Criterion // 1994 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 25th, 2008
If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years...
Some films you have to see before the hype gets too big, especially if Quentin Tarentino is involved. Sadly, I missed that window with Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, the film that signaled the arrival of a new foreign star in America. By the time I had a chance to view it, Tarentino (not to mention countless critics) had praised it to the heavens, and I suspected that no film could live up to those standards. Now, however, it's been over a decade, and this Criterion release of the film seemed like the perfect moment to revisit the unexpected hit. As I suspected, it doesn't quite live up the hype, although it's obviously the product of a talented filmmaker with a tremendous sense of visual style.
Chungking Express tells two stories. In the first, recently dumped cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro, House of Flying Daggers) falls in love with a drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin, Outside the Window) who's having a bad day. In the second story, another recently dumped cop (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, 2046) falls for the counter-girl (Faye Wong, 2046) at a local take-out restaurant.
Chungking Express has earned it's place as a touchstone of romantic movie buffs. The combination of beautiful locations, emotive actors, and love-centered storyline made the film popular with the young, independent audience that distributor Miramax often courted. However, I found the picture more compelling for its visual sense and use of music.
Chungking Express is the film of someone intimately, intuitively connected to cinema. Not only does the film display an impressive visual sense, but there's an obvious joy in the possiblities of cinema, especially the moving camera. Some critics have compared Wong Kar-Wai to Godard, and the comparison rings true. Both directors seem to instinctively manipulate the medium with a joy that is rare. However, the comparison fails in one important respect. Godard, from the first frame of Breathless, mounts a critique of the cinema he loves. He can't touch a genre without breaking down its conventions and examining them carefully with is camera. In contrast, Wong Kar-Wai just seems to revel in his romantic genre, offering no critique or deconstruction. Instead, we get what might be the epitome of the romantic film, as Chungking Express distills all the longing inherent in the genre and puts it into a single 102 minute film. Every frame seems to drip with the ache of unrequited love.
It's easy to see why Quentin Tarentino jumped at the chance to release Chungking Express in the States. Both director's share a love for multi-threaded, non-linear stories and the use of interesting music. Chungking Express is certainly not afraid of mixing up stories and timelines to get at the heart of romance. However, over 10 years on the narrative structure seems easy to follow, but the power of the music is still just as strong. The film is most famous for it's use of The Mammas and the Papas "California Dreamin'," but the whole film resonates with songs that create the perfect mood to support the lovelorn characters.
Chungking Express is the kind of bread and butter release that made
Criterion's name special in the DVD community. There aren't a huge number of
extras, but what's included shows the quality and care that Criterion puts into
each release. The main extra is a commentary from noted Asian cinema scholar
Tony Rayns. His commentary for Vampyr was one of the highlights of that
Criterion release, and he continues the trend of quality here. He's intimately
familiar with Wong Kar-wai's work, as well as the particular history of
Chungking Express, and he delivers his insights in a commanding voice. Up
next is a vintage BBC episode of Movie Pictures which discusses the film
with Kar-Wai and his cinematographer. It's a bit light, but hearing from Wong
Kar-Wai and his cinematographer is nice. Also on the disc is the film's U.S.
trailer. As usual, Criterion has provided a booklet with text supplements. This
time we get a thorough review by critic Amy Taubin.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I applaud Wong Kar-Wai for his strong visuals and use of music, I just couldn't get into the plot of Chungking Express. I actually found the first story more compelling, so the film's change in focus left me slightly annoyed. I also felt like the second story could have been cut by a good 20 minutes without detriment to the overall film. However, despite my occasional displeasure with the film, it's sense of style kept me from being totally turned off. With a lesser director at the helm, Chungking Express could have been a disaster. Instead, it's a film that shows tremendous potential rather than total mastery.
Another slightly disappointing aspect of this release is the technical presentation. The audio is actually quite good, with effective balance between the dialogue and the music, but video is more of a mixed bag. No part of the transfer stands out as terrible, but there were moments of variability, with excessive grain and a bit of noise here and there that I found surprising given Criterion's track record. I certainly wouldn't recommend against getting the film because of the video quality, but it's not as perfect as I would have expected from a filmmaker so famous for his visual sense.
If you remember Chungking Express from it's mid-'90s peak, then this release from Criterion will help you remember the good stuff. Although the video isn't perfect, the presentation is more than adequate for the film. The extras, especially the commentary by Rayns, add quite a bit of value to the film. The film, however, is not without its problems. I found the stories of cops looking for love to be a bit slow in places. So, for those new to Wong Kar-Wai, Chungking Express is worth a rental for the visuals alone, but I would hold off on buying until you're sure that you enjoy the languid pace of the story.
Because of the strong sense of style on display, Chungking Express is found not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Cantonese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio Commentary with Tony Rayns
* "Moving Pictures"
* Theatrical Trailer