Film & DVD Review
Two cops, two girls and a neon city.
Ditched by a girl he can't forget, Cop No. 223 (Kaneshiro) picks up a be-wigged and mysterious woman (Lin) in a late night bar, not realising she's a big time heroin smuggler in deep trouble. Set largely in the infamous Chungking Mansions.
In the second story, Cop No. 663 (Chiu Wai) is so broken up over an airhostess who's abandoned him that he initially completely fails to notice that the girl who works in the Midnight Express (Wong) had a massive crush on him, and started breaking in to his appartment to clean, add extra fish to his tank and put sleeping pills in his water...
Pop quiz: What do you do if you manage to get one of the most famous idol actresses at the time to agree to star in your film? Do you a) do you make the most out of her status and have her on screen a lot, looking great, with her face clear for all to see, or do you b) dress her in a rather plain rain coat, giver her a blonde wig and have her wearing large sunglasses throughout the duration of her screen time? Most people would probably have gone for a) or something to that effect, but not Wong Kar Wai - he went for b).
That being said, Wong Kar Wai is not really a conventional filmmaker. Of all his films that I've seen, most, if not all, have been really quite arty films and certainly different to the norm in style. This has also made him a bit of a love-or-hate him director among people. I've only seen four of his films so far, and two of them (Fallen Angels and Ashes of Time) I hated. I couldn't sit through either of them in one go, as I was bored beyond belief, and had no positive feeling for the film at all. I didn't like them. The other two, In The Mood For Love and this film, Chungking Express fared far better! While I don't regard either as the classics that many people do, I can certainly see why people do like them a great deal and I did enjoy both. I was lucky enough to see Chungking Express for the first time in the cinema during a Hong Kong film festival in Glasgow several years ago. That was among the first handful of non-action Hong Kong films that I had seen, and needless to say I was a little bewildered at times and didn't realise that the film was actually two stories! However, on my most recent viewing, on which this review is based, I was far more prepared!
As I've just stated Chungking Express is actually two stories in one film. Now if you are expecting action, deep stories, or anything like that then you are in the wrong place. Very little actually happens in the film. The main focus of the film is people's relationships and how they act in different relationship situations.
The first of the two stories focuses on cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Brigitte Lin as the woman in the raincoat mentioned earlier. Takeshi Kaneshiro was dumped on April 1st by his girlfriend, but refuses to really accept that the relationship is over, giving her one-month to come back to him. Towards the end of this time he bumps into Brigitte Lin, who unbeknownst to him is a drug dealer. With the little that actually happens in the film, that really is all I can say about this story without giving too much away.
This first story, while quite emotional, is simply the warm up for the main story. Despite this, from the performances from Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin feelings are built up for both characters. With all the voice-overs explaining things as they go along, you learn how Takeshi is taking his break up with his girlfriend badly, and the methods he goes to to try to cope and accept it. Even though Brigitte's character is not a nice person, sympathy is still created towards her, and her actions are not frowned upon. This is a short but relatively sweet story, which is ultimately just the warm up for the main story in the film.
The change over in stories happens with the introduction of one character, Faye (Faye Wong). Takeshi Kaneshiro was thinking of asking her out, but we learn that she was soon to fall for someone else, cop 633 (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and that switches the story to focus on him and Faye. This story is similar to the first in that it is also about relationships and the two main characters' ways of dealing with the ups and downs. Tony Leung always buys food from the same, well, kebab stall where Faye has just started a job. Through the conversations that he has with the stall's owner, it becomes clear that he too has recently been dumped. Over frequent visits Faye begins to become him, and the relationship between the two very slowly starts to develop.
With Tony not really taking the break up that well, he becomes quite strange, talking to a lot of the inanimate objects in his house and regarding them as if they had feelings. Thinking she can do something to help his life, Faye starts to enter his apartment when he is not in, and cleans it, buys new things for him and so on... None of which Tony notices!! Again, I'll stop there with the telling of the second story, as telling any more would probably be too much for going into the film if you've not seen it already.
This story was really quite touching, if a bit unbelievable in places. This is mainly due to the performance from Faye Wong. The quirkiness to her character makes her someone very easy to watch, and she good looking, which makes it even easier! Her character is fun and interesting, and for the first while once things get going, you don't really know what she is going to do! From what I gather, she won awards for her performance here, and it is deservedly so. She even steals many of the scenes that she shares with Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and given the calibre of his acting, that is no mean achievement!
Tony Leung gives another good performance, although for me it wasn't up to some of his other efforts. My main criticism is towards his character. This guy is a cop, and he talks to towels and soap as if they were objects with feelings and emotion, and doesn't notice when things are replaced and changed in his apartment! Maybe I'm being too cynical, but I would like to believe that the Hong Kong police force employed people slightly better than this!!
As is the norm with Wong Kar Wai films, the cinematographer for Chungking Express was Christopher Doyle; a man very highly regarded in that department, who was also responsible for the cinematography for the scrumptious looking Zhang Yimou film Hero. My main film for comparison here is In The Mood For Love. I admit that at the time of writing I have only seen that film once, but I do remember it as being very well filmed, with many fantastic looking shots from an aesthetic and arty point of view. Alas, I didn't have that same feeling for Chungking Express. There were no camera angles or scenes that I thought worked that little bit better because of the camera work or the look of the scene. For me it just didn't look or work as well in this department as a lot of Christopher Doyle's other work has done.
The last thing to comment on is the musical score. For me there were big hit and misses here. First the miss or all misses in my book. In both stories, in many places throughout each, there is some terrible saxophone music playing. The first time it came on was ok, but it was re-used quite frequently, and i just do not think it fit at all! I'm not saying I could have done any better, but I just don't think it helped the mood that well at all. I'm sure it is not just me that thinks this, but when hearing the sax music, if I couldn't see the film playing I would have thought that it would have been some American straight-to-video soft porn adult thriller film. The hit, however, was the use of the song California Dreaming. Even though I do like the song, it was played loudly and frequently so I am unlikely to want to hear it again for quite a while, but that song fit well with Faye's character, and the story.
I don't really know what else to say, as I'm not particularly sure what to say when reviewing a more 'arty' film. As I've said Chungking Express, for me, is not the classic film which a lot of other people regard it as, but it is still a highly enjoyable feel good film.
Audio & Subtitles
The soundtrack for Chungking Express features mainly Cantonese dialogue, but also Mandarin and English among other languages. This audio track is in stereo. The most noticeable detraction from the sound quality is that there is a distortion in the sound on all 'ss' sounds. It is a little distracting at first, but once you get into the film it is easy to ignore. Other than that there is very little to praise or complain against. It isn't overly clear, yet it is not very muffled. It does the job, just not amazingly.
The English subtitles are generally of a high standard. Fortunately they do not subtitle the English dialogue, so you can pay more attention to what is going on on-screen at those points. Aside from one or two spelling and grammar errors, the subtitles pass with flying colours. A few lines are maybe not on the screen for long enough though.
The film print is an anamorphic widescreen transfer, which while totally acceptable is not a pristine print like you would ideally hope for. There are quite a few speckles throughout the film, and in some scenes there is noticeable grain. Detail levels are also generally quite soft, and in a few scenes (mainly the kebab shop being lit by candles scene) there did appear to be a little colour bleeding. However, I've read in other places that Christopher Doyle/Wong Kar Wai have deliberately put some of these things (I think the focus was on the film grain wherever it was I read this) on the film, so my criticism for these when they may well be meant to be like this should be taken with a pinch of salt!! It doesn't look like it has had the production values of a Hollywood DVD, but it gets the job done.
DVD & Extras
This Korean release of the film comes with a few extras on the disc. First up there are the original Hong Kong and the Theatrical trailers. Next is the Quentin Tarintino introduction to his Rolling Thunder label and the film. I'm not a Quentin Tarintino fan at all, which is why I think he comes across as a bit of an excited prat in this little segment. After that there is the Quentin Tarintino Wrap Up, which is him basically talking (more calmly) about the film and giving more information on its filming and him saying, "If you liked this film then you should watch..." type stuff. Next is a music video for California Dreaming which is just a section of the film where the song is played. The last two extras are in Korean text and are entitled Project Purpose and Cast N Crew. All the DVD menus are in English. The most disappointing element of the film (or at least this release) is the fact that the cover has Quentin Tarintino's mug on it. As if the film had anything to do with him at all!! The back cover has this written at the top, and I quote "Rolling Thunder Pictures Presents Another Must-See Cinema Favorite From Maverick Filmmaker And Pulp Fiction Creator Quentin Tarintino..." Maybe I'm reading too much into that because I am biased due to me not liking Quentin Tarintino, but I feel that quote gives the impression that the film actually has something to do with him. I could rant all day, but I won't...
Chungking Express is a nice feel good film, which I think will entertain most people. It is not action packed, it is actually quite slow paced, but it is the emotion and the development of the relationships in the story that matter the most. Liking this film does not mean that you will like Wong Kar Wai's other films, but I think this is probably one the more easily accessible of the four that I've seen.
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