Wong Kar-Wai fans will debate endlessly about his films. Not just the strange and elliptical plots, but the meanings of images and even further, how those images are presented on DVD. Most of his work hasn't been given the best treatment in the DVD age, a real crime when you consider the singularly beautiful work he has done with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. So, even though in most cases one has cause to groan when a bogus upgrade edition of a given Hollywood studio picture tries to tempt us into a double dip, when a Wong Kar-Wai movie finally gets done right, it's cause for celebration.
This new Korean twofer combining 1994's Chungking Express and 1995's Fallen Angels is a real boon for Kar-Wai aficionados. Finally, these two movies look the way we've always dreamed they could, and the new packaging is sleek and affordable. Coupling these two films together also makes sense, as they are interconnected in the usual amorphous Wong Kar-Wai way. When he was first shooting Chungking Express, the auteur intended it to have three distinct stories. When the first two grew too long to accommodate a third, the remaining narrative was spun off and put together with some other ideas to make Fallen Angels. Thematically, the two films are simpatico, like lovers who are so well-matched that they finish each other's sentences. Revisiting them back to back was a real treat, I must say.
I would call Chungking Express Kar-Wai's best pop single. While later films were concept albums and symphonies, this one was a summer 45 that you can play over and over, learning every word and only loving it more, much the way Faye Wong's character never stops listening to "California Dreaming" in the film. Its two story lines criss cross at only a couple of points, but they play off each other in fascinating ways. In the first chunk, a man and a woman find love but are unable to connect, while in the second the couple shares a bond before they even know what is happening.
The front of the movie concerns itself with a lovelorn police office, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers) who is pining for May, a girlfriend who has broken it off with him. Zhiwu dials his voicemail repeatedly in hopes she left him a message and buys a can of her favorite fruit every day hoping to somehow connect with her. Each pineapple can must be dated to expire on May 1, his birthday, a deadline for his heartache to expire, as well. When May doesn't come back to him at the start of the month that bears her name, he eats all the pineapple and then goes out drinking. At the bar, he meets a woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin, The Bride with White Hair). Ironically, the cop's new love interest is a criminal who has lost her drug mules and needs to get out of town before the property's rightful owners catch up to her. Though they both may find tenderness in one another for the night, she will have to be gone by morning.
The second story comes in as the day passes. Zhiwu goes to a food stand to get something to go, and the proprietor suggests he date his cousin, Faye (Faye Wong, 2046). Mistaking her for a boy because of her short hair, Zhiwu passes, but as his narration informs us, it's what was predestined, as Faye was meant for another man. All four main characters in Chungking Express have voiceovers, all of them in the past tense, emphasizing thematically that these are stories that have happened, that like the cans of fruit they have end points, and like many of Wong Kar-Wai's films, Chungking Express turns on the importance of memory.
The man intended for Faye is Cop #663 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Infernal Affairs). He was dating a flight attendant (Valerie Chow, To Catch a Thief) who recently chose a different flight plan, and he orders endless cups of black coffee in an effort to stay awake in case her plane lands and brings her back to him. Intrigued by this sad gentleman, Faye takes advantage of an odd opportunity: the flight attendant left #663's spare keys at the food stall. Faye begins sneaking into his apartment, cleaning up after him and altering his life in subtle ways. Eventually, he will begin to notice, and we hope and pray it will be too late for him to resist her.
Chungking Express is a supremely romantic film, and I fell in love with it from the first time I saw it. Faye Wong, in particular, is enchanting. With her pageboy haircut and slim figure, I'd dare compare this debut to Audrey Hepburn's in Roman Holiday. She has that kind of presence onscreen.
By comparison, Fallen Angels is a far more erotic film. If Chungking Express is the pop 45, then Fallen Angels is its B-side. It's a little darker, a little more weird, with Wong Kar-Wai both stretching his legs and thematically summing up his work to that point. Stylistically, there is a marked difference between the two films that you'll notice right away. The camera moves more in Fallen Angels, and it travels faster through the scenery. When it settles, Kar-Wai and Doyle favor extreme and distorted close-ups. They also blanket the movie in more garish colors, laying hot reds and bright greens over scenes. The result is a story that feels far less grounded. Fallen Angels takes place almost exclusively at night, and so it's concerned with the kinds of characters who are active while the rest of us are home resting. Their Hong Kong is more like an Earthly purgatory than a living society. Unsurprisingly, these people are disconnected and operating by habit, waiting for a change.
Kar-Wai connects Fallen Angels to Chungking Express by a couple of well-chosen echoes. The most obvious is the return of Takeshi Kaneshiro as another character named He Zhiwu. Rather than a heartbroken cop, this Zhiwu is a petty criminal. When he was five, he ate a can of pineapple that had passed its sell-by date and the resulting illness left him mute; being unable to talk, he can't run a regular business, so instead he chooses to break into other people's shops after they close and force passersby to sample his wares. By playing at usurping other people's existences, he can put his own on pause.
Another echo is in the female half of an assassin partnership. The unnamed girl, played by Michelle Reis (also in Takashi Miike's City of Lost Souls), is the advance agent for the team, finding the target and investigating the scene. Wearing fluorescent cleaning gloves, she goes through the target's trash to learn about him. Whereas Faye removed #663's rubbish to get closer to him, this girl embraces a man's trash in order to eradicate him. The same hands she uses to sift through garbage are the ones she uses to regularly pleasure herself, the only way available to her for unleashing her desire.
You see, the two killers have never really met. They don't want emotions getting mixed up in what should be a cold, calculated business. Only, it backfires on them and there is still a connection between the duo, whether they like it or not. Trouble comes when Ming (Leon Lai, Leaving Me Loving You), who does the actual killing, decides he has had enough and wants to get out. He attempts to change his habits, and even hooks up with another girl (Karen Mok, So Close), her dyed blonde hair a visual rhyme on Brigitte Lin's wig in Chungking. Such allegiances are fleeting, however, and Ming will inevitably be drawn back to where he belongs.
Zhiwu also attempts a relationship with a girl. Charlie (Charlie Yeung, Seven Swords) is a motor mouth, just like Ming's blonde, and we're never quite sure that the "Blondie" that Charlie is trying to hunt down for stealing her man isn't in fact Karen Mok. She, too, will move on, only returning later in a stewardess outfit, nearly unrecognizable and also not recognizing Zhiwu at all. In voiceover (employed here much like it is in Chungking Express), he refers to her as his first love, which means she is also his first heartbreak. How fitting, then, that she would leave him stranded in the same food stall where Faye and #663 fell for one another.
Forgetting matters of the heart, however, Zhiwu is the only one who is compelled to chase a real connection. He lives with his widower father (Chen Man Lei, In the Mood for Love), and by using a video camera to film the old man, he creates a roundabout mode of communication. He has also found something that all of Wong Kar-Wai's heroes are searching for: a way to preserve memory.
Though often pushed down to the lower levels of Wong Kar-Wai's canon, Fallen Angels is one of his most visually exciting movies. It is also one of his most lusty, only rivaled by the director's segment in Eros and 2046. Even more important, though, I would posit that Fallen Angels may be Kar-Wai's most hopeful movie. Though some ambiguity remains at the end, the movie leaves the viewer with a sense of elation, buoyed by the doo-wop cover of Yaz's "Only You," a sweet love song. It's quite possible the characters that remain have found their connection at last, and maybe even the route out of purgatory.
This is a region 3 disc and so will only be compatible with multi-region players.
The print quality of these two DVDs are what will far and away set them apart from prior editions of these films. Both have gotten new transfers from the original Hong Kong negatives and are on disc at a 1.85:1 anamorphic aspect ration. The difference is immediately apparent to anyone who has seen these movies in other forms. As Takeshi Kaneshiro runs through the nighttime Hong Kong streets in Chungking Express, the detail gets new life, with tracers of neon jumping out and fading away like little explosions of stars. Then once we move to the interior of the bar where Brigitte Lin is making her contacts, the flesh tones are rich and surprising. Equally dazzling are the spinning CDs in the jukebox where she chooses her tunes. I put on my old Rolling Thunder R1 edition out of the Kino Wong Kar-Wai box just to see the difference, and you'll notice it within seconds. There is a lot of "surface noise" on the picture, and the colors are far more muted.
Just as good is Fallen Angels, which really brings to life the high flash and neon of Christopher Doyle's cinematography. A random sampling of the remastered Kino R1 isn't nearly as drastic, however. The colors on the old release were okay, but there was noticeable static and pops in the scenes I watched, and the image is generally less crisp than this new Alto release.
You'll be hard-pressed to find fault with either of these DVDs. These are as good as it gets. Additionally, for those wondering what cut of Chungking Express this is, it's the full international version, clocking at 102 minutes. So, even there, we win.
Also upgraded are the Cantonese sound mixes in 5.1, both DTS and Dolby Digital. These new soundtracks create a real environment, bringing to life the sounds of the busy streets. It's a spectacular job.
There are Korean and English subtitles. The English titles are pretty good for both. On Chungking Express, there are some noticeable grammatical flaws, but only a few, and nothing that lends a ridiculous air to the dialogue. An extra letter or a missing apostrophe can easily be forgiven. Mistakes crop up far more often in Fallen Angels, including words smooshed together and subtitles appearing in advance of the dialogue, but these aren't such persistent issues that they will hamper your enjoyment of the film.
Both of the movies have an audio commentary by Korean critic Chung Sung Ill. There are no subtitles for this, however. Both discs also have the original trailers.
Each movie is given its own color case, with excellent printing of large images on a slick cardboard. The interior trays are clear plastic, so you can also see pictures underneath when the DVDs are taken out. These two cases then both fit in a nice slipcase made from sturdy material.
For readers who want only one movie (though I have no idea why that would be the case), you can also purchase these editions separately.
Taken together, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels represent Wong Kar-Wai at his most youthful, at his most willing to succumb to romantic abandon. Putting them together like this is all too fitting, and now that they have both received the long-overdue DVD treatment they deserve, this Korean set is a must-have for film lovers. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.