Chungking Express / Fallen Angels 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 in 1994 as an in-between project, 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. Chungking Express was originally intended to consist of three loosely interconnected storylines, but in the end the third episode was carried over and used as the starting point for his next film Fallen Angels (1995), which consequently has much in common with its predecessor.
Chungking Express (1994)
Chungking Express takes its name from two colourful Hong Kong 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.
Fallen Angels (1995)
Following on from Chungking Express using the same colourful settings and familar character types, Fallen Angels is however much more an exercise in style than the previous film, Wong Kar-Wai with Christopher Doyle, this time with Mark Lee Ping-Bing on second unit photography, going for a much more moody and contemplative feel to suit the slightly darker material. The first story concerns a hitman, Ming (Leon Lai), who likes to keep his both his business and his private life simple and without complications, which necessarily means keeping them apart. Someone else makes his decisions for him, where to go, when to go and who to kill – all of this is relayed to him through a partner he never meets. Disillusioned by his work, Ming quits and takes up with a girl called Blondie (Karen Mok). His partner (Michelle Reis) however wants to find him. Deeply aroused by the mental image she has built up around the mysterious killer, she has fallen in love with a man she has never met and has one last request for him, if she can find him.
The second story, which interweaves with the first rather than present them in sequence as in Chungking Express, features He Qiwu, again played by Takeshi Kaneshiro – the son of the door manager for Chungking Mansions. Although there are some similarities to his character in the first film, this one is a kind of playful remix. In Chungking Express, #223 was He Qiwu’s police number, here it’s his old prison number; and while in the first film the character would eat out-of-date pineapples to extend hope that his broken relationship wasn’t over, here it is a can of out-of-date pineapples that has resulted in He Qiwu being mute since the age of five. Rather wild and crazy in a mostly harmless way, the young man makes his living by using the premises of other businesses after hours when no-one else is about, so if you are looking your laundry done late at night, need some vegetables at 3:00am in the morning or have an untimely craving for ice-cream, He’s is your man. Even if you don’t have such a need, He Qiwu proves to be a persuasive businessman, for all his muteness – dragging and manhandling customers into his shop. There is only one person who is a match for him and that is Charlie Yeung (Charlie Yeung), a young woman who has been dumped when her boyfriend Johnny took up with a woman called Blondie. Together, this extremely odd couple find wild and crazy ways to get over the losses and disappointments in their lives.
Fallen Angels is not as immediately likeable as its predecessor Chungking Express, but in many ways it is all the more thrilling for seeing just how much further Wong Kar-Wai can stretch a style and a concept. This is something the director would also do later in his career with In The Mood For Love and 2046, one film being the flipside of the other - and the same principle is applied here. In The Mood For Love, like Chungking Express explored the anticipatory thrill and the tantalising possibilities of meeting someone new and falling in love, endlessly drawing out the moment without there ever actually being any consummation of the relationship, and doing it through seductive repetitive cues of mood, colour and music to draw the viewer into its spell. Like 2046, Fallen Angels is much more moody, abstract and languidly paced, exploring the darker side of meeting where the characters share a common sense of loss or unrequited love – both parties using an intense liaison as a brief haven to shelter from the painful memories of past relationships. In many ways this is a much more challenging concept, particularly in the manner in which Wong Kar-Wai approaches it here in Fallen Angels. You would expect to find none of this bittersweet emotion in the ultra-stylised violence of the first section where the blood literally drips down the camera, nor in the frankly knock-about comedy of the second. You would not even expect these two very different sections to sit side-by-side at all well, but Wong Kar-Wai has a way of getting beneath the surface to the underlying pain that lies beneath, and uses one to feed off the other in a way that is barely definable and scarcely perceptible but for the simple fact that it works.
And again it works because the approach and technique supports the content in every detail, the camera fetishistically lingering over people and objects, the colour of a Wurlitzer jukebox, the slow-motion exhalation of cigarette smoke, Michelle Reis in leather, fishnet stockings and high heels writhing around on a bed, all contribute to focus on mood rather than characterisation – something that is echoed in Frankie Chan’s music score, which is much more abstract than the catchy music cues of Chungking Express. There are plenty of moments here nonetheless to keep fans of Chungking Express happy, not least of which is Takashi Kaneshiro’s capricious performance – one of the great comedy performances of all time in my opinion – and the links his section makes with the Chungking Mansions and Midnight Express locations of the first film. Just don’t expect a rerun of the first film. Like 2046, many will see the similarities in the surface technique and locations of the film that preceded it and expect more of the same, but Wong Kar-Wai is too restlessly experimental a director to repeat himself. Despite those surface similarities, Fallen Angels pushes his style and technique further and sees the director playing with light, colour and sound to express and refine mood and character with ever greater precision. As with 2046 nonetheless, many will see Fallen Angels as an indulgence too far, but there are greater treasures to be found here if one is prepared to look for them.
Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are released in a 2-DVD set in Korea by AltoDVD. The two films fit naturally together, so collecting them into one set is more than just a bundling together of two distinct films. Each of the discs is contained in an individual slimline cardboard digipack, held together with a slipcase displaying the poster artwork for each film on front and back. The DVDs are encoded for Region 3 and are in NTSC format.
The video quality on both films is striking. I’ve seen both films before on a number of DVD and VCD editions – this would be the fourth edition of Chungking Express I’ve owned on DVD – and I’ve never seen either film look as good as they do here. I wouldn’t have believed they could look this good, since even the previous best editions of the films still showed numerous tiny marks and scratches that I thought must have been inherent in the rough and ready nature of the making of the films. Not so. On these editions of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels there are no marks or scratches on the films at all. If you have seen any other edition of the film on DVD, you can imagine exactly how big a difference that makes. What might not be evident from the screenshots accompanying this review however is just how fluid and stable the films now look, with not a single flicker or digital artefact, perfectly detailing even the most blurred motion and time-lapse sequences of the films. Doubtlessly restored, the quality of the prints here reveals Chungking Express and Fallen Angels to be as clear and colourful as we have become accustomed to expect from Wong Kar-Wai in films like In The Mood For Love and 2046. Only blacks are relatively less well defined, not showing a great amount of shadow detail, and Fallen Angels is slightly softer than Chungking Express, but with the use of various filters, that may well be intentional. Fallen Angels also occasionally displays some digital noise at the bottom left of the screen, but as this is about one-pixil in height, it will only be visible on displays with no overscan whatsoever. Some might find the 1.78:1 aspect ratio of both transfers an issue, but in practice it appears to make very little difference to the compositions of the films. Otherwise, the films here look outstanding and it is hard to conceive of them looking any better than they do here. A comparison to the existing Region 1 and Region 2 editions of Chungking Express is provided in the comparison section below.
Perhaps more controversially, the original Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks of both films have been dropped in favour of new Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 remixes. Considering the rights to the films belong to the filmmakers themselves and that the films have doubtlessly been restored by Jet Tone/Block 2 Pictures, I would expect that these would be official restorations and remixes of the original soundtracks. (Incidentally, the copyright date at the end of the credits on both editions here is 1999, but I don’t know what that indicates). The surround mixes here are fabulous. There is a fair amount of hiss still audible on the dialogue track – evidently a consequence of the improvisational nature of the original analogue recording, but the dialogue is clear with none of the roughness, crackle and sibilance found on previous editions of the films. The central channel that contains the dialogue sounded slightly low in the mix on my sound set-up, particularly when the music score and other ambient effects, both of which play a major part of both films, were being output on the other channels – but the overall effect of the new mixes is powerful and enveloping, as these films ought to be, with no noticeable re-recording or addition of new sounds or music cues. It’s hard to hold any grudge against the non-inclusion of the original 2.0 mixes, which on any previous DVD edition has always sounded very rough and crackly.
English and Korean subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are of course both optional. They are good and in keeping with the traditional tone of the films, but not perfect. There are no annoying grammatical or spelling errors, but rather a few typos, dropping a couple of letters here and there – “rainning” for “raining” and “ou” for “out” for example. These are not frequent – two or three on Chungking Express and only one I noticed – “frinds” for “friends” – on Fallen Angels. I think I can live with that.
Both films come with Korean Commentary tracks, which will not be of any use to English viewers. I would be curious about how anyone could provide a commentary for such elliptical films as these, but without knowing what they consist of, I can’t make any comment on their quality or appropriateness. Other than that we have a Trailer (2:44) for Chungking Express, letterboxed at a ratio of about 1.60:1, and a Trailer (2:43), letterboxed but looking slightly squashed-up, for Fallen Angels. This seems to make use of a number of outtake scenes from the film.
Chungking Express Region 1, Region 2 and Region 3 comparisons
All editions present the film at a ratio of 1.78:1. There are slight but noticeable differences in the framing of each of the editions – the US edition being clearly zoomed in. The US Miramax edition is also the least accurate in terms of colour timing, the Korean to my eyes having moreover much more clarity, detail of tone, sharpness and lack of grain than the Artificial Eye release. The most evident difference between the Korean R3 and the other editions, is in the cleaning up of the thousands of tiny marks and scratches that riddled the film. These should be evident in the captures below. The first capture comparison is the exact frame on all three editions, the second as close as possible, but be assured that the R3 has none of the marks or scratches evident on the R1 and R2 captures. The screenshots below are in R1, R2 and R3 order. Clicking on the image will open it in a larger full-screen window, where the markings and differences will be quite evident.
Initially undertaken as a filler project, Chungking Express and its follow-up Fallen Angels are far from throwaway films – Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle rather taking the opportunity to do something fresh and immediate, experimenting with spontaneous storytelling and filmmaking techniques that would lead the way towards the more intuitive and improvisational explorations of character and mood in Happy Together, In The Mood For Love and 2046. Both these groundbreaking films still hold that sense of fun, freshness and willingness to take chances that lies at the heart of the characters whose stories they tell. This is all the more evident when you are able to see the films in the full-colour, unblemished glory that the transfers on this Korean DVD set provides. If this is how good Chungking Express and Fallen Angels can look, the prospect of Ashes of Time being restored to a similar level is almost too staggering to contemplate.