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Mix Tape: "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express & Fish Tank

Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr here, with a special Mix Tape double feature.

Although released over a decade apart, Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank (one of last year's best films) have a shared emblem for their characters' longings and frustrations: The Mamas and the Papas' song "California Dreamin'," a staple of classic rock stations that has taken on a cultural life of its own.

In Chungking Express, it's the anthem for lonely waitress Faye (Faye Wong) as she fixates on an equally lonely policeman. In Fish Tank, the impoverished Mia (Katie Jarvis) wants to use Bobby Womack's cover version for her ill-fated dance audition. These women come from radically different places -- Hong Kong and eastern England, respectively -- but they still each dream of a "California."

After the jump, one song seen from two very different perspectives...

Somehow, The Mamas and the Papas distilled the universal yearning for escape down into two and a half minutes of music. The song is very distinctively "of its time" (the mid-'60s) but it's nonetheless timeless and impossibly catchy. It's forlorn yet folksy, and downbeat but still energetic. These little tonal contradictions help it fit both alongside Wong's quirky hi-jinks and Arnold's slum-bound gloom.

As used by Wong Kar-wai, the song is the last crucial detail that defines the character of Faye. It adds to Chungking Express's oddball aesthetic texture, complementing the eccentric use of color and Christopher Doyle's gauzy photography. It cycles through the soundtrack until it becomes a poignant symbol of unreciprocated desire -- like the film, it's endearingly sad.

The Womack version's function in Fish Tank is much more grim. It's connected with two of the most painful experiences in Mia's young life, and very nearly becomes a mocking reminder of just how powerless she is. The song's lingering hope and potential remain, but they're muffled beneath the film's oppressively bleak outlook.

Each film yokes "California Dreamin'" to its protagonist and her milieu, and neither film would be the same without it. It's proof of the song's durability that it feels perfectly natural amongst both urban glass and neon, and dingy British tenements. Many of the songs I've written about in Mix Tape are welded to one cinematic image in my brain. Thanks to the ingenuity and very different visions of Wong Kar-wai and Andrea Arnold, "California Dreamin'" has two.

What images does the song bring to your mind?

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Reader Comments (5)

lovely post -- i remembre being driven mad by its repetition in chungking but it worked in that i can't hear the song without thinking of that movie now. and wasn't it also used in "beautiful thing" or was that just other mamas & papas songs?

but two great movies so i'm happy to see both spotlighted in one post.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Thanks for the post! I just saw Fish Tank a few days ago and it was amazing! I remembered that scene you are talking about. The moment when she woke up from her dreams and realized the reality she's in. It's such a critical point in the movie and I feel felt for her at that moment.

June 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarshall1

Chungking Express is maybe my favorite movie of all time.

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