Criterion // 1994 // 102 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // December 18th, 2008
If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years...
Wong Kar-Wai is an expert in dysfunctional love stories. Several of these have been masterpieces, including Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. With a deep sense of loss and romanticism, Chungking Express tells two stories of lost love. While it doesn't appeal to everyone, it is a showcase for Wong Kar-Wai's maverick visual style and kinetic sense of storytelling.
Story one: Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro, The Warlords) is trying to get over his broken heart, but it isn't really working. To try to cope with his loss, he tries to start up a relationship with a mysterious woman (Brigitte Lin, Ashes of Time), completely unaware of her criminal connections.
Story two: Cop 663 (Tony Leung, Lust, Caution) is abandoned by his stewardess girlfriend. He does little to cope with the loss, until his life collides with a young waitress named Faye (Faye Wong, 2046). She starts to invade his life until he is forced to cope with his loss.
Much has already been said about Chungking Express, so I don't intend to rehash it all here. What fascinates me as I read through criticism about the film is the way that each reviewer sees something different in it. While all see the love story, some discuss Chungking Express as an art film, others as a crime film, some see it as precious, others see it as deeply romantic. It is, of course, all of these things in equal measure, a fact that will draw some viewers and turn others off.
Personally, while I won't put Chungking Express on the same pedestal as In the Mood for Love, I think it represents an important moment in Hong Kong film. It's one of the first times that a non-action movie made serious waves in the international market, and it remains a fascinating peek into the cultural mashup of the city. Many cultural influences have left their mark on Hong Kong, and Wong Kar-Wei uses the film as a way to show those influences. The cast, the soundtrack, the dialogue...all elements of the film show an unusual and distinct multiculturalism. Whether you like it or not, there isn't anything else quite like it.
When Criterion made the transition from laserdisc to DVD, they ported over a number of their laserdisc transfers directly to the new format. If you go back to some of those initial releases now, they are unqualified disappointments, since DVD was a different format with significantly greater opportunity. Thankfully, Criterion has avoided that trouble so far on Blu-Ray. It would have been easy to take some of the recent high-def masters, slap them on a new disc format, and watch the money roll in. That's what most of the studios have been doing so far, and the quality of four year old digital masters are usually revealing.
Instead, Criterion has opted to do things differently, and if Chungking Express is any indication, it will continue to hold a special place in our film collections. A new master was released with the Blu-Ray and DVD edition in mind, and Wong Kar-Wai approved a new 5.1 remix of the sound, delivered here in uncompressed DTS Master.
If I were in charge of Criterion's release schedule, I probably wouldn't have chosen Chungking Express for early in the Blu-ray release schedule. This would be a tough print to master digitally, for a number of reasons. The image never stops moving, erratically enough that compression could easily be a problem. The color palette is all over the place, and the film is shot handheld with mostly available light -- much of it at night or under fluorescent lights. There are a number of those slow horizontal pans that cause high def televisions so much trouble. The film stock is cheap enough that Chungking Express will never look like a recent blockbuster. I would have chosen films that highlight the opportunities of the new format, not ones that reveal its greatest challenges.
Fortunately, Criterion has demonstrated here why it is considered the king of digital remastering for home video. Chungking Express looks fantastic on Blu-Ray, sidestepping all of the above challenges. The color representation is flawless, the dirt on the print has been removed without damaging the detail level of the film. With this print, we are able to appreciate Wong Kar-Wai's visual flair at its best. The black levels are also excellent, especially considering they couldn't have had much to work with from the negative at this point.
The audio is also spectacular. Listening to this track, I wouldn't have guessed that the film was originally mixed in stereo. The separation between the center channel and the mains is always clear, and the crowd scenes are startlingly immersing. In some films, this effect would be too blatant, but it lines up perfectly with the bold visual style of the film. This track isn't quite up to par with the best surround tracks, but it's probably one of the the best upmixed surround tracks I've ever heard.
The set of extras is similar to those on the DVD. We get a commentary track by Tony Raynes, who is knowledgeable of both Hong Kong film and this particular Hong Kong film. Like most Criterion commentaries, it comes highly recommended to those who want cultural context for the film. Also worthwhile is the episode of Moving Pictures, which provides some worthwhile footage of Hong Kong. These extras are a bit thin, but they are at least worthwhile.
If you're going to pick up Chungking Express, the Blu-Ray disc is the way to go. It has a sharpness, grainy look, black level detail, and color separation that's impossible on DVD. This new print is a vast improvement, and this transfer is certainly worth the price of admission.
Review content copyright © 2008 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Cantonese)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Moving Pictures Episode