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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 7/26/99

The Films of Wong Kar-wai on DVD

reviews by Todd Doogan, special to The Digital Bits

Ashes of Time Ashes of Time
1994 (1999) - World Video and Supply Inc.

Film Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D/ C-/ B-

Specs and Features:

95 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (approx. 1.85:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, 2 theatrical trailers (Ashes Of Time and Bodyguard From Beijing), film-themed menu screens, scene access (5 chapters), languages: Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese (mono), subtitles: English

Fallen Angles Fallen Angels
1995 (1999) - Kino On Video (Image)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/ B/ B-

Specs and Features:

96 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (13 chapters including trailer), languages: Chinese (mono), subtitles: English

Happy Together Happy Together
1997 (1999) - Kino On Video (Image)

Film Rating: B-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/ B/ B-

Specs and Features:

97 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, single-layered, Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (13 chapters including trailer), languages: Chinese (mono), subtitles: English

Wong Kar-wai is known as Hong Kong's premier cinematic iconoclast. Wong is one of the most extraordinarily visual stylists in film, and with each film he seems to get even more stylized. It's really a pretty mind-blowing thing to learn that as complex as his films are, he only has 6 films in his filmography: As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Ashes of Time (1994), Chung King Express (1994), Fallen Angels (1995) and Happy Together (1997).

Born in Shanghai in 1958, but raised in Hong Kong, Wong lived the life of an intellectual. He read seemingly endless volumes of Russian literature, and feasted upon weekly trips to the movie house. Eventually Wong found himself in the world of television production, with Sir Run Run Shaw's TVB. This brought Wong to the Hong Kong script factory known as Cinema City during the 1980s, which proved to be a basically fruitless tenure. His resume only shows one script, Final Victory, during this period. Maybe it was frustration, or maybe it was just his time, but the door came down and Wong Kar-wai entered the world of filmmaking in the late 1988, with a slap to the collective faces of every cinema lover in the world.

I don't like to compare different filmmakers with each other, but sometimes it's hard not to. Wong Kar Wai is very easily comparable to John Ford, not so much in style (his style is way too distinct to be lumped into any other filmmaker's genre) -- no, it's all about tone. His characters are loners on a mission. They are swordsmen against an endless army, assassins against the world, or two lonely men against themselves. Wong's characters are pulled right out of Ford's world, dropped down in Wong's and made new again.

Ashes of Time

When you look at the films of Wong Kar-wai, it's hard to imagine he had a martial arts period piece in him. Based on characters taken from Jin Yong's novel The Eagle Shooting Heroes, it's a martial arts adventure as only Wong Kar-wai could imagine. The film is filled with explosive jump cuts, metaphoric imagery and representational characters. Much of the symbolism is lost on me, but I don't care -- it's such a refreshing film to watch, and not really knowing what the hell is going on only helps me enjoy the film that much more.

From the opening shots of the film, we are treated to nothing short of an assault of images, where we are introduced to the main characters, and what stands as a story. The images are hard to take, and it will take a very special film lover to stick with it. Everyone should, because as jarring as Wong's storytelling style is here, it plays off. It's a complicated (yet very simple) story, showing the lives of these two swordsmen and the bonds that they share (and break). They are forlorn, tired and, well -- you know what? I have no idea really. There are lots of really cool "wire fu" shots, a symbolistic plot thread involving a "magic wine" that keeps getting one of the guys in trouble, because it makes you forget things (like what you're running from, or that you're sleeping with your best friends wife), and some gender-bending females. All in all, it's a pretty wicked head-trip, that I'd recommend to anyone looking for something different.

The DVD version of Ashes Of Time pretty much sucks. The widescreen format is matted what looks to be twice, so it could be moved up higher into the screen to make room for the subtitles. Speaking of subtitles, they are mostly readable but spelled wrong half the time, and are not in synch. Because of all this, the picture quality is suspect. The shame of it is, this is the exact same transfer done for the video release of this film. The good thing, I guess, is that you're getting the same quality either way, so why not go with the DVD (or better yet, go out and find the HK import -- you'll get a slightly better transfer, without that gawd-awful second mat job, and the original, fully-intact score). It's hard to realize sometimes that not every country puts value into film preservation like American cinema does. Whatever master World Video and Supply used for this flick is in dire need of saving, and maybe someday Hollywood can put some money behind restoring world classics as well as our own. As low a video grade as I'm giving this film, this is basically the only we way are gonna get to see this outside of a theater. I'll take what I can get, but I'm gonna still bitch about it.

Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels stands as an extension of the world Wong Kar-wai created in the 1994 feature Chungking Express (which hasn't had a Region 1 DVD release through Buena Vista as of yet, but is available as an HK import -- the film stands as Wong's masterpiece). It's not a hard concept to grasp, considering, much like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was to Pulp Fiction, it was excised out of Chungking during the script process, only to be resurrected the next year as a full length film (a worthy comparison considering it was Tarantino who introduced Wong to American film goers, when his Rolling Thunder distribution company released Chungking in 1997).

Fallen Angels features Asian pop star Leon Lai Ming, as a contract killer working hand in hand with an assistant he's really never met, played by the beautiful Michele Reis. She sets up his assignments, cleans up after him, and makes sure everything he needs is left where it's supposed to be. Of course, what would a film killer be without a want to get out of the business? Chalk one up for Wong, for staying true to the formula. Leon's killer wants out, and he's prepared to do what it takes to get out. Now, just because Wong stays true to formula, that doesn't mean he's either unoriginal or typical with his story. No way, uh-uh, fugetaboutit. Wong takes his trademark warped, wide-angle photography, and schizo musical montage, and throws in John Woo-style balleretic, ultraviolent, slo-mo, squib-packed, pyrotechnic action.

Wong breaks the mold in another way, by throwing in another character: an ex-convict named Ho (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, who played a similar character in Chungking Express). Ho happens to be mute (which doesn't stop him from babbling tirelessly in voiceover), because he ate a can of expired pineapple - or so he claims. Ho's a funny character, who spends his evenings breaking into closed-for-the-night businesses, and coercing passersby into buying his stolen wares. It's Ho's character who ends up becoming a sort of surrogate for Wong Kar-wai himself, when he hooks up with a video camera and starts endlessly shooting everything around him, including chronicling his ailing father, as he tries to help a girl win back her ex.

Fallen Angels is a good film -- it has some truly wonderful characters, acted out by some pretty talented people. Pay attention to Kaneshiro -- he was wasted in Chungking, but here he really comes into his own. If you're a fan of Chungking Express, I think you will find this a worthy extension of the world created by Wong. If you're new to Wong's world, this is a really good jumping off point (especially on DVD), though I would suggest you see Chungking first.

As a DVD, Fallen Angels works well. The transfer is good for a film from Hong Kong. The colors (a trademark for Wong -- I think the best representation for his use of color is the term "light-smeared") are well rendered and the blacks look pretty good. There's a bit of digital noise and heavy grain, but it's not too bad considering I've seen much, much worse in HK flicks on DVD. There are no extras aside from the trailer, the subtitles are permanent (but look good boxed in gray -- very readable), and the sound is a well-meaning mono. The disc isn't anamorphic, and I wasn't expecting it too be, but a surprise would have been nice. I'd have to say the DVD beats my third generation dupe, so I'm happy.

Happy Together

After Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Wong Kar-Wai showed the world that international success and critical acclaim would not change his visual style. His film Happy Together, again shot by his Australian ex-patriot director of photography Christopher Doyle, is a throbbing wall of video-filtered 16-mm, complete with the requisite slow-motion shots that sum up the creative destiny of Wong Kar-wai.

The story follows the uneventful lives of two Hong Kong ex-patriots living in South America. They are gay and together, but not necessarily happy as the title suggests. It's not really clear what the message of the film truly is. It's really just a patchwork of scenes involving the couple, Ho and Lai, breaking up and getting back together just as friends. Ho is an unthinking cad who finds himself being pushed away by lover Lai, who works two jobs (as a bouncer and a butcher at an abattoir). The whole of the opening footage is a jarring black and white, with splashes of color thrown in for good measure.

As the eternally suffering Lai, Tony Leung gives yet another incredibly stellar performance, despite (or because of) Wong's visual aerobatics. His gestures show both his emotional pain, and his mental confusion with the actions of his lover, who comes in and out of his life. Leslie Cheung's Ho is more a caricature, and hardly seems like the type of person Lai should be living in hell over. But isn't that the point of bad relationships? We never know what the hell we're getting ourselves into sometimes, and when we look back, we think of how stupid we were (and yet we often do it over and over again). Wong Kar-Wai's point can be best summed up as: you can't choose whom you love in life, but you can choose how much pain it causes in the long run. No matter what, we are the ones to blame when we get hurt.

I think Happy Together works as a film. It makes its point very well, and it is an amazing combination of Wong's previous styles and storytelling techniques. He's growing as filmmaker, and as experimental as he is, he's learning to be a bit more focused (and less threatening to the audience). He is truly coming into his own, and I'd love to see what he would do here in the States. I know that's a very xenophobic thing to say, but he has such visual control of his world, that I'd like to see what he could do with a bigger palette.

Happy Together's DVD transfer is very good. There's some digital noise (much like Fallen Angels), but nothing that is going to make you want to chuck the disc. Colors and blacks are very good, except when there is nothing but black on the screen. In the context of the film, and within the shadings of some of the black and white photography, it looks wonderful. The master print is quite damaged, which is a shame, but a fact of film. The sound is mono, and there are no extras. The subtitles are plain white type, but you can read it, and they don't jump all over the screen. Let's just say that my collection of Wong Kar-wai films and I are very happy together. Sorry, I had to do that.

All of the Wong Kar-wai films currently on DVD, give you a nice look at a filmmaker you might not have heard about. There aren't a whole lot of extras to help you learn about who he is -- the extras on all the discs are limited to simply adding trailers, which is a nice effort. Some of Wong's films (not reviewed here) are available on DVD as HK imports, but you'll have to make a bit of an effort to find them. I think being a fan of Hong Kong cinema is not as trendy as it used to be, so now is a good time for true fans of cinema in general to take a quick peek at some very well made films. In the long run, you'll be better for it. And if there's a demand, maybe we'll get some more of these modern classics on DVD where they belong.

Todd Doogan
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Ashes of Time

Fallen Angels

Happy Together

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