Chungking Express
Wong Kar-wai, 1994
#5, 1996 Skandies

Here's what Roger Ebert has to say about this one:

This is the kind of movie you'll relate to if you love film itself, rather than its surface aspects such as story

Uh-oh! I already have a pattern that says that's not me — Pattern 34, looks like (not to be confused with Rule 34). Let's see what someone who does "love film itself" has to say — here's Mike D'Angelo:

Chungking Express, in addition to being a generally terrific film, contains what is, for my money, the single greatest shot in the history of the medium. No, I'm neither kidding nor exaggerating; I really mean it. It's a very simple shot, at least as far as content is concerned: the camera watches from a distance as a man sips some coffee from a paper cup, while a woman leans against a counter and watches him. It lasts about ten to fifteen seconds, and in that time expresses more longing and yearning than most films can accomplish in two hours of anguished dialogue.

It's actually 21.8 seconds, according to Virtualdub. Let's take a look:

Longing and yearning? Okay, if you say so. What I get out of this is "A fast food worker is watching a cop drink a beverage." Now, even at normal speed this would be a pretty long look, so, sure, I can buy that it might suggest that she's interested in him. But if all I had to go on were this shot I could buy other theories too. Maybe she thinks he's a weird guy and is looking at him out of curiosity, or amusement. Maybe she's just bored and would rather look at him than at the grotty condiment bottles. Who's to say? This is the sort of thing I am talking about when I occasionally say that I have more Aspie traits than most. Yes, I am neurotypical enough to be driven up the wall by people missing the subtext of the pineapple story. But tell me that you can look at that placid face and say definitively that it communicates "longing and yearning" and I will look at you like the "are you a wizard" guy.

And yet, and yet. Much as I was always skeptical that "the look on her face will convey all that" when I was working on screenplays — since subtle looks on actors' faces rarely conveyed much to me — it is certainly not the case that I find faces meaningless in general. In 2010 I was about 55% of the way through turning my notes on the Photopia screenplay into a book when I started getting offers to work on studio films, and I set the adaptation aside so I could take those offers. Now that I've packed Endless, Nameless off to the IF archive, I am about to pick the Photopia book up again. During the hiatus, my friend Mandy from grad school had started posting quotes from her young daughter Lucy that made her sound uncannily like the new version of Wendy in the book, and while Elizabeth and I were in Ontario we paid them a visit. That was actually one of the main reasons for the trip — even setting aside the intriguing Facebook quotes, I figured that if I was going to spend the next several months writing about a bright six-year-old I should probably hang out with one. I ended up playing through the first five colored scenes of Photopia with Lucy and her eight-year-old sister Charlotte. Charlotte turned out to be the one who did most of the heavy lifting when it came to things like helping me calibrate the puzzle-solving sequences in the book. But Lucy gave me Wendy's face. See, initially I was focused on reading the text off the screen, and Elizabeth and the girls were sitting on the couch next to me, out of my line of sight. It wasn't until we were well into the red planet sequence that I happened to glance over at Lucy and saw her looking up at me, raptly listening to the story, and curious about my very retro computer screen, and still excited about having visitors, and a little anxious about coming up with the right command to get to the next location, and all of this on top of her default expression of being a happy, loved, and loving kid. And instantly I realized: "Oh — so that's how that shot the director came up with that was just going to be music and Wendy's face was going to work." If you don't care about following the plot of the bedtime story — if what you're interested in is the effect Alley is having on Wendy out in the real world — then, yeah, Wendy's face actually is all you need to see.

Which isn't to say that this was the first time it had occurred to me that you could build a story around things like fleeting glances and postural cues. I tend not to be great at picking up on this stuff in other people's movies, but it works for me when I'm imagining my own scenes, so I was perfectly happy to write that way after being assured by those in the know that audiences would in fact register these moments. (Sort of like how I enjoy writing IF puzzles that I myself would never be able to solve.) But now that I've moved on from the IF-to-screen phase of this project to the screen-to-novel phase, I've got a new problem: translating those eye darts and barely perceptible brow furrows back into language.

Again, it's been decades since I spent a significant amount of time around kids — my youngest students in my tutoring days were around 12 or 13 — so I hadn't realized how much kids around Wendy's age love stories. In particular, they love recounting stories. But I've noticed something. Here's Morgan from "Kids React" telling the story of Tinkerbell:

She does, like, and then she spread it out, things, and then the girl pulled the rainbow and then she did this way, and then she put it in her tube and she taked it to the mainland.

Now, as it happens, Elizabeth is currently visiting her parents, who are retired schoolteachers in a small, isolated town near the Ontario/Manitoba border. They recently had a get-together of their old colleagues, who were also Elizabeth's former teachers. One of them had had Elizabeth in her class when she was around Morgan's age, and she recalled that the stories Lizzie told were rather different. They were full of phrasings like "a winsome lass with a buttermilk complexion" and "over the rooftops of Yorkshire they flew." And it occurs to me that while of course some of this can be chalked up to differences among individuals, there may be a generational element as well. To wit: when I was that age, VCRs were cutting-edge devices that cost half as much as a car. Lizzie is a little younger than I am, but old enough that in her childhood you didn't just rent tapes — you rented the whole machine, because buying one of your own was still pretty pricey. Sure, you could just watch regular TV, but it wouldn't tell you stories on command — it just showed whatever was on. So we got our stories from books. When I was five I inhaled everything I could find by Roald Dahl and E.B. White. Elizabeth's list was pretty similar with some C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett thrown in. So we were immersed, not just in stories, but in language — language that could be recited back to retell the stories to others, or recombined to create new ones. Kids These Days, by contrast, grow up surrounded by vast libraries of videos — so when they try to recount what they've seen, they have to translate from a visual medium to a verbal one on the fly. They may have a rich mental inventory of gestures and camera angles, but that doesn't much help when you have only words to work with. Now I'm in the same boat.

PS: If you came to this page looking for a review of Chungking Express, I'm so sorry.

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