Directed by Wong Kar-wai
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 102 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Cantonese/Mandarin
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: November 25, 2008
Review Date: November 14, 2008
Wong Kar-wai is sometimes referred to as the Chinese Godard, and in the eccentricities of some of his characters, his chop-a-block method of filming, and stories dealing with some people on the outskirts of the law, one can understand the similarities that would lead to such a comparison. Chungking Express is a decidedly mixed bag, however. There are some appealing characters in this dual story of lovesick, forlorn policemen, but the first story is notably weaker than the second, and it takes a star-making turn by a newcomer and an appealing co-star, both in the second half, to win back audience support after the hapless and rather rambling first segment finally ends.
The policeman in the first half of the film, known by his badge number 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) has been dumped by his girl friend and is desperately trying to find a replacement. He’s intrigued by an exotic Asian woman wearing a blonde wig and sunglasses (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia) not knowing that she’s a notorious international heroin smuggler who’s just wiped out several double-crossing henchmen. In the second segment, Policeman 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) has been deserted by his flight attendant girl friend (Valerie Chow), but he’s not feverish to become enmeshed in another relationship so hurriedly. At the lunch counter which he visits daily, helper Faye (Faye Wang) becomes so infatuated with him that while he’s on duty, she steals away to his apartment and begins cleaning and subtly redecorating it while neglecting her job at the counter including forgetting to pay the electric bill much to her uncle’s (Piggy Chan Kam-chuen) chagrin.
To compensate for a slightly anemic first segment (its 42 minutes are something of a chore to sit through), Wong Kar-wai has staged the film’s only real action moments as kinetic jolts with camerawork that’s flashy and dizzying and has employed lots of jump cuts to give the segment more life and bounce than the material actually justifies. In counterpoint, the second segment, much more eccentric and charmingly whimsical, relies more on the chemistry of the stars and some funny comedic bits as the young girl eludes being caught trespassing by hiding in cabinets and slipping out undetected. Wong Kar-wai has written in some parallels between the segments to loosely tie them together (and look quickly and you’ll see members of each segment’s cast fleetingly glimpsed in the other segment), but the second segment is strong enough that it could easily have been expanded and been a feature on its own.
The movie was a star-making vehicle for Faye Wang, and her wide-eyed, goofy ingénue is delightfully unique and a perfect match for Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s grounded, steady policeman. Piggy Chan Kam-chuen’s counterman is a wry albeit failed matchmaker whose suggestions for romance always end in disaster. The movie was the swan song for leading actress Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia who married and retired from the screen following this performance. Both she and the appealing newcomer Takeshi Kaneshiro are let down by the spotty writing in the first segment, doing what they can with material meant to be funny and exciting and which falls a bit flat.
The film’s 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio is delivered anamorphically in this new Criterion transfer. The camerawork offers a softer focus than we’re generally used to seeing with films no older than this (cinematographer Christopher Doyle said he shot the film through three filters), but this softness doesn’t always make for appealing flesh tones. There is a yellow scratch that jars the attention midway through the film, and the whirling camerawork is often smeared looking in its delivery on DVD. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is more open than one might expect given the low budget nature of the production. There are a few panning effects present, and there’s even low bass on occasion though, for the most part, the mix is front centric with little more than “California Dreamin’” and other pop songs being pumped into the surrounds.
The audio commentary by Asian film expert Tony Rayns is a good one giving much background information on the filmmakers’ other projects and offering up anecdotes on the filming of the movie that never bore.
Director Wong Kar-wai and frequent collaborator director of photography Christopher Doyle are interviewed for 12 ¼ minutes in 1996 on the British television series Moving Pictures not only about Chungking Express but also about their other works with film clips from several of them. They also give a brief tour of several Hong Kong locations where the film was shot. It’s presented in nonanamorphic widescreen and 4:3.
The American theatrical trailer announcing the film’s release is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 1 ½ minutes.
An enclosed 15-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, the chapter listing, and a celebratory essay on the movie by film writer Amy Taubin.
Chungking Express is an interesting experiment in parallel storytelling within the same film that is only partially successful. Wonderful performances and a unique approach to the stories make it a film that those fascinated by international cinema will undoubtedly want to rent.