Voice overs, some filmmakers love them, some truly hate it. To improve myself as a screenplay writer, I should learn how to write good voice overs. A film that I can remember with great voice overs is Chungking Express, so why not just learn from one the best filmmakers from Hong Kong, which is Wong Kar Wai.
Like anybody, Wong Kar Wai had to learn to add voice overs as they are clearly missing in his first two films “As tears goes by” and “Days for being wild”.
Even though Chungking express came out as the 3rd film, the 3rd film Wong Kar Wai produced was Ashes of time, where we can notice he experimented with voice overs. That is why I want to talk about Chungking Express where Wong Kar Wai made significant improvements, which we can learn from.
There are 3 types of voice overs, you have Narration which is about presenting information or retelling a moment. Internal monologue, which is the thoughts of the character in the moment. And you have Off screen monologue or dialogue, which you hear either one or two characters talking without seeing them.
What impressed me is that some of the voice overs are hard to distinguish from being either an internal monologue or a narration, as it blends the line between both.
In Chungking express opening scenes, cop 223 played by Kaneshiro Takeshi, brushes past a woman with a wig played by Brigit Lin.
What is great about this narration is that it still relates to what is happening on screen, romanticizing the moment they pass each other. Even though it does spoil what will happen, it is more of a teaser, which sets the audience up to be curious how they would fall in love, and gets thrown in a loop, when the film reveals the woman is a drug smuggler.
Next scene is where the voice over romanticizes the act of buying an almost expired can of pineapple.
What is interesting about this voice over is that it could be an internal monologue, but because we get to know the can is almost expired, this is actually a narration. Without the voice over it’s still a scene where cop 223 is searching for a can of pineapple with May 1st and buying it. But the voice over romanticizes this moment, by connecting different information together and giving cop 223 a strong purpose to buy the can of almost expired pineapple. As no other method to explain this purpose, it also sets up the following scenes with cans of pineapples.
There are two off screen dialogues moment in this movie, but they do connect with each other and another moment cop 223 checks his pager.
The page operator’s voice is an off screen dialogue. As we don’t need to see the operator as she isn’t that important to be seen. What is more interesting is that on both occasions they quickly switch to other voice over.
This inner monologue is great as it poetically wraps up everything that had happened into a neat ending.
The 2nd story is about police officer 633 played by Tony Leung. Which has the better voice overs as the writing is more poetic, by using metaphors to describe something.
However it does start with a bad narration, looking at an airplane flying away at Kowloon airport.
The main use of this narration is to announce a flash back before their broke up in a vague way with the text “this time last year”, it doesn’t work as intended, however watching the next scene itself the audience notice we jumped back in time, when cop 633 still was in a relationship with a stewardess.
Though we soon after get a much better narration from Cop 633 who is playing with an airplane in bed.
It’s such a poetic way using a metaphor to say that the stewardess would eventually break up with him for someone else. Though it’s a spoiler, but the chef’s salad scene before this we already get to know they would break up. But also without the voice over we see the doubt on the face of the stewardess.
The flooded house scene also has a nice inner monologue.
This is also quite poetic as the home is a reflection of himself still missing the stewardess and crying inside. It’s a call back to a previous scene, where cop 633 is talking to different objects in his home, which he is trying to cheer up, while he is trying to cheer himself up with what he is saying. Even without the voice over we still have an interesting scene of someone dealing with a flooded home.
What I learned from analyzing voice overs in Chungking express.
- Tease the audience what is going to happen at the start of the story with a narration. But try not to spoil the moment right after the narration.
- Have footage under the voiceover that tells a story, even if people don’t understand the voiceover the image can be clear about what is happening.
- Start your narration as if it’s an internal monologue that is connected to what you see on screen, but end it with information only an narration should have.
- Make the voice overs poetic, romantic and try to be creative with your wording, make use of metaphors and analogies so it is more interesting than saying things straight forward as it is.
- Most important is to write voice overs that add emotion or a purpose to the storyline. Only tell something when it is impossible or difficult to show it.
My name is Chung Dha and this was my cinema essay about Chungking express voice overs.