged drug dealer relish her fantasy of being the star of the murderous plot brewing in her mind or ‘Cop 223’ playing the hero in a dangerous chase, albeit one that exists only in his cinema-inspired pool of daydreams.