- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
ilms as slow and uneventful as “Chungking Express” would usually have no place on my list of all-time favorites, but Wong Kar-Wai’s minimalistic tale of romance is so strangely captivating that it’s hard not to be entranced. None of his other films speak to me quite as strongly, though “Chungking Express” has one thing the others (save for "2046") don’t: Faye Wong. Already a massive star on the Hong Kong music scene when the film was first released, Wong is so refreshing in her breakthrough role that it doesn't even seem like she's acting. This is exactly the kind of magic Wong Kar-Wai was likely hoping for when he cast pop star Norah Jones in his American debut, “My Blueberry Nights.” But unlike that one-note performance, Faye Wong actually makes watching “Chungking Express” a delight each and every time.
Split into two separate, but loosely connected, stories about a pair of Hong Kong street cops who have just been dumped by their respective lovers, the film opens with He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) attempting to come to terms with the fact that his relationship with his longtime girlfriend has come to an end. While on an all-night excursion through the city, he meets a mysterious woman (Brigitte Lin) in a blonde wig and red-rimmed sunglasses who’s experiencing abandonment issues of a completely different sort. Though he knows very little about his new friend, He Zhiwu becomes immediately enamored, despite the fact that she clearly doesn't share the same feeling. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the generically named Cop 663 (Tony Leung) has just been introduced to Faye (Wong), a free-spirited clerk at the food stand he frequents with a habit of blasting The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’” all day, every day. When Faye intercepts a letter from the cop’s ex-girlfriend containing keys to his apartment, she begins to sneak in on a regular basis to clean and redecorate with the hope that her secret crush will eventually take notice.
Neither story has a definitive conclusion, but if you’re a hopeless romantic like Wong Kar-Wai, you don’t really need one. That isn’t to take anything away from the stories, however, because while they may seem simple at first look, it’s the complex characters that inhabit them that makes watching “Chungking Express” so fascinating. All four of the main characters have a defining trait that keeps the audience intrigued, whether it’s the unnamed woman’s disguise, Cop 663’s habit of talking to inanimate objects, or Faye’s bizarre flirting methods. The most unique of the bunch, though, is He Zhiwu, who is so lovesick over the loss of his girlfriend, May, that he’s set a one month deadline for her to return – a date he keeps track of by eating a can of pineapples every day with the same expiration (May 1st), and one that cleverly mirrors the deadline, his birthday, and his ex-girlfriend's first name.
Despite this peculiar plot point, it’s the second story that proves the more interesting, as Tony Leung and Faye Wong are so great together (and on their own) that it doesn’t even matter that not much is really happening. Their performances, when coupled with Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous kaleidoscope of blurred colors and slow-moving images, is just as easy to fall in love with as Faye Wong herself. Unfortunately, “Chungking Express” is very much an arthouse lover’s kind of film, so while the movie may be considered the director’s most mainstream feature (thanks in part to Quentin Tarantino’s U.S. distribution of the film), it’s not for everyone. Those thinking about diving into Wong Kar-Wai’s catalog, however, would be wise to start here. His movies may be similar in tone, but this is his absolute best.
Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review:
Unlike other Criterion discs, the Blu-ray release of “Chungking Express” is a bit of a disappointment. The new 1080p video transfer and DTS-HD 5.1 audio track are phenomenal, but the special features are less than impressive. The audio commentary by film critic Tony Rayns takes a more historical look at the movie than an academic one, while the addition of a 1996 episode of “Moving Pictures” (with interviews from Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle) simply isn’t enough on its own. Even the new essay by film critic Amy Taubin is a bit of letdown, but for those still holding on to their old copies on DVD, it’s hard to argue against picking up this HD reissue. It looks and sounds better than ever, and when you’re dealing with a film like “Chungking Express,” that's far more important than the quality of extras.