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review added: 9/4/03



Two More from Wong Kar-wai

review by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Chungking Express Chungking Express
1994 (2003) - Rolling Thunder Pictures/Miramax

Film Rating: A

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

Specs and Features

102 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, keepcase packaging, introduction to the film and wrap-up by Quentin Tarantino, original Hong Kong trailer, U.S. trailer, sneak peeks for 6 other films, film-themed menu screens, scene access (20 chapters), languages: Cantonese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned



In the Mood for Love (Criterion) In the Mood for Love
2001 (2002) - The Criterion Collection

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A

Specs and Features

Disc One: The Film
98 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered, dual keepcase packaging, isolated music and effects track, 4 deleted scenes (3 with optional filmmaker's commentary), interactive essay on the film's music, Hua Yang De Nian Hua short film with press notes (3 mins, 4x3, DD mono), liner booklet (with Intersection - the short story by Liu Yi-chang that influenced the film, an essay by film critic Li Cheuk-to and director's statement), film-themed menu screens, scene access (28 chapters), languages: Cantonese (DD 5.0 & 2.0), subtitles: English

Disc Two: Supplemental Material
@ In The Mood For Love documentary (50 mins, 4x3, Cantonese DD mono, 12 chapters), Interviews with Wong Kar-wai (35 mins, 4x3, English DD 2.0), Toronto International Film Festival press conference with stars Maggie Cheung Man-yuk and Tony Leung Chiu-wai (45 mins, 4x3, English DD 2.0, 7 chapters), Hong Kong in the 1960s Introduction essay by Gina Marchetti, promotional materials (including unused art, concepts, posters, TV spots and trailers), electronic press kit video (18 mins, 4x3, English DD 2.0), photo gallery, The Searcher: Wong Kar-wai biography of the filmmaker, cast and crew biographies


"It's still an emotionally charged towel."

In preparing these two reviews I came to a realization: I have a great affection for both of these films and their maker, Wong Kar-wai - much more than I had previously realized. I also found it increasingly difficult to write about one without the other, since they currently bookend my exposure to Wong's films. An American trained, Hong Kong based filmmaker, Wong's films contain an energy and visual/narrative freedom that hold more in common with avant garde filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage than with the standard, Hollywood narrative work of, say, Steven Spielberg. Perhaps a symptom of this is the fact that most of his films are rather melancholy, dealing with isolation and the lack and importance of human intimacy. To continue the comparison with Spielberg, if Spielberg is considered a filmmaker that is primarily concerned with families and how they hold together under strain, Wong seems primarily concerned with individuals, isolation and a more honest portrayal of human emotion, of which this film is a prime example (more on this later).

Watching Chungking Express again after having finally seen many of his other films, I was happy to see that it still held up exceptionally well. Chungking Express was originally conceived of as a film consisting of three separate stories, but was eventually pared down to two (the third story became Fallen Angels, which is also worth checking out). This may be all the better, since the idea of mirrors seems to be of such importance in the film, and a third story would disrupt the balance of pairs in play throughout the film. Express is all about mirrors, both literal and figurative. Characters mirror one another, objects mirror characters' physical and emotional states, and characters are continually mirrored by the metal and glass that in their environment. Everyone is connected, reflecting one another even as they remain isolated.

The first third of the film concerns a smuggler (Brigitte Lin) and He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a police officer who has just broken up with his girlfriend. Lin's smuggler is double crossed by her couriers, and Qiwu is still brooding over his break-up, daily buying a can of pineapple that expires May 1st (May is the name of his ex-girlfriend). The paths of the two characters' cross late in their story and lead to a conclusion that is not initially satisfying (we expect them to meet head-on as criminal and cop), but becomes an interesting counterpoint to the ending of the film.

The second story (and really the 'meat' of the film) concerns another police officer (Tony Leung), also recently bachelorized, who becomes the object of affection to Faye (Faye Wang) a woman who works at the food counter he frequents. Officer 633 (as Tony Leung's character is referred to in the translation, although his uniform clearly shows the number 663) speaks to himself through the inanimate objects in his flat, which seem to mirror his physical/emotional state. Meanwhile, Faye takes advantage of a note containing a key to 633's apartment, left by his recent ex, and breaks into his flat while he's away. Initially, she just plays with his toys and eats his food, unable to express her feelings for him, but as her confidence grows, so does the nature of her involvement with 633's flat. It is in the middle of this story that I feel one of the most emotionally 'real' shots in modern cinema occurs: Faye watches 633 slowly take a sip from his coffee while the pedestrian traffic rushes by. Somehow, the complete isolation of the two characters, and the simplicity of the imagery in this scene resonates with me more than any other single shot in recent memory. It all leads to one of the most satisfyingly romantic conclusions in film, comparable even to the finale of Casablanca. I really do love Chungking Express, and can't say enough good things about it. It is a gorgeous little film that seems to deepen with each viewing.

"I was only curious to know how it started. Now I know. Feelings can creep just like that."

In the Mood for Love is Wong Kar-wai's latest film, glowed over at Cannes and in Hong Kong, and seemingly ignored here (I am still the only person that I know who has seen this film). I have now seen it twice. I like it a lot. Love comes across as a tone poem, an achingly beautiful film about neighbors who discover that their spouses are having an affair. The couple begins to role-play the affair in an attempt to understand it, trying to avoid falling in love as well. Isolation seems to haunt the characters and even as they find themselves growing together, they begin to become more isolated from everyone else, who may become suspicious of their non-affair. I could go on about the story but, unlike Chungking Express, Love's narrative is difficult to simplify without ruining much of the film's enjoyment.

Like all of Wong's films, this film was shot without a script proper and was cut down from an enormous amount of footage, but doesn't really feel that way. The final film is so tightly constructed it is difficult to see it any other way (watching the deleted scenes confirms this - almost every scene seems to break from the spirit of the final film). Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are equally outstanding in the film, and express the aching at the heart of the film with confidence and restraint. Also of note is the cinematography, which is noticeably more conservative than Wong's last four or five films, yet no more lush. It feels much more appropriate to the emotional feel of the film and is further evidence that Wong is not simply a 'stylist,' but deeply interested in story and character detail.

Both Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love carry a similar emotional weight that is rarely seen in American cinema. Sadness and pain in the films are not emotions to be avoided or corrected, but to be explored and understood. These emotions deepen the characters' understanding of themselves and make them who they are as much as their love and joy do; because of this they do not seem to be trying to change or overcome their emotions, but explore and use them in order to make it through life. Similarities aside though, I must admit that as much as I enjoy Love, and as beautifully well-made as I think it is, it doesn't seem to connect with me as strongly as Chungking Express does. It doesn't have the playful exuberance and immediacy of Express, nor is it supposed to. It's a darker film, but it's also a slightly less rewarding experience. Regardless, this opinion may change as I continue to watch these films over again (I fully expect I will), and I recommend both highly.

Both films look good on DVD, getting new anamorphic transfers that compliment the films nicely. Criterion's transfer for Love is definitely a cleaner affair (though it does show a little bit of print damage) and the color really pops, especially reds, which play an important role thought the film. The transfer for Express is definitely dirtier, especially in the first third of the film, but a certain amount of this is to be expected, given the printing and in-camera effects that are used throughout the film. Also, the dirt and grain have the added effect of giving the transfer an almost tactile feel that is generally pleasing. Colors are well balanced, and the image is much sharper and more stable than the film's laserdisc release. Both films exhibit deep blacks with nice shadow detail, Love having a slight edge. Compression is not a problem with either film.

The sound is adequate for Chungking Express, although I must say I've never heard a transfer that wasn't somewhat muddled, exhibiting the low-budget nature of the film. The DVD is in stereo however (the earlier laserdisc was simply mono) and the music has more pop because of it. In the Mood for Love is an even more dialogue driven film, but also fairs much better aurally. Everything is crisp and clean, with effects sounding very natural and music that is full and lush. Much of this may be due to the larger budget afforded to Love, but whatever the reason, the sound on Criterion's disc is substantially better.

In terms of extras, there is no question, nor is it surprising, that Criterion's release of Love is the more substantial of the two. The two discs are absolutely overflowing with information, more than I have ever seen for a Chinese film. It's a must-buy for fans for that reason alone. @ In The Mood for Love is a 50-minute "behind the scenes" documentary, made in-house, about the difficulties with the film and the changes it went through throughout the filming. There is a fair amount of deleted footage shown here (much of it can also been seen in the deleted scenes) and there are discussions of how the film differs from his earlier work, the acting process, etc. This would normally be plenty, but we also get a half an hour of interview footage with Wong Kar-wai, the full press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, essays on the music of the film and Hong Kong in the 1960s, promotional materials and the list goes on. It's really great to see this film given such attention on home video, and I really wish the same could be said for Chungking Express

On Chungking, all we get is the theatrical trailer and an introduction and wrap-up from Quentin Tarantino ported over from the laserdisc. These little pieces are not as annoying as they could be, giving some context to the film, but really tell you very little about the film itself. It also bothers me that the packaging seems to try and sell the film as Tarantino's, even though he had nothing to do with the making of the film. It's a disappointment, but there is a flip side to all of this: Chungking Express is a much cheaper disc. However, if you're a fan of Wong Kar-wai, or Hong Kong cinema in general, I can hardly see you being disappointed in paying the extra cash for Criterion's loving treatment of In the Mood for Love. Both are well worth a look.

Rob Hale
nirayo@yahoo.com


Chungking Express


In the Mood for Love


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