Chungking Express Review

Having just filmed his martial arts epic, Ashes of Time, Wong Kar-Wai was getting bogged down in the editing process of the film. To creatively revitalise himself, he undertook Chungking Express, quickly shooting a film built around a couple of lightweight stories, but imbuing the screen with all the vividness and spontaneity of its Hong Kong locations.

The film indeed takes its name from two of those locations – the Chungking Mansions, a bustling hive of life that houses all sorts of characters involved in 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. 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. In their own eccentric way, the stories that make up Chungking Express perfectly capture the fickleness of relationships, how people cope and move on and how chance and coincidence play a large part in the way that people who normally pass each other on the street everyday can suddenly connect in unexpected ways. A lot of the success of the Chungking Express must be therefore be attributed to the almost perfect cast who all deliver charismatic and sympathetic performances that capture the essence of these characters and the lives they lead.

Shooting, editing and releasing the film in just three months in improvised locations amid the seething hustle and bustle of downtown Hong Kong, the filmmaking process of Chungking Express is perfectly in tune with its subject matter. Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s dazzling, busy, blurry handheld camera (with Andrew Lau on second unit photography) capture the movement, colour and moments of magic that exist in the everyday lives of ordinary people – the little dreams, frustrations and coincidences that make up their lives. There are so many ‘little moments’ in this film and everyone will have their own favourites. Takeshi Kaneshiro’s bar encounter with Brigitte Lin in her sunglasses and blonde wig; Tony Leung, devilishly handsome in his police uniform as he slips from the shadows into the light of the Midnight Express counter to the strains of ‘California Dreaming’; Faye Wong’s wrestling with a giant Garfield cuddly toy or dancing around in #633’s apartment to her own Cantonese recording of a Cranberries song; even just the sight of kitchen staff singing with a carrot, they all capture the whole experience of falling in and out of love, of living and dreaming, and that’s all Chungking Express is about.

There have been a number of releases of Chungking Express worldwide, including an earlier non-anamoprhic and now out-of-print UK release by ICA – but I’m delighted to report that this Artificial Eye release is the best I’ve ever seen the film look on DVD.* Sure, it not perfect, but the film was made and released with such haste that I’m sure it never meant to look much better than this. Colours are bright and vivid, black levels are strong and there is not a trace of any digital or compression artefacts anywhere to be seen. There are a few dust spots, but far fewer than on any other print I have seen of the film on DVD. The film is transferred at 1.78:1 rather than 1.66:1, which leads to the image being a little cramped in places. There is a some slight amount of grain and the left hand side of the frame looks a little light in places, but those are the only minor faults I could find here.

The audio quality is not great, but it’s perfectly acceptable, particularly considering the nature and conditions under which the film was made. Particularly important however are getting the music sound levels correct. This wasn’t done well on the Artificial Eye release of Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, but there is no such problem here – the sound booms out the lively music score that carries the film along so well. At times, higher volumes cause the audio to crackle, but generally there is enough clarity here to make the film work well.

Subtitles are removable and are generally clear, although they are not large and don’t have a particularly wide border. I wasn’t sure about some of the translation bringing in references to Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, but it does at least remain consistent with the period of the film.

Hugely disappointing to find no substantial extra features at all other than mini biographies and selected filmographies for Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle. Not even a trailer.

Region 1 comparison
The only other release worthy of comparison to the Artificial Eye release is Quentin Tarantino’s Miramax/Rolling Thunder United States Region 1 release. There is little difference between quality of the print or the number of marks and scratches between the UK and the US release, although the colours on this new UK release are clearer, much stronger and more vivid. The Region 1 looks a shade too bright and somewhat murkier in darker scenes. The only advantage the Region 1 has over the Artificial Eye release is a few more extras – a Hong Kong Trailer, a Theatrical Trailer, a brief introduction to the film by Tarantino and an informative 10 minute wrap-up look at the film and its background. Screenshot comparisons below, UK Region 2 to the left, US Region 1 on the right.

Shooting, editing and releasing a film in just three months – the filmmaking process of Chungking Express is a far cry from the arduous process that has brought In The Mood For Love and 2046 to the screens. Looking back at Chungking Express and its equally fresh and exciting follow-up Fallen Angels and comparing it to lengthy gestation that 2046 went through, you can’t help think that it might be time for the Wong Kar-Wai to find a new way of revitalising his filmmaking energies. A great release of the film on DVD from Artificial Eye sees Chungking Express looking better than it ever has and as fun and as fresh as ever.

*Update September 2006 - A newly remastered Korean edition of Chungking Express and its follow-up Fallen Angels would appear to supercede this edition. See the review here for a detailed comparison to this and the Miramax editions.

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