The Criterion Collection's latest release, Chuingking Express (Chung Hing Sam Lam, 1994), is the first film the label has released on Blu-Ray as well as DVD. Moreover, it's a film that has long deserved the Criterion treatment. Released under Miramax's label Rolling Thunder a few years ago, Chungking Express was lost among the slew of ostensible Asian genre films promoted by Quentin Tarantino. Little about the previous edition indicated that the film is actually one of the best romances of the last twenty years; indeed, Tarantino's face on the cover probably implied the exact opposite to everyone but the more savvy cinephiles.
What Chungking Express is is a brilliant, freewheeling experiment by Hong Kong autuer Wong Kar-Wai. His film is as crowded as Hong Kong itself, with an often hectic, tightly shot mise-en-scene that compresses as much into the frame as his narrative does into the film. But despite, or perhaps thanks to, the hand-held cameras and the intentionally choppy motion, the film stands as a testament to the compositional skills of Kar-Wai, who was just breaking out on the international scene. Chungking Express is a perfect mesh of styles and genres, with a beautiful visual palette drawn from real-world Hong Kong. Neon and florescent lights provide a soft, colorful layer to the often fast-paced camerawork and plot.
"Plot" here is used somewhat loosely. The film is something like two short films pushed together, but neither would be quite the same without the other. What results isn't quite a plot you could graph as a single line, but neither is it one which would necessarily require two separate graphs. The first is of a lovesick cop, No. 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has been spurned by his ex-girlfriend May, who loved pineapples. Every day, Cop 223 buys a can of pineapples which expires on his birthday, May 1. If May doesn't return to him by then, he has resolved to move on.
Meanwhile, a gangster woman in a blonde wig (Brigitte Lin) has also received canned food of some import: sardines with the same expiration date, meaning she will be killed on that day. In the Chungking Mansion, a shopping center in Hong Kong where she is arranging her drug trafficking (of which the cop remains ignorant for the entire film), she and Cop 223 almost run into each other. 223's voice-over tells us that in exactly 55 hours, they will meet again.
We follow both of their stories, and they finally meet in a night club two nights later with both of them at the end of their respective ropes. The lady in the blonde wig had not recovered the drugs with which her couriers absconded and it is the eve of 223's birthday, without any word from May. The two find some sort of connection in their deadline-induced misery, but it may not be the love 223 was looking for.
The issue of deadlines is an interesting one. Not only is Kar-Wai exploring the ways in which humans relate themselves and others to time, but he's also expressing a specifc anxiety of the people of Hong Kong in the mid-nineties. With only three years left on Britain's 100-year lease on the city, time seemed to be ticking down for all the citizens of the metropolis. The danger was that everything had an expiration date, canned food, freedom, even love. Not coincidentally, the password for 223's answering service in the film is "love you for 10,000 years."
But it is after the chance meeting of 223 and the woman in the bar that the film switches gears to its second story, transferring the focus to another cop, No. 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), and Faye (Chinese pop star Faye Wong) through one of the film's centerpieces, the Midnight Express Indian Fast Food stop. 663, like 223, is also left lovesick, as his stewardess girlfriend literally flies the coop. She drops off a letter an the keys to his apartment at the midnight Express with cashier Faye, who is already enamored with 663. Instead of giving the keys to the cop, she keeps them, sneaking into his place when he is gone to rearrange and clean up.
It is a peculiar sign of devotion, like 223's obsessive pineapple purchases, which only endear us to Faye's oddball character. She manages to avoid getting caught because Cop 663 is so lost in his troubles that he fails to notice the ways his apartment changes when he's away. In one of the more amusing scenes, Faye, at this point desperate to be noticed, switches the labels on the cop's canned food and leaves behind a giant Garfield stuffed animal which he fails to observe. Theirs is one of those romances which can only happen in film, in which very few lines of dialogue are exchanged but it works anyway.
An unexpected hit that was written and filmed on the fly while Kar-Wai was in post-production on another film, Chungking Express stops short of being haphazard and rather emphasizes the constant movement of (youthful) life in Hong Kong. The hastiness and lack of preparation with which the film was made imbues it with a sense of free-spirited wandering that suits its subject matter. As critic Amy Taubin says in the new DVD's booklet, "It seems like the film itself is looking for love" when it abandons one story for the other.
Features: The new disc features a beautiful new transfer that does justice to the film's rich photography, as well as an informative commentary track by critic Tony Rayns. Rayns knows both Kar-Wai and cinematographer Chris Doyle on a personal basis, and his knowledge of the ins and outs of Chungking Express and Kar-Wai's ouevre in general is impressive. The disc's other special features are minimal, with a short interview with Kar-Wai and Doyle taken from British television, and the original U.S. trailer for the film, which exhibits Miramax's confused marketing campaign. The special features may be skimpy, but the Criterion Collection disc is worth owning for the beautiful new transfer alone.