The Cranberries, Cantopop and CHUNGKING EXPRESS
Many a Gen X-er was saddened by the news that Dolores O’Riordan, the lead singer of THE CRANBERRIES, had passed away in London earlier this week at the age of 46. The Irish band’s blend of Celtic and alternative rock styles catapulted her and the band to global success, selling well over 40 million albums. In my opinion, O’Riordan’s unique and lyrical singing style coupled with great musicianship and storytelling lyrics made The Cranberries one of the greatest bands at the end of the millennium.
Another formidable movement that informed me as an adult was the Hong Kong New Wave, especially Wong Kar Wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS. When I first saw it, I was blown away and it was my gateway to Hong Kong and Asian arthouse cinema and my undying love for the work of the likes of Wong, DP Christopher Doyle, heartthrobs Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro, Hong Kong royalty Brigitte Lin (playing a mysterious woman in a blonde wig), and of course, the ultimate pixie ever captured on celluloid, Faye Wong.
CHUNGKING EXPRESS was a seminal film for many Asian American young adults during that time. Seeking media representation and a sense of identity, I voraciously watched Asian cinema in my university’s video library, read Giant Robot magazine obsessively, listened to Pizzicato Five, Shonen Knife, Lush and other Asian female fronted cult bands, and was rooting for fellow Hawaii local boy Jason Scott Lee who was making a splash in Hollywood. I was in the infancy of my Asian pride awakening.
But man, Faye Wong in CHUNGKING EXPRESS… It was undeniable to not fall in love with her. She was the second coming of Jean Seberg from another seminal film of another country’s new wave cinema thirty years prior (Jean-Luc Godard’s BREATHLESS). When Faye Wong came on screen making gyros in a hawker stall, dancing to “California Dreaming,” many a young straight man’s heart was aflutter and transfixed by her quirkiness. But it was the actress’s Cantonese cover of The Cranberries’s “Dreams” that sealed the deal and captured Hong Kong cinema, as well as growing up in the 1990s, which made it ubiquitous during the height of independent and Asian cinema and culture.
Hong Kong writer Vivienne Chow agrees and goes farther to say that The Cranberries were instrumental in transforming Cantopop thanks to Faye Wong and CHUNGKING EXPRESS. In an article titled “What Cantopop Owes To The Cranberries,” writes that the popular Irish band inspired a number of Hong Kong pop artists by allowing them to break away from the traditional Cantopop music format that was dominating the industry during that time and that no Cantopop singer was more inspired by them than Faye Wong.
More from Quartzy:
The Beijing-born singer, known as Wong Fei in Cantonese, emerged in Hong Kong’s music scene at the turn of the 1990s. At first, she was packaged as a typical young idol under an ordinary name, Shirley Wong. Her songs were the standard, easy-listening love songs popular at the time. It wasn’t until 1993 and 1994 that she started covering music from the likes of Tori Amos and the Cocteau Twins, sending shockwaves through the Cantopop industry, which was at the time heavily influenced by Japanese pop and epic Chinese melodies created for martial arts TV dramas.
Wong’s most notable hit was her cover of “Dreams,” the Cranberries’ debut single and smash hit released in 1992. Wong blended O’Riordan’s vocal style seamlessly with her own distinctive voice in her Cantonese version, translated as “Dreamlover.” The song was immortalized in Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express, in which Wong even sported a hairstyle that was similar to O’Riordan’s at the time. From then on, Wong ditched her stage name Shirley and started going by Faye, a nod to her Cantonese name.
The Cantopop version of “Dreams” was such a smash hit in Hong Kong and surrounding Asian territories not only catapulted Wong into the stratosphere but also made The Cranberries themselves into household names. It also broadened the horizons of music fans accustomed to sugary Canto love songs. The masses became more receptive toward more alternative music, opening doors to artists who did not conform to the mainstream model.
The Cranberries would eventually rock Hong Kong in 1996, playing a sold out and memorable concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum, also known as the mecca of Cantopop concerts. The last time the band played in Hong Kong was in 2012.
Hence, we go back to CHUNGKING EXPRESS. Faye Wong’s “Dreams” cover plays at a critical moment in the film — Smitten Faye breaks into her crush’s apartment and cleans his place, refills his fridge and um, inspects his bed for any errant pubic hairs? Sure, it’s borderline stalkery, but what’s not to love about a wirey, scrawny pixie girl who is expressing her love in her own way? Plus, the song totally sells the scene, very much in a way that Faye herself is in a dreamscape, completely boy crazy and expressing her affection/obsession in the only way she can.
It’s a film about lost souls in a vast, bustling city, disconnected and aimless but also hopelessly in love. It’s a deconstructed romantic drama, captured in lyrical, free-flowing shots as if the camera was floating like a butterfly. Wong Kar Wai also chose the perfect songs to capture the different moments in this film— From the reggae song “Things in Life” by Dennis Brown slow jamming from the jukebox with the spinning, suspended CDs, to Faye dancing to the Mama and the Papa’s “California Dreaming,” (lifting up and down those sauce jugs was an iconic dance) and of course, the “Dreamlover” scene still resonate in my mind like actual dreams.
Dolores O’Riordan’s legacy will forever be connected to one of the greatest Hong Kong films ever made. And like how popular music informs and connects the dots in our own timelines, “Dreams” is very much a part of the Asian American and Asian film enthusiast soundtrack. Because how ever one discovers CHUNGKING EXPRESS, they will always be enchanted by “Dreams.”
To read the entire article, head over to Quartzy: What Hong Kong’s Cantopop Scene Owes To The Cranberries