The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong 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.
Criterion presents Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (which is the director’s preferred aspect ratio according to the booklet) on this dual-layer disc. The image has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
I don’t recall the image on the Buena Vista DVD and don’t own it, but I have a feeling the image on here is far better than that previous release. The Criterion transfer presents a rather gorgeous looking picture, presenting a generally sharp image (though the style of the film sort of gives it a bit of a soft edge) with bright, nicely saturated colours and strong blacks. The transfer keeps the film’s grain yet has very little in the way of damage.
It’s an impressive looking transfer and I’m more than happy with it as I’m sure many others will. Criterion is also releasing the film on Blu-ray and considering how good it looks in standard definition I’m quite excited to see it in high-definition (as of writing this I have not seen the Blu-ray disc yet.) But even if you are not equipped for Blu-ray yet you’ll still find the transfer here quite pleasing.
Criterion presents the film with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. It’s a fairly active soundtrack, probably strongest during the first half of the film where the characters move through the busy settings, the background noise from the street settings coming through clearly in the back speakers. Activity moves beautifully between the speakers when appropriate and sounds natural. Music has great range and beautifully fills out the environment, and while dialogue sticks mostly to the front speakers it’s clean and natural as well.
It’s a surprisingly active and crisp track, working perfectly for the film.
This is a fairly big release for Criterion so I was a little let down with what we do get here in the way of supplements, only getting a few items.
There is an audio commentary by Tony Rayns, recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2008. I enjoy Rayns’ tracks overall (I especially liked his track for Vampyr) but I found this one to be just an average track. Rayns thankfully keeps everything going and while I assume he has notes it doesn’t really sound like he’s reading from them, though at times it sounds like he’s trying to keep up with his own train of thought. He gives a decent analysis of the film and offers some interesting facts about the production, like how the original story was to have the four characters crossing paths constantly throughout (shooting schedules didn’t allow that,) and also gets into the careers of the actors, even the minor ones. He also enjoys pointing out locations and some of the unique features of Hong Kong (such as the escalator that plays a fairly big role in the film.) It’s informative and I’m glad I listened to it, but I can’t say it really added that much more to my appreciation of the film and in all I was a little let down by it.
Unfortunately the only other big feature comes from a 1996 episode of Moving Pictures, presenting an interview with Wong Kar-wai and director of photography, Christopher Doyle. The two tour the locations used in Chungking Express and talk about their work, including what would have been their newest film at the time, Fallen Angels, talking a lot about their style. It’s interesting but runs only a 12-minutes and offers very little in the end.
The disc then closes with the U.S. Theatrical Trailer, which, as one might expect from a Miramax ad campaign, doesn’t really do a good job of capturing the film.
A booklet included with the release contains an essay by Amy Taubin, who gives an analysis and synopsis of the film and how it represents Hong Kong at the time. It’s a good read and may actually be the best part of the release.
Considering that it is a bigger title I guess I expected a little more. I’m thankful Criterion didn’t feel the need to pull Quentin Tarantino in on this release (it was a favourite of Tarantino’s, was released in North America through his Rolling Thunder Pictures, and the previous DVD had his name and face pasted all over it like he made it) and went the route of a scholarly track, but I guess I felt there was more out there. It just feels like a very small release for the film.
I thought the commentary was okay and worth listening to but the supplements overall are slim and disappointing. Thankfully the transfer is up to Criterion’s standards and is quite pleasing (I’m looking forward to the Blu-ray) and for this aspect alone I still think the release is worth picking up.