Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi
Kaneshiro, Tony Leung, Faye Wong
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Audio: Cantonese/Mandarin Chinese stereo
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Features: Commentary, 1996 interview, trailer, booklet
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2008
“Love you for 10,000 years.”
Film *** ½
Hong Kong films of the last two decades have tended to come in three flavors. First, there have been the ever-popular martial arts flicks. Then, there are the wacky comic-fantasies, the majority of them too culture-specific to be readily appreciated by Western audiences. And finally, one cannot dismiss the influence of the John Woo-inspired gun operas. Over the years, these styles have changed only slightly and so remain fairly recognizable even today.
However, for more than a decade, director Wong Kar-Wai has been slowly introducing a fresh dimension to these formulaic film genres. One of the stars of the new generation of Hong Kong directors, Wong managed to achieve what heretofore had never really existed in Hong Kong cinema - the art-house film. The very idea that any Hong Kong film could be critically appreciated on the basis of its artistic merits, as opposed to its body count, was very much a novelty in the 1990’s, yet Wong’s films from that period and onwards regularly displayed a dazzling style that juxtaposed sound and images together into whimsical collages of color and movement. As a filmmaker, Wong possessed that most rare of directorial attributes - an ability to take a seemingly ordinary or cliché storyline and to transform it into pure cinematic magic.
One of his early films, Chungking Express (1994), is a perfect example of Wong's artistic inclinations. Shot quickly over twenty-three days during a post-production break from his film Ashes of Time, Chungking Express is a largely improvisational and non-linear film which displays a hyper-kinetic style reminiscent of Robert Rodriquez's El Mariachi or Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. The film, divided into two storylines, alternates between rapid editing, blurred motion capture images, and slow, dance-like passages. The result can be a little disorienting at times but always remains a feast for the eyes.
Originally, Wong had envisioned Chungking Express as three separate storylines, each a tale of relationship misadventures, each linked together by their common bonds of love and romance. Ultimately, only the first two stories were completed for Chungking Express with the abandoned third storyline forming the premise for a later film (Fallen Angels).
Due to its improvisational nature, Chungking Express might be considered essentially plot-less or freeform filmmaking. Nothing really “happens” in the film, yet its charismatic characters and energetic cinematography add such vitality to the proceedings that Chungking Express has firmly established itself as Wong's most critically successful film (with the possible exception of his brilliant In the Mood for Love).
It is easy to see why Chungking Express is such a crowd-pleasing film. It features lovesick cops, free-spirited women, femme fatales, and much more, including a quaint treatise on the relationship between food and romance. Oh, and true to its origin as a Hong Kong film, this film even throws in a few brief gunfights and a number of foot chases, too. Chungking Express is, in essence, cinema for the MTV generation. That is perhaps part of its appeal, for it is a film that showcases a pop-culture sensibility within its sexy, stream-of-consciousness narrative.
The first story in Chungking Express focuses upon He Qiwu, the lovelorn undercover cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Having just been unceremoniously dumped on April Fools’ Day by his girlfriend Mai, he now aimlessly wanders the streets of Hong Kong in pursuit of an elusive remedy for his woes. Every task remains him of Mai, from catching a robber to eating an expired can of fruits. Qiwu determines to wait until his birthday for Mai to return his calls, after which time his love, like the cans of pineapples he continuously eats, will expire. It is a somewhat overly-dramatic and sentimental gesture on his part, but Qiwu is essentially like a lost little puppy, eager to please if only someone would receive his affections.
As fate would have it, Qiwu does accidentally (and literally) bump into someone - a mysterious lady in a blond wig. He will meet her again by chance in a bar, and when she even wishes him a happy birthday, he convinces himself that he has placed Mai behind him and is now somehow in love with this beautiful if enigmatic woman.
Hong Kong movie star Brigitte Lin portrays the mysterious woman. It would be her final film role before retiring from acting. Although Lin was still a popular star around the time of this film's release, she is virtually unrecognizable beneath her dark sunglasses, blond wig, and heavy raincoat (modeled after Gena Rowlands’s character in the John Cassavetes film Gloria). In truth, we never learn much about Lin’s femme fatale character, except that she is involved in a drug trafficking deal gone sour and is currently on the lam. Who pursues her? Who betrayed her? We never find out, nor do we even learn the mystery woman’s name. Qiwu certainly never learns anything about her, either, so obsessed is he with romanticizing about an idealized love.
This first tale ends almost abruptly after about forty minutes, and the film then switches to a new and unrelated storyline. Its focus is again a policeman, this time cop 633 (Tony Leung). He, too, will soon be dumped by his girlfriend, a very sexy airplane attendant. As with Qiwu, he feels somewhat betrayed, obsessing slightly with objects that remind him of his former girlfriend - a towel, a stuffed animal, a toy plane. There's even a carry-over of the “food & love” theme from the first storyline, as when the cop considers, “I guess she's right, plenty of choice in men, just like food.” And likewise, this cop will soon meet a new and alluring girl - Faye, the counter-girl to the fast food shop from which he regularly buys his meals.
Faye, as portrayed by newcomer Faye Wong, is the very heart and soul of this second storyline. She is bubbly and carefree with an impish sense of fun. Her shy but slightly mischievous nature is instantly appealing and very likeable (no doubt, the French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet drew inspiration from the characterization of Faye for his own equally delightful film Amélie).
From the get-go, it is quite clear that Faye finds the lonely policeman attractive. As though by a twist of fate, she somehow acquires a key to his apartment and before long begins to secretly visit his apartment. In his absence, Faye tidies up the place, buys new fish for his aquarium, and makes numerous subtle changes in the furnishings. Ironically, the unobservant cop regularly fails to notice any of these changes whenever he returns to his apartment.
In general, Chungking Express can be regarded as a triumph of directorial style and winsome performances over substance. There is an almost reckless, dreamy abandon to the film’s free-form structure and narrative, and Chungking Express has so much irresistible charm and joie de vivre that it transcends its basic tales of puppy-love.
Wong uses a wealth of techniques to enhance the look and tone of the film. The camera is frequently in motion, and even when it is stationary, clever editing maintains the illusion of motion; some shots are seen as reflections, while others are composed in a voyeuristic manner, as though the audience were peering through windows or around obstructive scenery to watch the actors. There is a particularly lovely scene in which Faye and the cop eye one another in slow motion, each deep in contemplation while all around, the action whirls by rapidly as though in time-lapse photography. Today, such an effect would be done with computers, but Wong accomplished it entirely in-camera. Wong doesn't just use his effects for their own sake; they establish a degree of intimacy in the film, placing the audience in close proximity to the film’s characters and even allowing us to nearly listen into their private thoughts or conversations.
In a recent survey, the British Film Institute, through its film magazine, Sight & Sound, published a list of the ten best movies of the last twenty-five years. Included on that list was Chungking Express. It may be difficult to categorize this film into a particular genre, and Chungking Express may not appeal to everyone, but there is no denying its inventiveness. The film was such a huge influence upon the Hong Kong film industry that since its release, many Hong Kong directors have attempted to recreate the film’s blend of commercialism and artistry. If the film's far-reaching influence can be considered a measure of Wong Kar-Wai's talents, then Wong will be a truly thrilling director to follow in the years to come.
Video *** ½
Hong Kong films are notorious for being poorly preserved. Fortunately, Chungking Express, as presented on this Criterion DVD, has received a new high-definition digital transfer supervised by Wong Kar-Wai himself. The film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen format. The transfer was made from a 35mm internegative and a 35mm interpositive, and it is fairly decent with only a slight softness and a trace of occasional grain to it.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is in Cantonese with some Mandarin as well. Chungking Express has an utterly infectious soundtrack with pop songs in English and Chinese, from oldies such as Dinah Washington’s What a Diff’rence a Day Makes to a Chinese rendition of the Cranberries’s Dreams (Mung Jung Yun, sung by Faye Wong!). Featured on center stage, however, is the classic Mamas & the Papas tune California Dreamin’, which is played again and again. And again!
Coincidentally, Wong Kar-Wai must have a preference for casting singers in his films. Faye Wong became a popular pop singer in Asia after the release of Chungking Express, while Cat Power and Norah Jones appear in Wong Kar-Wai’s lush American film debut, My Blueberry Nights.
Features ** ½
There are a few supplemental features on this disc. The most significant one is a commentary by Tony Rayns. The film critic discusses Wong Kar-Wai’s career and collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, background for the film’s actors, and the pop influence of Chungking Express on music, commercial advertisement, and cinema. Rayns also points out many small details about the film, including locations, the meaning behind the film’s title, and repeating motifs and parallels between the film’s storylines.
There is also a 1996 interview (12 min.) from the Moving Pictures British television program. Director Wong Kar-Wai (with cinematographer Christopher Doyle) takes us on a tour of Hong Kong on the eve of the handover to China; he also discusses several of his early films, with illustrative clips from Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, and Days of Being Wild. The dvd also offers a U.S. theatrical trailer for Chungking Express.
Lastly, this release includes a booklet listing DVD and movie credits and presenting an essay by Amy Taubin. This essay, “Electric Youth,” compares Chungking Express to Jean-Luc Godard’s pop art film Masculin féminin and offers further analysis of the film’s characters and symbolic gestures.
Wong Kar-Wai is arguably the most exciting Hong Kong director today. Chungking Express is one of his earlier films, but its breezy spirit and vivid imagery will leave an indelible impact upon the minds of most viewers. Check out this Criterion DVD to experience one of the most influential films to come out of Asian cinema in recent years.