Of all the genres I did not expect to “fall in love” with, Hong Kong romance is pretty high upon the list. Yet so far I have watched Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and The World of Suzie Wong, and enjoyed all of them. With that said, recently I watched two more, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and Chungking Express. As romances, both are terrific. But both films (almost) go beyond their genre.
As is typical of genre romances, the only character with depth is the heroine. In 1955’s Splendored this is Dr. Han Suyin (played by Jennifer Jones), while in 1994’s Express the female lead is simply “Faye” (played by Faye Wong). Both female leads are unsure how to define themselves — Suyin is a mixed-race doctor who wishes to be Chinese, while Faye is a Chinese convenience-store attendant who wants to live in California.
Far more interesting than the flat characters are the common theme of the coming of the Communist Party. Splendored begins in 1949, and one of the first conversations centers around the fall of Shanghai. Suyin’s desire to help build China and apparent loyalty to the Communists as the only truly Chinese party is tempered by her family’s belief that it will be executed by the Party.
The concern is far more muted in Express, which takes place a few years before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. These themes are explored more fully, if still allegorically, in the director’s film (with the same lead actress), 2046.
Both movies are quirky in their own ways. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a remarkable film when taken in the context of race relations. Chungking Express has what amounts to an extremely large series of establishing shots, all of which serve to give context for the person and surroundings of the protagonist, who does not even appear into halfway into the film.
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing won three Academy Awards. Chungking Express is one of Time’s 100 best films of all time.