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One of Wong Kar-Wai's better known films, at least in North America, Chungking Express is a film that basically tells two stories. The first story tells us of a young police officer known as Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who broke up with his long term girlfriend, May (who we never see). He's obviously distraught over this and he gives her an ultimatum in that he buys a can of pineapple with an expiration date of May 1, 1994 on it every day. It she doesn't call him and want to get back together by that date, he knows that they're not meant to be. When she doesn't call him he eats the expired pineapple and heads out to the local bar to drown his sorrows in booze. It's here that he meets a mysterious woman in sunglasses and a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) who he soon falls in love with despite the obvious consequences giving her criminal career.
The second part of the film follows Cop 663 (Tony Leung) who is also distraught over the end of his relationship with a stewardess that he seduced one day. Eventually he becomes involved with Faye (Faye Wong), a woman who works at a nearby restaurant. Their relationship grows increasingly more and more unusual as she starts hanging out in his apartment while he's away at work, though he never notices the subtle changes that she makes. Their relationship, too, has unusual consequences.
A quirky and colorful look at the randomness of human relationships skewed by some odd pop culture sensibilities and striking cinematography courtesy of Chris Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express may be one of his more accessible films in some ways but it doesn't lack any of the director's trademark style. While at times the narrative feels like it was made up as the filmmaker's were going along (a complaint often leveled at the director) the story remains linear and easy enough to follow on the surface while providing much in the way of symbolism and metaphor for those who want to dig a bit deeper. Playing with elements of romantic comedy and the gangster films that were popular in Hong Kong in the eighties and nineties, the film is a bit of a stew but damn does it ever taste good!
From the opening sequence that takes us through the sprawling and unseemly Chungking Palace mall through to the sweet and entirely appropriate ending, Chungking Express (named after the restaurant where Faye is employed) is a film that bubbles with kinetic energy and vibrant life. The soundtrack, made up of some inspired classical music selections as well as pop songs from acts like The Momma's And The Poppa's fits the specific scenes their used in like a glove while the camera almost seems to dance along in tune to the music. A visual feast, this is a picture that sucks you in and almost makes you a fly on the wall, a silent observer in the drama that unfolds rather than a more traditional audience member.
The film is impeccably cast with each of the four major players delivering fanastic work. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung excel as the broken hearted men looking for love while Brigitte Lin, looking like something out of a David Lynch movie in her get up, is convincing as the cold and calculating femme fatale. Special note has to go to Faye Wong who is as compelling as she is adorable here. The film, which was shot in sequence, literally follows her performance as it grows from silent and shy to bold and at times even brash as she obviously becomes more comfortable in her part.
While the stories are separate and unto themselves, they are connected by some establishing shots that ensure that we know that these characters inhabit the same universe at the same time. The restaurant and locations also connect the two stories as does the strange camera work, at least on a thematic level. In the end, Chungking Express is as entertaining and touching as it is artistically impressive and beautiful to look at. It's one of those rare films that is almost endlessly re-watchable thanks to some remarkable direction, gorgeous cinematography and wonderful performances, all of which come together to form a rare slice of romantic pop culture that manages to feed your brain and pull on your heart strings at the same time.
Chungking Express looks gorgeous in this 1080p AVC encoded 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that was supervised by Wong Kar-Wai himself. Color reproduction is fantastic while the picture itself is clean and clear despite a very natural and welcome coat of film grain. Detail levels are very strong from start to finish, even in the darker scenes, while black levels stay nice and deep without ever breaking up. There are no obvious instances of edge enhancement or mpeg compression to note nor is there any heavy aliasing. There's a lot of depth to this incredibly film-like image and print damage has been almost completely eliminated (you'll have to really look hard to notice even the smallest of debris). There's really nothing to complain about here, the film looks fantastic on this Blu-ray disc.
Criterion presents Chungking Express on Blu-ray with a very impressive Cantonese language DTS-HD 5.1 mix, also director approved, that really compliments the excellent transfer quite nicely. Dialogue is crystal clear and the levels are always well balanced and there are no problems at all with hiss or distortion. The surrounds spread the score and sound effects out very effectively and add a lot of depth to the mix that suits the film's frenetic landscape very well. The soundtrack, made up of classical pieces as well as pop songs, has some nice punch to it as do the gun shots while the dialogue remains concise and strong, never overshadowed by what swells up in the mix around it.
First up, in terms of extra features, is a commentary track courtesy of Tony Rayns who does an excellent job of pointing out some of the subtleties contained in this film and placing it into context along Wong Kar-Wai's other films. He talks about the on again, off again relationship between the director and Chris Doyle and he explains a lot of the themes and ideas that link this picture to many of the director's other films. He covers the differences between the version of the film that played in Hong Kong theaters and the international version contained on this DVD and does a good job of detailing the history of the picture and explaining why it is important in the first place.
From there, check out the twelve minute clip taken from the UK television program, Moving Pictures (in standard definition), in which Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer, Chris Doyle, take us around the locations that were used for Chungking Express and explain how the style that the film was shot in developed out of necessity due to the close quarters in which the movie was made. The pair discuss using Doyle's apartment in the film, the use of wide angle lenses and the film's color scheme.
Rounding out the extra features are the film's original North American theatrical trailer (in high definition anamorphic widescreen), a Time Line option that allows you to book mark your favorite parts of the film, animated menus and chapter selection sub-menus. Inside the slipcase packaging is a color booklet containing liner notes from Film Comment author Amy Toubin that aptly compare this picture to Godard's Masculine Feminine that make for interesting reading.
A few more supplements would have been very welcome but aside from that, Criterion has hit this one out of the park. Chungking Express holds up very well as a quirky, pop-slathered dramatic love story and the film looks and sounds better than ever on Blu-ray thanks to a fantastic transfer and a superlative audio mix. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.