Chungking Express Review

Directors tend to develop rabid fan bases by successfully marrying beautifully compelling images with music that accentuates those visuals so perfectly as to create a lockstep impression where it's impossible to either see the scene or hear the piece of music without immediately thinking of its cinematic complement. Quentin Tarantino has done this repeatedly, as have Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. Songs that once lived on their own quite nicely now belong to films. "Stuck in the Middle" is the only soundtrack most associate with the infamous ear scene in Reservoir Dogs and the song is probably linked forever with those gruesome images. Similarly, Boogie Nights lays claim to "Sister Christian" and Nico's "These Days" is, along with Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay," likely to be connected with The Royal Tenenbaums for viewers of a certain generation. There are numerous other examples of this little phenomenon, but surely one of the strongest is the use of "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas and the Papas in Chungking Express, directed by Wong Kar-wai and originally released in Hong Kong in 1994.

The song's repeated plays in the second half of the film make for an impression that evolves over the course of the story. It's at times representational of the romantic notion of a fresh place and a fresh start, all bathed in warm sunlight, while alternately indicating a more weary feeling that accompanies the realisation of unmet expectations. Wong had made two full films and was trying to complete a third when he began Chungking Express. The portion of that picture focussing on Tony Leung as Cop 663 and Faye Wong as the girl at the fast food stand who becomes his stealth cleaning lady is the director's one true expression of the effervescence that "California Dreamin"" can conjure. This half of a movie is Wong's happiest and most charming work thus far in his career. The obsessions with longing and time that have consistently bubbled up throughout most everything Wong has directed are still here, but the accompanying sadness or regret is not. Exhilarating may not be a term that fits well in Wong's filmography, but it applies without hesitation to the final hour of Chungking Express. Much of this is, no doubt, a result of hearing the poppy song from the sixties at exactly the right moment over and over, it having been somehow placed just when we're eager again for a "California Dreamin'" moment. Equally important is how adorable Faye Wong, in her film debut, makes the idea of having a tidy stalker who can clean, restock the aquarium, and simply alter things as necessary around the apartment.

The combination of Faye Wong's elfin delightfulness and the songs, also including multiple plays of her own rendition of the Cranberries' "Dreams" in Cantonese, give the film a certain inviting quality that, despite Wong's deep romanticism elsewhere, still hasn't been revisited in his other efforts. Everything in this section of Chungking Express looks and feels so breezy and simple that one could easily think Wong and frequent cinematographer Christopher Doyle just took a couple of months to throw together something while taking a break from finishing Ashes of Time. And that's the basic scenario of what happened. After burnout had set in from the arduous Ashes of Time shoot, Wong came up with three stories connected mostly by location, including the two in Chungking Express and the plot of Fallen Angels. This always seems like an oversimplification, though, and both of those films, especially the former, are such strong accomplishments that their success could hardly have been caused accidentally.

The joy of Chungking Express lies not in how complicated or simple it is, but in the feeling the film delivers. For the people who truly appreciate and love Wong's movie, it's nothing less than an intoxicating experience that can be, if not duplicated, then at least savoured on repeated viewings in ways few others can. There is something perfect about how Wong and his co-directors of photography (Doyle and Andrew Lau, who shot the first part) merge their constant snapshots with music. From the very beginning, as an opening to the first of the film's storylines, Michael Galasso's "Baroque" bursts through across stuttering images of neon grunge and atmospheric city life. This section seems to have a lesser reputation than the Tony Leung/Faye Wong merry-go-round, but it too has much to admire while also fitting more snugly beside Wong's other films. Like the other half of the film, the initial story features first-person narration alternating between a male cop, number 223 here (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro), and a woman he finds himself connected to after a break-up. Chinese film legend Brigitte Lin provides an iconic presence as the mysterious smuggler in blonde wig, sunglasses and trench coat.

Cop 223 is young and slightly inept, as witnessed by his inability to detect that the woman in the blonde wig is not just a random bar patron, but also a serious criminal. Lin's character, more than the lovesick cop, makes this half of the film a compelling, though unfortunately brief, peek behind the curtain of Hong Kong's underworld. It's not realism Wong aims for, but he's wrapped this woman in such an enigma that her actions seem to exist on a plane outside the question of how artificial she may be as a film character. Inside of Chungking Express, the woman in the blonde wig and sunglasses is a tough, lonely soul and the cop exposes just a bit of that when he persistently drinks the night away with her. She also gets probably the best line in the film. When someone asks why she's wearing a raincoat, she responds flatly that it might rain.

From the woman always prepared for rain and perpetually in disguise, Wong transitions to the Midnight Express food counter, where Cop 223 was shown making fruitless calls to his answering service and where Cop 663 often picks up a chef's salad for his flight attendant girlfriend. A flash back to Leung's cop enjoying early days with the flight attendant is vintage Wong. It's only a year prior to the events in the film, but it could be set decades earlier. The scene exists outside of time, outside of the boundaries of anything but memory, really. Cop 663's experience is now offered up for lending to the viewer and Wong lets us revel in it. The sensuality he displayed in portions of In the Mood for Love, 2046, and "The Hand," his contribution to Eros, is playfully visible here. Otherwise, Chungking Express isn't a film that relies on its sexiness and the rapport between Faye and Cop 663 is left as innocent and flirtatious. She's a bit of a screwball to his oblivious straight man.

All four of the main characters in the film are interesting oddities actually. If Wong's style allowed for it, you might call them quirky. But what could have been left as awkward and strange becomes poetic. Talking to a bar of soap and wash rag is almost lyrical instead of ridiculous. Insisting on buying, and later eating all at once, thirty cans of pineapple slices with the same expiration date is made foolishly romantic, not just silly. It's this beauty for the unnatural that transforms Wong's film from twin stories of potentially mundane lost loves into a master work of eternal hope in the now. Time constantly hovers over each character, yet the present is given such optimism as to allow these four to grasp their own individual fates. For the men it's more of a passive exercise while the women actively work to pursue their best interests, whatever they may be. There are no certainties in Chungking Express, but the sense of possibility amid the scatter of urban disconnect looms eternally.

The Disc

Much anticipated, Chungking Express is one of the first batch of Blu-ray titles from the Criterion Collection. It is designated for Region A players. The spine numbering system has been carried over from the DVD line and the film is thus assigned number 453. Criterion has strayed from the usual Blu-ray packaging and instead used an outer slipcover, thicker and more attractive than what houses the Eclipse sets, with a fold out digipak inside. When opened, the left side holds a booklet and the disc is waiting on the right. Though it's far from a disaster, the tightness of the shrinkwrap will inevitably cause Criterion's Blu-rays to not match up uniformly when sitting together on the shelf.

Packaging qualms aside, the most important test Criterion has on Blu-ray is how well the 1080p image and audio quality will improve over the already excellent versions issued on DVD. Chungking Express can be found in numerous editions across the world now and the transfer Criterion has come up with probably looks different from any of them. Previously, the strongest edition of the film was thought to be the R3 Korean release, but it looks remarkably brighter than Criterion's version. This newest iteration, in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, also has a green tint that's especially obvious when compared to the R3 and more pronounced than in Artificial Eye's R2 release.

Criterion has stated that the film's co-director of photography Christopher Doyle approved and offered suggestions on the transfer so one is to assume that it's the most accurate. Regardless, it does look consistently impressive. There's an intentional amount of grain left behind that is notably heavy, comparable to how film would appear, but never problematic. Detail is satisfactory, sharper than the R3 DVD, and the colours, while not spectacular due to the sometimes hazy palette, are still often strikingly good. Damage is nearly a non-factor, with only a vertical, brownish-red line briefly occurring around the 79-minute mark drawing my attention. Those accustomed to the earlier R1 from Miramax, the one with Quentin Tarantino's head on the cover, will be amazed at how well this looks. I'm confident that it's best the film has ever appeared on disc.

A lone audio option (other than the commentary) is in the form of a predominantly Cantonese DTS HD 5.1 track, a mix approved by Wong Kar-wai. Dialogue is clear, the songs are robust and everything comes through without a hitch. The richness of the sound overall is certainly worth appreciating. I was also impressed with how consistent and level the audio is, never rising too high or low yet always audible at a natural volume. Even the sounds of gunfire aren't obnoxiously loud. This isn't a heavy action movie so the sparse gunshots won't rattle any speakers. (It would feel highly unnatural if they did.) English subtitles are optional, laser sharp, and white in colour. No mistakes were noticeable.

Criterion has set up the Blu-ray with a feature called "Timeline" that can be accessed during playback of the film. It allows the viewer to tell how far along the film is, and what chapter of both the movie and the commentary correspond to that particular point. Bookmarking functions are available here also.

Supplements are either disappointingly light or appropriately devoid of too much introspection, depending on one's viewpoint. Only a commentary from Tony Rayns, the U.S. theatrical trailer (1:30), and a clip from "Moving Pictures" (12:11) are included on the disc, with a 16-page booklet inside the package. Rayns' lecture tends to focus on the parallels of the two segments in the film, as well as providing ample history on Wong, including his rifts with Doyle, the production, and the influence of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. If you aren't terribly familiar with the filmmaker, this is an excellent chance to catch up. If, however, you're already a Wong enthusiast, the commentary will hold less insight since it's (thankfully) light on analysis. Rayns' style is always easy to listen to and he's certainly familiar with the film, even having stayed at the apartment used for Cop 663, which actually belongs to cinematographer Doyle.

The "Moving Pictures" excerpt finds Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle revisiting the locations of the film in 1996, prior to the cinema release of Fallen Angels in the UK. It's a fast watch, but of limited ambition. A few more interviews would have been nice. Alternatively, Chungking Express is a film that possibly plays better without being demystified. It's an inherently visual and aural magic trick, and I can see where significant discussion would be either unconvincing or unnecessary.

Evidence of that is found in Amy Taubin's booklet essay, where she seems intent on likening the movie to Godard's Masculin féminin. With respect to everyone involved, I wasn't persuaded by the comparison, and I find the frequent attempts to liken the two directors in other contexts to be tiresome, superficial and downright wrong. The remainder of Taubin's piece discusses the influence of Hong Kong being handed over to China on the film and furthers another comparison with Bringing Up Baby, but it all failed to move the needle much for me.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 20:11:12

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