The Daily Stream: An Ode To Tony Leung's Face In 'Chungking Express'

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The MovieChungking Express

Where You Can Stream It: Criterion Channel

The Pitch: Two separate love stories unfold amid the bustling noise of Hong Kong. At night, a cop (Takeshi Kaneshiro) mourns his break-up with a woman named May when he runs into a beautiful blonde woman (Brigitte Lin) who happens to be a drug smuggler. During the day, Tony Leung is a police officer also nursing his wounds over a break-up with his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) when a manic pixie snack bar worker (Faye Wong) gains an obsession with him.

Why It's Essential Viewing: Is there any filmmaker who better captures cinematic yearning than Wong Kar-wai? The Hong Kong director's languid pacing, moody lighting, and deep saturated colors all convey a heightened sense of being — one that comes with falling in love, or even, falling out of love. But Wong's cinematic odes to unrequited love wouldn't be as exceptional if it weren't for the performers — one of his most frequent collaborators being Tony Leung. Now, I could wax on all day about Leung's range as an actor either in Wong's swooning romances or in hard-hitting Hong Kong action flicks, but I'm here to talk about Leung in Chungking Express. Specifically, his face in the final scene of Chungking Express.

If you were to search Chungking Express on Google, you would be forgiven for thinking that Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin were the main leads of this film, with Faye Wong coming in at a close third. Those three dominate the cultural imprint of the film, frequently gracing the posters and images that are circulated by those nostalgic for Wong's very specific snapshot of 1994. But Leung quietly gives the most striking performance of the film, as the jaded police officer who stoically recovers from a break-up, catching the attention of Faye, a snack bar worker (Wong) who comes into the possession of his apartment key.

Their flirtations are hardly more than a whisper — he orders the same thing every day, she stares at him from across the counter. Gradually, as Faye's secret attempts to cheer him up by sprucing up his apartment start to work, he'll chat with her as she's bringing supplies to the store, and help her carry the heavy baskets she's been saddled with transporting. But before anything can get started between the two of them, she disappears just as quickly as she appeared in his life, taking a plane to California and leaving him with nothing more than a boarding pass drawn on a paper napkin.

All this time, Leung's nameless policeman had drifted in and out of his scenes, with a slightly faraway look — almost cold and distant if not for Leung's natural charm. Through Faye's surreptitious actions, he starts to loosen up, and by the time they're reunited in the final scene of Chungking Express, he's almost uncharacteristically warm. And this is where Leung's incredible performance all comes to a head.

Faye returns to the snack bar, where she finds Leung's policeman in the midst of renovations. He's blasting her song "California Dreamin'" for the umpteenth time, and when he sees her, it's almost as if he thinks that he's still dreaming. He can hardly believes she's there, and his eyes follow her every move, a beaming grin threatening to be unleashed from his face. Instead, he flashes this crooked smile that disappears after a split second, as if he were trying his best to suppress it. In that smile is a world of emotions: ecstatic joy, nervousness, wariness, a little bit of melancholy. It almost doesn't matter what the two of them are saying to each other — they flirt a little in that strange, roundabout way, chatting about the shop and California before Leung's (still nameless!) character asks about the paper boarding pass. What matters is these two people reunited, brimming with this anxious, excited emotion that we can see in Faye's restless movements and Leung's face as he follows her, wide-eyed and unblinking — because if he blinks, she might disappear again.

It's here that Leung pulls off one of my favorite kind of acting performances: one in which someone looks like they're not acting at all. Some actors might go big and show all their emotions on their faces or through their movements, but Leung instead chooses to not just go small, but to visibly hold back everything his character wants to say or feel. It's not showy and it's not flashy, but it's completely, wonderfully human.