The Wong Kar-wai Collection Review
The themes that characterise the work of Wong Kar-wai are identifiable and fairly consistent even from the earliest films in his career. From Days of Being Wild through to My Blueberry Nights the subject matter is that of the bittersweet nature of relationships – love which proves unattainable, the initial attraction of another nature that turns into irreconcilable differences, bitter endings leading into new beginnings. More than just telling commonplace love stories however, the Hong Kong director is more interested in exploring the moods associated with these emotions - the birth of attraction, the pain of loss, the hold of memory, the passage that time and how these elements influence one’s actions, form one’s character and dictate our actions and behaviour in the arena of relationships.
If the themes are consistent then, the manner in which Wong Kar-wai seeks to depict the intangible aspects and subtle graduations, vagaries and fluctuations of the heart are anything but. If the delicate moments of interest, attraction, flirtation and the birth of love are handled with absolute mastery in In The Mood For Love, and the flipside of those emotions associated with heartbreak and disappointment are covered with painstaking precision in 2046, it has only been achieved through a long road of exploration and experimentation, much of the groundwork of which laid down in the three very different films included in the Wong Kar-wai Collection from Artificial Eye, Ashes of Time (1994, Redux 2008), Chungking Express (1994) and Happy Together (1997). That doesn’t mean that that they are lesser films by any means, but rather they see the director at his most fresh and inventive, taking risks in each in an attempt to show a specific facet of these games of love and chance and continually striving a unique and appropriate means of approach that best suits the material.
Such is the complexity of the emotions that Wong Kar-wai seeks to explore that initially the best means he finds to cover them is through a compendium approach. Although one single film, Ashes of Time is in fact based on an epic martial arts trilogy, and in his unique adaptation of the stories – one very different from the normal approach to the Wuxia action genre – Wong Kar-wai presents several different broken characters who all arrive at the desert hide-out of a swordsman-for-hire, each haunted by events in their past and unable to move on. At its most complex, we have one character, the Princess of Murong who is so conflicted that she has two aspects to her personality – Murong Yang and Murong Yin – in the torment of her love for a man who once professed love for her but who has now forgotten who she is. The female part of her personality loves him, the male part wants to kill him, creating such a confusion and failure to reconcile her emotions that eventually one part of her hires the assassin to kill herself. This complexity of feelings in this one story is compounded by the deep burdens carried by other wounded souls in several linked and separate stories (and lives) that unravel in an epic manner over the course of the film.
In contrast to the agonising slowness brought to the film from the weight of all this memory and loss - and indeed undertaken as a kind of antidote to an arduous 12 months of filming in the deserts of China - Wong Kar-wai would shoot Chungking Express fast, improvisational and guerrilla style without a fixed script in a matter of weeks on the busy streets of Hong Kong, using the buzz of the city and people living in close quarters to express the spontaneity of encounter and the thrill of attraction. More evidently here Wong Kar-wai settles for a compendium approach, with two separate but complementary stories (initially three were planned but one would carry over into Fallen Angels) of two policemen who are finding it difficult to get over the disappointment of their broken relationships who find a means to move on and start again through two unusual women they casually encounter. If their stories and the encounters are rather unconventional and unpredictable, they better reflect that the spark of life and new beginnings can come from the most unexpected sources and in the most unusual places – something Wong Kar-wai, along with Christopher Doyle’s remarkable cinematography, manages to express and deepen further through the downtown Hong Kong locations, through colours and light, through movement and music.
Speaking recently about the new Redux version of Ashes of Time, Christopher Doyle would describe the lengths the filmmakers were prepared to go to make the film, how they began to shoot at the start of the desert and then just kept going on. In a way, this describes perfectly how Wong Kar-wai would continue to push his work further into the realms of the unknown. The biggest gamble of his career however must surely have been during the making of Happy Together in 1996, the director taking Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung with a small crew over to Argentina, improvising a story around them as a gay Hong Kong couple going through a series of messy breakups and uneasy reconciliations. As the fabulous making of documentary Buenos Aires Zero Degree testifies, the search to express the essence of their character and the nature of their troubled relationship entailed hours of improvised scenes and ultimately abandoned subplots. Here, Wong Kar-wai demonstrated that there nothing precious about his work, that he was prepared to ruthlessly excise and delete vast quantities of meticulously worked-on material, all in the service of finding an purest expression of truth in moods and emotions. The resultant film seems occasionally aimless and meandering, but the richness of the film is in simple moments as plays of light, in the locations, in the music and in the fabulous dynamic created between the bickering characters, marvellously performed by Leung and Cheung.
The Wong Kar-wai Collection is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The 3-disc set includes Chungking Express, Happy Together and Ashes of Time Redux. Each of the films is also available to be purchased separately. Chungking Express and Ashes of Time Redux are also available on Blu-ray editions. The Standard Definition versions contained in this set are presented on individual dual-layer discs, in PAL format. None of the discs are region coded.
The transfers on each of the films are the new Jet Tone restorations approved by Wong Kar-wai and ought to each show a significant improvement over any previously released version of the films. That is certainly the case at least in two of the films, the third is somewhat problematic.
The improvement is most noticeable on Happy Together, released previously by Artificial Eye (and reviewed here) in a rather scratchy, faded, discoloured print that did nothing at all for the film. The new transfer gives a full vibrancy and glow to the colour sections of the film and shows more clarity and definition in the black and white sections.
Ashes of Time has never been available on a satisfactory DVD release, and not at all in the UK. Released in its 2008 Redux version - now likely to be the only version of the film made officially available - the transfer of the restoration is also outstanding, showing some grain but very little evidence of the deterioration the original materials have suffered. In order to create this restoration however, a number of scenes originally in the material have been deleted while others have been reordered had their colouration regraded. Not everyone is happy with the new version, but technically it’s certainly the best the film has ever looked and it looks amazing.
Unfortunately, rather than improving on their previous 2004 release of Chungking Express (reviewed here), the new transfer has bafflingly been sourced from an NTSC master and subjected to a poor PAL conversion which not only negates any benefits that might have been gained by the restored image, but actually makes the image look worse through its darkened tone and interlaced frames.
More details on the quality of the transfer, with screengrabs and comparisons can be found on the individual reviews of each of the new DVD releases: - Happy Together, Ashes of Time Redux, Chungking Express.
Just as the video quality of the films in this collection has been restored, so to the original soundtracks have been given a thorough an official remaster and remix up to Dolby Digital 5.1, but the original Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks have also been cleaned-up and included here. The audio quality and mixing of the soundtracks are vitally important to how the films function, not least of which is the predominance of the music scores on each. These all sound terrific, although the Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes could be a little over-active for some tastes. The improvements are certainly noticeable on Chungking Express, which has had a crackly distorted audio track on many previous DVD versions. The earlier Artificial Eye edition of Happy Together was clearly substandard, and it’s marvellous to be able to view the film finally and hear its full-bodied jazz and tango score - truly a revelation. Ashes of Time is perhaps rather more controversial in its remix, with Frankie Chan’s original score undergoing a new orchestration. Again, more details are provided on the individual reviews of each of the film linked above.
Each of the films have English subtitles only. The subtitles are in a white font and are optional.
Happy Together has the full hour-long documentary Buenos Aires Zero Degree, a Trailer and Filmographies.
Ashes of Time Redux has a number of Interviews with the Cast and Crew from the launch of the Redux at Cannes 2008, including two interviews with the director, a Making Of Ashes of Time and a Trailer.
Chungking Express brings over the Introduction by Quentin Tarantino from a previous US Miramax edition, goes On Location with Christopher Doyle to the film’s Hong Kong locations, has an Interview with Wong Kar-wai that includes a number of deleted scenes from the film. It also has a Trailer and Filmographies.
The Wong Kar-wai Collection contains three highly original, visually arresting, thought-provoking, fun and entertaining films by one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, and I have no hesitation in recommending the set on that basis. Were it not for the flaw in the transfer of Chungking Express this would certainly be one of the best DVD sets of the year, the other two films having been meticulously restored and given superlative transfers that, even if you’ve seen the films before or already have earlier DVD editions, are well worth another fresh look. The flaws introduced in the NTSC to PAL conversion of Chungking Express make this all the more disappointing. It isn’t that the film is harmed greatly – only viewers with displays that are sensitive to interlacing issues will notice the problem – as much as it’s a missed opportunity that lets down the care and attention applied elsewhere, particularly in the fine selection of extra features.