World of Wong Kar Wai
With his lush and sensual visuals, pitch-perfect soundtracks, and soulful romanticism, Wong Kar Wai has established himself as one of the defining auteurs of contemporary cinema. Joined by such key collaborators as cinematographer Christopher Doyle; editor and production and costume designer William Chang Suk Ping; and actors Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung Man Yuk, Wong (or WKW, as he is often known) has written and directed films that have enraptured audiences and critics worldwide and inspired countless other filmmakers with their poetic moods and music, narrative and stylistic daring, and potent themes of alienation and memory. Whether they’re tragically romantic, soaked in blood, or quirkily comedic, the seven films collected here are an invitation into the unique and wistful world of a deeply influential artist.
The Criterion Collection presents World of Wong Kar Wai, their latest director-centric box set, on Blu-ray in a 7-disc set. The set includes seven of Wong’s films: As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and 2046, with each film being presented on their own individual dual-layer discs. The aspect ratios range between 1.66:1 and 2.39:1. All films have also been given 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes, and are all sourced from 4K restorations, scanned from the original 35mm negatives. The set is not a complete collection of his work, since a number of shorts/commercials are missing, along with the feature films Ashes of Time (more than likely because Wong isn’t fond of it), My Blueberry Nights, and The Grandmaster (the latter two owned by The Weinstein Company in North America, a studio that usually doesn’t license out films to other labels).
Using the links and dropdowns above more detailed reviews can be found for each title, but on the whole the quality of the presentations vary from title to title. Despite colours being altered a bit I feel Chungking Express comes out the strongest looking, delivering a sharp looking presentation that comes off very film-like in the end, delivering excellent detail and more range in the colours and blacks; it looks quite a ways better than Criterion’s original Blu-ray edition. Following that are probably Days of Being Wild and Happy Together, which both have stunning looking shots, and are mostly film-like and clean, Happy Together only suffering from a few shots that have been filtered a little too heavily, leading to a smoother looking image, and Days of Being Wild having a very heavy green filter applied to the picture.
All of the films look to have had a green filter applied or enhanced, which is fine in some cases since, as Wong and Doyle discuss in some of the features, they liked that look after accidentally discovering it with Days of Being Wild. That filter has been applied sparingly to As Tears Go By, but the other films have all had it enhanced, Days of Being Wild being the worst offender. In that case, one can compare the new restoration to an alternate version of the film supplied in the set, which shows the original filter, which looks more organic and truer to the photography. The new restoration looks like it’s been through The Matrix. The next worst offender after that would have to be In the Mood for Love, which had a more autumn-like colour scheme prior to this release. The green filter just doesn’t look right (for me), impacting the skin tones and toning down some of the reds and browns. I did “get used” to it, but I still can’t say I like it.
Alterations have been made to all of the films, whether it be changes to colours or changes to the edits or changes to the overall look. Most are mild, usually down to colours, or—in the case of Chungking Express—sound effects have been added or the credits are altered. Happy Together apparently had some portions of Tony Leung’s monologue dropped. The film to have received the most alterations, though, is Fallen Angels. That film has had its aspect ratio changed from 1.85:1 to 2.39:1, accomplished by either distorting or cropping the image. Some scenes were also changed to black-and-white from colour, and colour was also digitally added to some of the pre-existing black-and-white scenes (think Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City films or Lars Von Trier’s Europa). I never picked up the Kino or Artificial Eye discs (much to my dismay), so I can't recall if there are any other differences in editing.
The effect created for Fallen Angels is “interesting” but I can’t say I’m a fan of it. I also feel it impacted the final presentation in a negative way: Fallen Angels ends up looking the worst of all of the films because it looks like video. It’s over-processed, flat, and lacks any sort of texture. Any grain that remains looks to have been added in digitally, either because it actually was, or because it has been over-sharpened. Either way, the image looks terrible, just flat and lifeless. As Tears Go By and 2046 also suffer from looking overly digital in areas, but still not to the degree that Fallen Angels suffers.
Forgetting the alterations and revisionism the presentations overall are still a little underwhelming, with only a couple of titles really sticking out in good ways. The inconsistency is what ends up being most surprising about the presentations here.
As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild both feature lossless monaural single-channel PCM soundtracks, while the other films come with DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtracks. Overall, I was very pleased with them, particularly the 5.1 soundtracks: despite the quiet nature of most of the films, their surround presentations really go the extra mile, with Happy Together probably sticking out most thanks to a few scenes around the Iguazu Falls. Both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels—the two most frantic films here—also offer energetic mixes.
Days of Being Wild ends up being surprisingly dynamic for a monaural mix, where As Tears Go By ends up coming off the weakest by far, with a rather flat and hollow sounding soundtrack, not all that different from what I’m used to from early 90's videos for Hong Kong films. Outside of that film the soundtracks are quite incredible, and I’d say demo-worthy in a couple of cases.
I was looking forward to this set, and though the presentations could leave one wanting I had some hope for the features. Unfortunately, outside of a handful of items, the features are mostly generic. Even worse, the set lacks any on-disc academic material, Criterion dropping most of Tony Raynss contributions found on their previous Wong releases, including an interview with Rayns on In the Mood for Love and his audio commentary for Chungking Express. Oddly, his discussion around In the Mood for Love’s soundtrack remains.
There are documentaries to be found. The one for 2046 is pretty generic studio fare, but the ones for In the Mood for Love and Happy Together are both incredible, especially the latter which showcases completely different versions of the film, including one where Leung’s character goes to Argentina to find his late father’s former lover. Characters are also expanded upon or added altogether. That documentary, along with the inclusion of Wong’s short film, The Hand, are the strongest and most worthwhile features by far.
Interviews are scattered about the set, along with a new one with Wong, where he answers questions from other artists about his work; it’s short at 15-minutes but not all that bad. Interviews are also mixed in with some deleted scenes on Chungking Express’ and Fallen Angels’ respective discs, and there is a press conference with Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung on the disc for In the Mood for Love, with Cheung showing up briefly in an audio interview on the Days of Being Wild disc. Wong and director of photography Christopher Doyle also show up in various archival interviews throughout the set. And going back to deleted scenes, there are also some found on the 2046 and In the Mood for Love discs, while As Tears Go By only presents two alternate endings, one of which tries to put a happier spin on things with a rather cheesy collection of flashbacks and sentimental music.
As mentioned in the Picture portion of this article, the films have been modified in one or another, with Fallen Angels altered the heaviest. Unfortunately, the set does not include the original versions of the films, though (rather inexplicably) Days of Being Wild comes with an alternate version. This alternate version (which shows the original green filter, not the Matrix-y one) has a different opening and conclusion, with a few trims and alterations in between. I wouldn’t say this version is that different from the finished one, but the tone differs in the end, and it was apparently conceived originally to lead in to a sequel that never happened (though In the Mood for Love can probably be considered a bit of a continuation).
The rest of the material is mainly behind-the-scenes material, trailers (most for the new restorations) and other archival material. The only academic inclusion, outside of Rayns’ comments on In the Mood for Love’s soundtrack, is an essay by John Powers found in the included booklet, which also features details about each film and a note by the director. There are also six photos scattered about in sleeves.
Which leads to the packaging. The booklet is fine but a bit obnoxious. It’s French-fold bound, which makes it look thicker, but also makes it a bit annoying to flip through. You also have to be careful not to let those included photos drop out. The discs are all then housed in sleeves, though they at least sit nicely, and then both the fold-out and the book sit in an external box, which is folded closed. It took me a second or two to figure out how to unpack the whole thing. I guess it looks nice, but it’s not the most intuitive packaging I’ve seen, and it also makes things a bit cumbersome to get to. Wanna watch Happy Together on a whim? It’s a bit of effort to get to the disc.
To get more details on the features, follow the links to the respective titles.
Overall, outside of a few stand-out features, this is one underwhelming tribute to the director’s work.
The set, in the end, is a letdown for a number of reasons. Forgetting the revisions of the films the presentations still leave quite a bit open to improvement, most suffering from some over-processing (only a couple come out looking really good) and the features are nothing special in the end, outside of the short film and a couple of documentaries.
I still recommend the set to those interested in discovering Wong’s films, as this is the best way to get most of his films together, and in that regard it’s great! But this really could have been so much more, and that disappointment is going to string for some time.