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CHUNGKING EXPRESS – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #453 (a J!-ENT Blu-Ray Disc Review)

January 1, 2009 by  



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“Criterion again comes through with this 1994 Wong Kar-wai classic.  Probably the best video and audio we will get from the original source material.  Overall, a solid release that Criterion handled with care for those who cherish the film!  This Blu-ray is the definitive ‘Chungking Express’ to own!”

TITLE: CHUNGKING EXPRESS – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #453

DURATION: 102 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Color, Stereo in Cantonese and Mandarin with Optional English Subtitles, 1:66:1 Aspect Ratio

COMPANY: THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RATED: PG

Directed by Wong Kar-Wai

Screenplay: Wong Kar-wai

Executive Producer: Wong Kar-Wai

Producer: Chan Yi-kan

Production Supervisor: Jacky Pang

Director of Photography: Christopher Doyle

Production Designer: William Chang

Editors: William Chang, Hai Kit-Wai, Kwong Chi-Leung

Starring:

Brigitte Lin (woman with blonde wig)

Takeshi Kaneshiro (as Cop 223)

Tony Leung Chiu Wai (as Cop 663)

Faye Wong (as Faye)

Valerie Chow (as the Air Hostess)

Chen Jinquan (as manager of “Midnight Express”)

The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai an instant icon.  Two heartsick cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works.  Anything goes in Wong’s gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin'” into tokens of romantic longing.

I really love this film.

“CHUNGKING EXPRESS” is the ultimate pop art film that won a lot hearts when it was first released and continues to this day.  And not only has the film jumpstarted the film careers of Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Doyle, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Faye Wong (despite having an awesome music career), “CHUNGKING EXPRESS” is one of those non-action Asian films that has continued to become a fan favorite for fans all over the world.

The first story focuses on the woman with the blonde wig (Brigitte Lin, in her final film before retiring from the entertainment business) and Takeshi Kaneshiro as Cop 223.  With the woman in the blonde wig, she sports a tan trench coat, sunglasses and a blonde wig while constantly smoking her  cigarette elegantly.  But this woman is involved in drug trafficking, as she works with the Indian smugglers and pays them to traffic heroin.  And not only is she being betrayed by her Caucasian boyfriend (messing around with his employee) but now being betrayed by the smugglers who are helping her traffic the drugs (by stealing the drugs) and now she is a target.

Meanwhile, Cop 223 is an undercover cop that feels empty and incomplete after his former girlfriend May leaves him on April 1st.  Thinking it may be an April Fool’s Joke,   Cop 223 refuses to accept that May has left him but to make him believe it’s over, he has to eat 30 cans of pineapple that will expire on May 1, 1994, the day of his 25th Birthday.

After each day at work as he waits for May’s call, he frequents the nearby take-out food store Midnight Express which the owner keeps trying to set him up with his employees.  But Cop 223 is not interested, he still has faith that May will call him.  So, within the 30 days of his breakup, Cop 223 frequents convenience stores and has gathered 30 cans to signify each day that she hasn’t contacted him, thus he has to eat all 30 cans to make him feel some sort of closure. Because it’s almost time for his birthday and she hasn’t called, Cop 223 eats all the pineapple and feels sick to his stomach from eating all the pineapple.  He starts calling up all his lady friends from as far back in grade school to see if he can meet a new woman but to no avail.

Feeling queasy, he feels he needs to drink alcohol at a nearby bar to make him feel better band he eventually meets the woman with the blonde wig.  What happens when these two individuals meet each other? To bridge the next story, Cop 223 returns back to the Midnight Express and the owner tells him that he would like to set her up with his new employee Faye (Faye Wong) but Faye has her eyes set on another guy which leads to the second story. In this story, Cop 663 (Leung Chiu Wai) dates an airline stewardess.

But there is something lacking in their relationship and she leaves him.  She leaves a note with the owner of the Midnight Express to give to Cop 663 but he doesn’t want to read it.  Meanwhile, Faye (Faye Wong) who constantly blasts her Mamas and Papas “California Dreamin'” starts to fall for Cop 663.

Since he won’t read the note that his ex left her, she reads it and notices that she leaves his apartment keys in the letter. She senses that 663 is out of it… almost sleep walking in his life. In fact, the only things he talks to is a bar of soap, a wet towel and his stuff animal.   He’s such in a daze that Faye takes matters in her own hand and thus his apartment keys from the letter his ex left for him and starts to go through his apartment and see what kind of life he has lived.

Seeing how he is in a daze and keeps thinking of his ex, Faye does the unthinkable by changing things in his apartment each day.  From changing the labels to his sardine stash, changing his slippers, changing stickers on his mirror, changing the stuff animal, soap and towel that he talks to, filling up his empty aquarium with fish and for 663, being so out of it, he doesn’t even realize the changes at first but slowly discovers it and thus help him recover from his breakup.  All is good and Faye’s plan seems to be working, that is until he discovers her in his apartment.

What will happen between these two individuals?  What will happen when Cop 663 sees his ex-girlfriend again?

What is it about this storyline that makes it so different from any other relationship/breakup/finding love again type of film?  The difference are the little cuts in between that make the film so avant garde.  We learn in the commentary that Wong Kar-wai was a graphic designer and design and art has influenced him.  “CHUNGKING EXPRESS” is a work of art, from it’s storytelling and it’s cinematography.  Wong and Christopher Doyle are a tag team that when combined, good things happen.

There are moments in the film such as when Faye Wong starts rummaging through Cop 663’s room and even at one time with a microscope, looking for hair particles on the bed and just going crazy.  Part of that quirkyness comes from Faye Wong, a pop diva in Asia that has won many hearts with her artistic presentation and her music but at the time, although not an established actress at this time Wong Kar-wai found something special about her movements, and that sheer expression and quirkiness really took the film to new heights.

Now that I think about it, I think it’s the mysteriousness that also captivates me.  The woman with the blonde wig.  The police officers known by their numbers, the use of expiration dates, Cop 223 asking a woman if she likes pineapple or trying to eat all these pineapple and doing whatever he can to make it taste different and of course the constant playing of “California Dreamin'” while Faye dances at the “Midnight Express”.  There are so many little things that you remember from the film and never forget.    And that’s why this film is so special?  Everyone who watches it is like a person viewing art and coming away with something different.

When I first saw it back in 1994, I bought the VCD version, then the VHS version, then the DVD version and now here we are with the Blu-ray release, but not your regular Blu-ray release where you would expected 1080P video and true HD.  This film is now part of the Criterion Collection and when Criterion’s name is on a film release, you know that you’re going to get a quality release.  So, what did Criterion do for this release?

VIDEO & AUDIO:

Criterion is known to making their final masters to what the director’s had in mind.  In this case, presenting the director’s requested aspect ratio of 1:66:1.

The new high definition transfer according to Criterion was created on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a 35 mm internegative and a 35 mm interpositive.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches were removed using the MTI Digital Restoration System and Pixel Farm’s PF Clean. For a film that is nearly 15 years old, the goal for Criterion was not to give a crisp and clear picture but to make sure that the requested aspect ratio was successful and removing all the dirt and scratches that have plagued previous releases of the film.

Oh, and I just have to say that things that were cut out of the US VHS/DVD release are intact in this Blu-ray version. But as far as video quality goes, you will find the colors noticeable especially at the bar when you see the CD’s in the jukebox spin and see the vibrant colors.

I have caught a few instances of color pulsing (due to the older print) and there were no artifacting. As for the audio, the original soundtrack was remastered by Tuu Duu-chih at 3H Sound Studios in Taipei under the supervision of Wong Kar-wai.  According to Criterion, the audio restoration tools have been used to reduce clicks, pops, hiss and crackle.

The audio is what I loved about this release.  While watching the film and knowing that the majority of the film is dialogue-driven and as expected during the music scenes, to hear the music really become prominent but what I didn’t expect to hear, which put a smile to my face is the rear surround and hearing the people talking, the cars beeping and while the front speakers were busy with scenes such as the lady in the blonde wig with the Indian smugglers, you hear the whole life of the city come alive through the rear surround.

Suffice to say, I was quite happy to hear the audio channels used effectively in this dialogue-driven film by taking the city’s ambiance and having it come alive.  Well done!  And for those passionate about the film, hearing the tunes of “Baroque”, “California Dreamin'” and Faye Wong’s cover of the popular Cranberries song ala “Dreams” is just so fun and how music, even a few songs really made this pop art film truly shine.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

In the past release, we had Quentin Tarentino’s introduction to CHUNGKING EXPRESS”, this time around with the Criterion release, we have the following:

  • An audio commentary featuring Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns who has talked to Wong Kar-wai in regards to certain scenes and also, we learn about how Chinese culture influenced certain situations such as the use of dates and certain phrases in the film.  Also, the reason why certain music was used and pretty much how commercials really influenced Wong Kar-wai for this film.  A very informative commentary.
  • A 1996 episode of the British television series Moving Pictures featuring interview swith Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle – This segment was made in 1996 thus the quality despite being in HD, is not too great.  But nevertheless, it was very fun to watch this 15-minute segment and watching these interviews with Wong and Christopher.  Really awesome details as the two walk into the places where the Midnight Express was shot and also the apartment actually was Doyle’s apartment.  Very informative.
  • Then the US Theatrical trailer which was loved by American critics but unfortunately the film company didn’t know how to market the film, thus it didn’t do to well in America.
  • A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Amy Taubin – For those familiar with Amy Taubin’s work on “Sight & Sound”, Taubin really gets into the film and definitely writes about the film and its characters in a unique way.   Definitely an entertaing read for those who watched the movie.  Do not read this booklet first if you haven’t seen the film.

The Blu-ray is presented in a digibook type of case with a slip cover.

I’ve owned so many variations of this film already that I can’t help but smile throughout the film and just seeing how beautiful it looks on Blu-ray and how good the sound quality was and hearing so many things all around me.

For those who were expecting a digital remastered version that will have a pristine, crisp and vibrant look as some older Blu-rays have managed to have, the Criterion Edition is beautiful but not spectacularly gorgeous but for those watching a Criterion release, the goal is not to change the film and change the colors.

Their goal was to present the film with  the supervision of Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle and how they wanted the film to be. If you watched the original DVD version or previous versions, this film has aged but with the Criterion edition, the video looks beautiful without the scratches and all the dust and looks cleaned up.  Personally, I don’t know if we’ll see the film any better than this presentation.  It’s truly an awesome release on Blu-ray and absolutely love it!

I really hope that Criterion possibly considers releasing the third story via the film “Fallen Angels”on Blu-ray.  Wong kar-wai created the third story for CHUNGKING EXPRESS” but because it would make the film to lengthy, he cut it out and carried it over to his next film,  “Fallen Angels”.  So, knock on wood, I hope that Criterion considers it because the treatment they gave for “CHUNGKING EXPRESS” was well done and definitely enhanced the whole experience for me, I found it quite beautiful.

Perhaps I’m a bit biased because I enjoyed this film so much but overall, this release is solid and definitely recommended!

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