KINDRED TARANTINO : The Thunder Rolls, Out of Hong Kong

Irene Lacher is a Times staff writer

In Hong Kong, he’s known as the Wong Kar-Wai of the United States. Here, it might be simpler to call him Quentin Tarantino.

Hong Kong’s real McCoy, up-and-coming director Wong himself, delivers that cross-cultural fact with a bone-dry smile bereft of irony. Indeed, the two filmmakers with a passion for pop culture have been joined together in critics’ eyes and, more to the point, a distribution deal.

Wong’s stylish fourth film, “Chungking Express,” opens Friday under the imprint of Rolling Thunder, Tarantino’s new specialty label for Miramax Films. The film and the label are making a joint debut, and Tarantino’s courtship thrusts Wong, that rare bird--a Hong Kong art-film maker--into an international spotlight.

“I think he is one of the most inspiring filmmakers to come out in the last couple of years,” Tarantino says. “When I saw ‘Chungking Express’ I felt we were going down the same road. I felt that touch of kinship or camaraderie, whatever an artist feels when he recognizes another artist’s song.”

Tarantino discovered Wong’s film at the 1994 Stockholm International Film Festival, which gave its best actress laurel to “Chungking’s” Faye Wang, a Hong Kong pop star. Rolling Thunder’s mission is to release four movies a year, mining neglected sources: obscure films that didn’t receive U.S. distribution, new work from undiscovered filmmakers and vintage movies, with 25% of profits going to film preservation.


Critics like to compare the two directors, intrigued by their like sensibility, their fascination with pop-culture-tinged noir. The two filmmakers have also ignited similar debate about style versus substance, encapsulated in Wong’s case by Hong Kong writer Paul Fonoroff, who divides critics of his earlier film “Days of Being Wild” into two camps--"those who championed it as ‘art’ and others who saw it as pretentiousness masquerading as art.”

‘Chungking Express” may do little to settle the question, although even his harshest critics credit Wong, who studied graphic design, with great visual flair. The film has a snappy, kinetic feel that has been likened to the French New Wave, thanks to frequent jump cuts and the hand-held camera work favored by Wong’s Australian cinematographer, Chris Doyle. The film is in Chinese with English subtitles.

“Chungking Express,” which was a surprise hit in Hong Kong, is about law enforcers in love, two heartbroken cops and the bizarre women who cross their path. The first, Cop No. 223, has given his recently departed girlfriend a month to call him, and he counts the days by amassing pineapple cans that expire on May 1. “Why does everything have an expiry date?” he muses, until he meets up with a drug smuggler in a trench coat and blond wig.

The second heartbroken cop, No. 663, stops every day at a fast-food counter to buy a chef’s salad for his flight attendant girlfriend, coming by even after she drops off his key there. A pixieish counter girl (Wang) with a crush on No. 663 uses the key to sneak into his place when he’s not there, to snoop a bit, clean a bit and generally move things around.

The simplicity of “Chungking Express” was in part a reaction to Wong’s headaches in making 1992’s “Ashes of Time,” an ambitious costume drama about a famous Chinese swordsman that cost two years and $3 million--twice the Hong Kong average--but was a financial disappointment.

Wong, 37, came off “Ashes” less enchanted with the life of the movie mogul than that of the student filmmaker, and he batted out “Chungking” in less than three months. That included mornings writing the script over coffee at a Holiday Inn coffee shop, then trundling two blocks to Chungking Mansions, a mini-city of guest houses and curry shops, to shoot the new pages.

“We were shooting without permits, so we had to be very quick, just like robbery,” Wong says, fixed behind sunglasses despite the grim rainy light filtering into his Four Seasons Hotel room. “That’s why we didn’t have big setups. We didn’t have time. It was done in a very guerrilla way.”

The film captures the dense urban warren of Chungking Mansions. And for all the global village references--the allusions to Bruce Willis and Demi Moore and the relentless reprises of the Mamas & the Papas song “California Dreamin’ "--Wong considers the film very much about Hong Kong.

“One of my friends who is a critic wrote in a Chinese paper something I think that’s quite true: ‘This is not a very typical Hong Kong film, but it’s very much about Hong Kong.’ You can feel it, the tempo, everything.”

Still, Wong is something of a cultural hybrid himself. Born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, he was molded by Balzac, Raymond Chandler and “Seventh Fleet culture,” the foreign seamen who clotted the streets of Wanchai during the East Asian wars, trailing music and cigarettes.

And while Wong’s quirky films are a clear departure from the largely formulaic Hong Kong film industry, that was his leaping-off point. He cut his teeth in production at the Hong Kong commercial television station TVB and spent much of the ‘80s churning out comedy and action scripts for Cinema City, one of the colony’s most successful film studios.

The writer-as-chameleon pose still suits Wong, who is making a musical and hankering after horror and science fiction.

His first two films were eclectic as well: “As Tears Go By” (1988), spiked with harsh light and neon, drew heavily on Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” His 1990 film “Days of Being Wild” was its visually colorless opposite, a meditation on loneliness and regret set in the 1960s nightclub scene.

Loneliness pervades his work, and Esther Yau, an assistant professor of film at Occidental College, says Wong’s take on the fragility of relationships in “Chungking Express” marks the filmmaker as one who is peculiarly suited to the millennium.

“There’s a certain kind of sensibility for the ‘90s that this film is really about--the kind of love relationships that are sort of temporary, a little on the surface, a little dislocated,” Yau says. “I would think it would cross over, not because it’s Hong Kong or Chinese.

“There’s a Chinese critic who says the film reflects a fin de siecle sensibility. In Hong Kong everyone feels you can’t see what will happen in the 21st century. But Wong says every day is fin de siecle. Every day is an end of something.”