How Chungking Express brought dream pop to Hong Kong

Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde and The Cranberries’ Noel Hogan reflect on the musical legacy of Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film.

Words and interviews

James Balmont


Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express is in many ways his most evocative masterpiece. A two-part tale of possible romances set in the thriving back alleys of Chungking Mansions, it paints love and lust as an insatiable medley, with frenetic camerawork, neon lights and dynamic editing forming an intoxicating mix at the heart of a multicultural melting pot.

It was an international breakthrough for Wong, screening at festivals and theatres in Europe, Australia, Asia and South America before arriving in the US via Quentin Tarantino and his Rolling Thunder Pictures label. But this scintillating vision of contemporary Hong Kong, lapped up by arthouse fanatics across the globe, was not merely a one-way crossover phenomenon.

A new seven-disc Wong Kar-wai box set released by Criterion describes Chungking Express as a ‘jukebox movie’, a film whose very identity is quantified by the vibrancy of its multinational soundtrack. Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde calls it a “cross-pollination of cultures and music”; in the words of The Cranberries’ Noel Hogan, it’s the kind of movie that makes you go, “What’s that song? Who’s this band?” But Chungking Express isn’t just a great soundtrack movie – it was the genesis of numerous inroads for the pop artists around it, too.

Reggae singer Dennis Brown clashes with Dinah Washington’s smoky jazz hit ‘What A Diff’rence a Day Makes’, while the Mamas and the Papas’ sunshine pop classic ‘California Dreamin’ plays out endlessly in a fast food joint that seems to have plucked its menu from Phileas Fogg’s back pocket. It’s here that Faye Wong’s hip hostess becomes the film’s most captivating fixation, for audiences and leading man Tony Leung alike.

The jangling guitars of ‘Dreams’ by Irish alt-rock band The Cranberries play out several times across the film’s second narrative (as well as over the end credits). A hazy, wistful ballad about romantic opportunity and change, it seems to fully embody the spirit and character of the film. If it weren’t for the vocals, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the original: Faye Wong’s rendition is, in fact, the only song on the soundtrack sung in Cantonese. As such, it is the track most conducive to the film’s vivid setting in pre-1997 Hong Kong: a Western import given a Chinese-language makeover.

If Faye Wong was already something of a pop star prior to 1994, Chungking Express launched her to new heights. But it wasn’t until the album ‘Random Thoughts’ – released just a few months before the film – that she truly established her identity. And it was her shimmering cover of ‘Dreams’ that cemented her move into alternative rock, elevating her above the traditional Canto-pop ballads playing on the radio. The song was such a sensation that she ended up re-recording it – this time in Mandarin – for follow-up record ‘Sky’.

At the end of the decade Faye Wong was named in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling female Cantonese pop artist of all time. She became the first Chinese singer to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and, in 2009, commanded the highest appearance fee for any singer on the China mainland at $1 million per show.

Yet Faye Wong wasn’t the only party to benefit from the success of Chungking Express. By 1996, The Cranberries had become household names in Hong Kong. The success of ‘Dreams’ thrust the Irish band into the cultural mainstream in a manner that was highly unusual at the time for a Western artist.

“I don’t ever remember hearing of anyone else getting their song covered and released in the way that ‘Dreams’ was down there,” says lead guitarist Hogan. “The story we’d been told was that Faye’s version of ‘Dreams’ became the favourite song of the Chinese Prime Minister’s wife. When she’d go places, they’d play the song – and it made it a hit.” Hogan laughs as he recalls the rumours the band heard about the track’s success – another being that the Chinese Olympic team had used it as their team song for a period. “It could have been fiction for all I know, but you’d hope that somewhere in there is a bit of truth.”

The question became moot when The Cranberries arrived in Hong Kong for the first time in 1996. Headlining the 12,500 capacity Hong Kong Coliseum was a statement in itself, but the band were still wary. “If you go to a place for the first time and the gigs are empty, then you know you’ve been told lies,” says Hogan. “You wonder if one song is really going to fill a stadium.

“Of course, it can do,” he quickly adds, recalling the vast crowd that sang along to ‘Dreams’ when the band reached that point in the setlist. “The place went crazy. We knew it had been a hit, but it was a level up when we played ‘Dreams’.”

The Cranberries weren’t the only band to strike it big in Hong Kong via Chungking Express. Another Faye Wong cover, ‘Bluebeard’, by Scottish dream pop pioneers Cocteau Twins, also featured on the film’s soundtrack – and, as the opening track on ‘Random Thoughts’, it became a mission statement for Wong’s creative direction as her career took off in the mid-’90s.

From that moment on, Wong solidified her association with Cocteau Twins. Having already covered two of their songs on ‘Random Thoughts’ (fifth track ‘Know Oneself and Each Other’ is a reworking of ‘Know Who You Are at Every Age’), she found herself collaborating with the band for a string of subsequent releases, each act working in their native studios, separated by approximately 6,000 miles and an impenetrable language barrier.

“I was a massive film buff – we all were,” says bass guitarist and keyboard player Raymonde. “Wong Kar-wai was somebody who was being talked about a lot, and we’d all seen Chungking Express and thought it was brilliant. When the possibility [of collaborating with Faye Wong] was mentioned, there was a recognition there because of the film and how good it was. It was the film that sparked our interest in doing it.”

Cocteau Twins’ contributions ‘Fracture’ and ‘Spoilsport’ appeared on Faye Wong’s 1996 album ‘Fuzao’, which was heavily influenced by the band’s aesthetic and sound, while ‘Amusement Park’ appeared alongside a cover of ‘Rilkean Heart’ on her 1997 follow-up ‘Faye Wong’.

The association brought a new audience to the Cocteau Twins, just as the band had hoped. While their plans to tour Hong Kong in the late ’90s were scuppered when vocalist Liz Fraser quit the band, their 1996 album ‘Milk & Kisses’ was released in Eastern Asia; it included an exclusive duet version of ‘Serpentskirt’ featuring Wong. “That was a real first,” Raymonde recalls. “Letting someone else’s vocals be on our recordings. We thought it was fun. It was different.”

As contemporary Canto-pop stars like Candy Lo began to emulate the same jangly, dream pop sound on records like the 1998 EP ‘Don’t Have to be… Too Perfect’ and subsequent album ‘Miao’, and with Cocteau Twins having gone their separate ways, Faye Wong moved away from the musical style that had defined her ascendency amid what Raymonde believes were creative tensions between her and her record label.

Wong initially retired from the pop scene in 2005, having sold close to 10 million records by the turn of the century, earning her comparisons to Madonna from media outlets who had dubbed her “the Diva” of Hong Kong. She reunited with Wong Kar-wai in 2004, appearing as a bouffant-haired android/hotel landlord’s daughter in the Palme d’Or-nominated 2046, and later revived her singing career with a series of triumphant comeback shows between 2010 and 2012. Her versions of ‘Dreams’ and ‘Rilkean Heart’ were regularly included on the setlists.

The Cranberries, meanwhile, returned to Hong Kong and mainland China several times before the death of singer Dolores O’Riordan in 2018 spelled the end for the band. “I do think that a lot of our popularity in China is because of ‘Dreams’,” concludes Hogan. “It takes just one movie like that. It opens the door.”

Raymonde agrees: “It can have the effect of spawning interest in a whole movement of music. And that style of music in the West – with female vocals and effects and reverb – it did cross over. Because if it didn’t then bands like The Cranberries and the Cocteau Twins wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel around the world in the way that we did.”

With publications like the South China Morning Post and Time Out Hong Kong still championing dream pop artists in Hong Kong as recently as July 2020, the influence of these visionaries evidently remains strong. With artists such as Taipei shoegazers U.TA quick to acknowledge Faye Wong’s influence, it’s safe to say that if music is a universal language, Chungking Express requires no interpretation.

Published 13 Feb 2021

Tags: Chungking Express Cocteau Twins Faye Wong Noel Hogan Simon Raymonde The Cranberries Wong Kar-wai

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