Chungking Express

The pH of pineapple is somewhere between 3.2 and 4.0

George Iskander · August 28, 2023

8 min read

There is no spring in Chicago. The cold pierces through May when it gives way to a week that bursts with all the fervor of a Brooklyn July. It’s the last cold Friday in May when we celebrate the end of school. I drain a can of pineapple and toss slices on the grill and they char and curl as the flames leap at every sweating drop. Tomorrow friends will leave with the last shambling winds of winter. I watch the pineapples brown in the haze of the heat. 

My favorite character in Chungking Express is the pineapple can. Pineapple cans and heartbreak delineate the first half of Chungking Express: a guy, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), is so infatuated with his girlfriend that when she breaks up with him, his heart breaks into thirty parts — thirty pineapple cans, to be exact. 223 tries to see his heartbreak through some guiding logic, so that maybe his heart will look like it cleaved along clean lines. He buys a can of pineapple every day of April, each with an expiration date of May 1st: because her name is May, because it’s his birthday, because she loved pineapples. “If May hasn’t changed her mind by the time I’ve bought thirty cans, then our love will also expire,” 223 tells himself.

If the pineapple can is a character, it is animated by virtue of the way 223 treats it. In his mind, he suffuses the can with so much self-imposed meaning that it takes on a life of its own. His love for May hinges on the act of finding and buying pineapple cans, in which lives the hope that he can stave off the expiration of their love. He finds escape as he molds his life around his pineapple can ritual, digging through stacks and boxes just to find cans with the right expiration date. 223’s obsession and anxiety speak to the constellations of meaning we imbue in the mundane objects around us and the overwhelming power of the past. His life falls into the gravity of the pineapple cans and comes to revolve around them. Rather than providing him with an escape from his heartbreak, they only intensify it when May 1st inevitably arrives.

Perhaps his pain is in part because pineapple can destroy a human. The fruit contains a unique enzyme not found in any other food: bromelain. Bromelain is proteolytic — it’s designed to digest and shred protein. Have you ever eaten pineapple with a cut on your lip, with a sore in your mouth? Its tartness burns. 

I take the caramelized slices off the grill and chew one whole. My mouth waters, unconscious of the violence taking place in my stomach.

Come May 1st, 223 binges through all the cans. A month has passed, and what has changed? He finds himself alone, with empty cans strewn about his apartment. For a month, 223 indulged in the sacrament of buying cans of preserved nostalgia. Nostalgia is often so sickening. This plays out in the movie as 223 remarks that he has a stomachache from all the pineapple he devoured (what else was he expecting?). The disarmingly sweet pineapple eats us up from inside. 

The cans recall a time no, in fact, the time where love was easy for 223. And that’s the whole deal with nostalgia — it binds us to another time and place, it centers good memories and times, ones that were better than now. For me, Cop 223’s story recalls Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse when he writes, “The lover’s solitude is not a solitude of person…it is a solitude of system: I am alone in making a system out of it…” 223’s heartbreak crystallizes within a daily and ordained ritual — a system — in which he finds some temporary peace, but which he can never fully explain. When the grocery store owner asks him why he’s so intent on buying cans with an expiration date of May 1st, how can he explain it? Each person cultivates their own cosmology of objects and their associated memories/feelings/emotions/nostalgia that no one else can ever truly understand. As Susan Stewart writes, “Nostalgia is the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetitions.”

song, street, gilded shimmering and dark.

The pineapple can is the rubber band ball I would make as a kid — at its core a single rubber band, grown band-by-band till the final elastic loop on it made me wince out of fear it might snap, and the little dustings of latex from each string accumulated on my fingers and dried them out. The ball grows under its own weight until it becomes something quite unlike the humble little ring of rubber that sits at the bottom of your office drawer. The more meaning we attach to a symbol, the bigger and more distorted it becomes. Everybody has their own pineapple can, some memory, some ritual so over-indulged in that it grows to the point of nausea. Nostalgia, in all its incarnations, sours an acute affection into a chronic ache. 

When it comes to nostalgia, the punishment for immoderation is death. Lot’s wife, driven from her home by Divine command, could not shake a nostalgia (nostos “home” + algos “pain,” nostalgia in the original sense). In front of her: a God-promised future. Behind her: a corrupt city, but a home, her home, nonetheless. She must have remembered her house, the garden in her backyard, the garden where she grew pineapples for her and Lot. Missing their sweetness, she turned around and became not sugar but its often-mistaken cousin, salt. In our journey towards the Divine, our attachment to the material becomes a stumbling block. Nostalgia makes a bitterness out of sweetness. 

In the door of my fridge I keep a party-opened bottle of wine (soon: vinegar).

In any other film, 223’s story would be a tragedy — and it is tragic, don’t get me wrong — but director Wong Kar-wai defangs the sadness by playing it all tongue-in-cheek. The first time I saw Chungking Express was in Chicago at a sold-out Wong Kar-wai retro in the spring of 2022. In that distance between us and the screen, heartbreak and its sappiness takes on all the trappings of melodrama. When 223 checks his pager and says his password is “love you for ten thousand years,” it’s just so absurd as to be funny, never mind that 223 says it with complete sincerity. The lover and his system speak in a personal vernacular that remains ineffable to spoken language. 223 creates a universe of objects and sayings that means so much to him but through translation — to the language of speech, to the language of cinema, finally to English — it becomes impotently sentimental.

Pineapple, like everything else, rots. I reify not a memory but in the wake of a something gone, the aftertaste of something long since swallowed. I am sick unto death of memories, of pineapple cans. I can’t get rid of the expired, rusting cans in my apartment, while everyone eats fresh pineapple. 

In spite of all this, it’s this same chain of events that lead 223 to a bar (maybe drinking will settle his stomach, he reasons) where he falls for the woman in the blonde wig (Brigitte Lin). 223’s relationship with her becomes a foil to his relationship with May. Whereas May and her absence came to dominate his life to his detriment, the woman in the blonde wig and the fleetingness of her interaction rejuvenate his lease on life. This is the thoroughline of Chungking Express and much of WKW’s filmography. The celebration of ephemerality and lost connections resist the isolation of nostalgia and its systems. Rejoicing in these interactions, freeing ourselves from the clawish desire of remaking and reinstating the past opens new expanses of possibility and meaning. The film never reveals the name of Brigitte Lin’s character. All we can do is call her “the woman in the blonde wig,” because that’s what she is both to 223 and to us. She walks through 223’s life and just as quickly leaves. All the same, when 223 finds a message from the woman in the blonde wig wishing him happy birthday, the thought of pineapples is the furthest thing from his mind. 

Other than a religious tattoo on my wrist, my only tattoo is a Del Monte pineapple can emblazoned with the bright colors of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography: purple, cyan, and pink. Chungking Express disavows the extremes of romanticization, yet I can’t help but think of the film whenever I see a can of pineapple. Ironic then how I love it so much that I’ve inscribed it on myself. It’s a warning.

I’m thinking about how this won’t work out, 
in the end.

George Iskander is co-editor of FilmSlop and a PhD student in physics. He tweets from @jerseyphysicist.

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