Chungking Express Review
Chungking Express is very much a film of its time, which is not to say that it is dated, but rather that its whole origin, development and creation reflects the circumstances of its director at that point in time. The same could be said about the work of most auteur directors exploring their own personal path at any point in their career, but in the case of Wong Kar-wai, Chungking Express marks a significant step his development towards becoming one of the greatest filmmakers in the world today, marking out exactly where he was, reflecting on the options that had been opened up, and considering where to take them.
The origins of Chungking Express are quite indeed quite peculiar. Having just finished shooting his martial arts epic, Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-wai would hand-over the editing of the film to others while he immersed himself in the hustle and bustle of downtown Hong Kong as a kind of antidote to the arduous 12 months in the Yulin Desert in China. In contrast also to the working methods involved in the adaptation of Louis Cha’s epic martial arts trilogy, the director aim was to shoot Chungking Express fast and improvisational, without a script and even without filming permits, using the buzz of the city and people living in close quarters to express the spontaneity of encounter and the thrill of attraction.
The film indeed takes its name from two of those colourful locations – the Chungking Mansions, a bustling hive of life that houses all sorts of transient characters involved in unknown and possibly sometimes shady activities, and the Midnight Express fast-food bar, where several of these characters live their lives and pass each other on a day to day basis. To capture a sense of interconnectedness that reflects and unites the dynamic of the separate stories and lives of this bustling community rubbing up against each other, Wong Kar-wai would settle for a compendium approach - initially intended to be three stories, but eventually ending up as two (the third part going on to be included in the film’s follow-up Fallen Angels).
In the first part of the film we meet plainclothes cop #223, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has just broken-up with his girlfriend May. Unwilling to let go of the relationship, he sets the date of his 25th birthday as a time when, like the expiry date on the cans of pineapple he eats, he needs to accept that the expiry date of their relationship has also been reached. He meets a mysterious woman at a bar, a drug dealer (Brigitte Lin) wearing sunglasses and a blonde wig who has been set-up by her ex-partner, and in one of those strange co-incidences that occur in that part of the city, this unlikely couple of cop and drug-dealer find their paths cross and find in each other the motivation they need to move on.
The second story, only very loosely connected to the first part, sees another policeman known only as #633 (Tony Leung), who takes advice on his love-life from the owner of the Midnight Express snack-bar (Chen Jinquan). When his air-hostess girlfriend disappears on a rescheduled flight, he fears the worst and won’t open the letter that has been left behind the counter for him. The owner’s cousin, Faye (played by Cantonese pop-idol, Faye Wong) who works at the bar is rather more curious about the handsome policeman and finds a set of keys in the envelope. Being somewhat of a romantic dreamer, spending her days at the food-bar playing ‘California Dreaming’ by The Mamas and The Papas, she hatches a plot in her mind, visiting #633’s house and surreptitiously insinuating her own touches and personality into his place.
On paper, the plot descriptions of Chungking Express, as in most Wong Kar-wai films, not only fail to capture what the films are about, they are actually make the films sound whimsical and trivial. But in a way that is precisely what makes them so wonderful. Unconventional and unpredictable, the unusual trajectory of the stories in Chungking Express reflect that the spark of life and the sense of new beginnings can come from the most unexpected sources and in the most unusual places. Coming as it does after the melancholic reflections on the past that weigh down the damaged characters in Ashes of Time, in Chungking Express Wong Kar-wai reflects on the possibility of new beginnings – and it’s not so much reflection as letting the past go and being open to the world around us. The policemen male characters in each of the film’s two stories both find it difficult to move on, finding it is safer to wallow in the past than take a risk on an unknown future - Tony Leung’s character for example does not even want to risk buying his girlfriend a different dish at the Midnight Express takeaway for fear of what change can bring. The women on the other hand are less predictable and have their paths less constrained by laws and rules, by dates and routines and they are less inclined to wait around, but go out and make things happen. These are broad, simple character definitions, but Wong Kar-wai makes so much more of them, bring the clash of these two worlds together and bringing it together within the setting of a wider more complex world of chance, coincidence, casual encounter of the rapidly changing world that is represented by the activity around the Chungking Mansions. And inevitably, something magical arises out of this, which is just life and the wonder of what the next day can bring.
That sense of the pace and the complex rhythms of life is reflected in the manner that Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s dazzling, busy, blurry handheld camera (with Andrew Lau on second unit photography) captures the movement, colour and little moments of wonder that exist in the everyday lives of ordinary people and all the little dreams, frustrations and coincidences that make up their lives. Wong Kar-wai’s subsequent films would continue to reflect on similar themes of chance encounters, damaged characters and the difficulties of breaking away from a painful past to take a chance on a new beginning, and he would do with so with a great deal more depth and precision, but Chungking Express comes at a moment of new possibilities for the director himself and expresses its ideas with a delightful and entertaining spontaneity and lightness of touch that is of its time and, as can be seen from the attempt to recreate it in its US-made counterpart My Blueberry Nights, it’s a moment that is unrepeatable.
Chungking Express is released on Blu-ray in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on BD25 disc with a 1080p encode. I’m unable to check the Region Coding, but indications are that the disc should be All Regions. The extra features are in Standard Definition PAL (576/50i).
I’ve seen many DVD incarnations of Chungking Express over the years - a poor non-anamorphic ICA Films release, an improved R1 Miramax release, a better Artificial Eye release in 2004 which was rather nice until it was superseded by the first release of Wong Kar-wai’s restored, remixed version of the film on a Korean R3, paired with Fallen Angels. It’s since seen release on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray. I haven’t seen the Criterion BD to compare, but the HD release presented here does indeed seem to be the best version of the film that I’ve seen. (My DVD Times colleague Matt Shingleton has however seen both Artificial Eye and Criterion Collection releases and has compared them here). The image on the Artificial Eye has clearly been restored by the director, removing practically all of the little marks, flecks, dustspots and damage that had peppered previous versions. Grain is visible, but it’s natural film grain and it is well-contained. Some flicker is evident in one or two scenes, but that has always been there and is more likely to be down to the outdoor lighting in the locations than any flaw with the transfer. Shadow detail is not terrific, occasionally looking rather flat, but again considering the natural light sources and unnatural colours used, it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. The transfer struck me as being slightly dark, but comparing it to the restored version on Korean R3 DVD release, it looks about right, even if it doesn’t show any great improvement over that Standard Definition version. The primary advantage of the HD transfer however is the smoothness of movement – essential in this particular film with all Christopher Doyle’s motion manipulation – and the accuracy of the filmic qualities of the print. It doesn’t look clean and polished, but I’d be worried if it did.
Please note that all screenshots in this review are taken from the Standard Definition DVD version, not the Blu-ray.
As well as restoring the image, the original stereo soundtrack has been completely remastered and remixed under the direction of Wong Kar-wai. It’s presented here in Dolby Digital 5.1 and in DTS HD Master Audio. The surround track certainly makes excellent use of the surrounds while keeping the main part of the sound and dialogue focussed very much to the front and centre. Dialogue can be a little bit dull and slightly muffled on occasions with some analogue hiss evident in the background, but considering the nature of how the film was shot such issues are undoubtedly within the source elements, and they are minimised and scarcely noticeable here. There’s a satisfying rumble of thunder on the low-frequencies and clear whack of bulletshots in relevant scenes. It’s the music score however that hand benefits most from the remastering, which is great as it is so vital to the whole mood and impact of the film. The use of ‘California Dreaming’, often overpowering on other versions of the film seems to me to be a little bit reined-in on this mix, though I haven’t checked other versions to see if this is the case. Other songs used throughout and Frankie Chan’s haunting themes all have a little more clarity, better definition of tone and an effective impact.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. They are well-sized and appropriately placed, but don’t’ have a strong border which means they don’t stand-out well against cluttered backgrounds. This isn’t frequent however and shouldn’t be a problem for most people. In contrast to the previous attempts to translate He Qiwu’s comparison of his girlfriend and himself as alternatively ‘Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’ on the last AE release and as “a Japanese movie star” on the Korean edition, here it uses the names Momoe Yamaguchi and Tomokazu Miura, which might be a more accurate rendering.
Irritating though he might be, the Introduction by Quentin Tarantino (7:43), taken from a previous US Miramax edition, does serve as a good introduction to the film for first-time viewers, identifying the characters, the actors and type of filmmaking tradition that the director comes from with a few interesting anecdotes about the film’s making. On Location with Christopher Doyle (9:55) sees the film’s irrepressible (and seemingly drunk) cinematographer take a film crew around the colourful Hong Kong locations (and bars) of Chungking Express, including his own apartment. The Interview with Wong Kar-wai (14:52) sets the context in which the film is made, but is mostly comprised of a number of thrilling deleted scenes showing some alternative paths that were explored in the storyline, particularly the Takeshi Kaneshiro/Brigitte Lin storyline. Filmographies are included and a Trailer (2:39) that doesn’t best sum up the mood, pace or spirit of the film. The extra features are all Standard Definition PAL (576/50i).
Shooting, editing and releasing a film in just three months – the filmmaking process of Chungking Express is a far cry from the long, arduous process that it would take to bring later Wong Kar-wai films like In The Mood For Love and 2046 to the screen, but in many ways it’s just as successful in its purpose as those films, finding a method and a mood that is entirely appropriate for the subject, as well as having a lightness, spontaneity, freedom and willingness to experiment that is sadly absent in its US-made counterpart My Blueberry Nights. Artificial Eye may have failed to get their new DVD version right, sourcing it from a NTSC master and converting it to PAL, but there are no such issues with the Blu-ray edition. It may not look pristine, but it looks like a film should, and this particular film looks terrific.