Issue #262            HOME          E-mail:        BACK ISSUES              May 2nd, 2005

Chungking Express
(1994; Jet Tone Production Co.)

Cantonese: Chung Hing sam lam
Mandarin: Zong qing sen lin
English: Chungking Forest


  RATING: 9/10


During a three month break in the editing of his troubled period epic ASHES OF TIME (reviewed in issue #154), director Wong Kar-wai crafted this irresistible confection, which is both a contemporary valentine to classic French New Wave cinema and a thoroughly charming celebration of human ardour and the randomness of life in the city. It tells two very divergent yet somewhat interwoven stories, centering on handsome policemen and their encounters with two very different, fascinating women. However, both parts deal equally with Wong's love for and mastery of cinema. Rarely has there been a motion picture (outside of Jean-Luc Godard's filmography) that was so willing to play with the medium's edicts regarding velocity, cadence, image, and texture. He also cares deeply for his lead characters. Like the film itself, they are dynamic, distinctive and wonderfully quirky.

Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia Takeshi Kaneshiro

Story #1 centers on Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), aka. Badge #223, a hopeless romantic who has just been dumped by his girlfriend, May. He relentlessly muses about fate, while consuming can after can of pineapple (May's favourite food)...but only cans that expire on May 1st., his birthday. After a particularly painful evening of soul searching, he crosses paths with the enigmatic "Woman In Blonde Wig" (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, as an exquisite incarnation of the classic noir heroine), a drug smuggler whose band of East Indian "mules" have absconded with their cargo. After initially passing within inches of each other, they meet again in a bar, get drunk, and end up in bed together...sort of. Story #2 involves Badge #663 (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a forlorn cop who has just been dumped by his stewardess girlfriend (Valerie Chow Kar-ling). He gains a secret admirer in the form of Faye (Faye Wong), a flighty young woman who works at The Midnight Express, a fast food stand that is one of 663's regular haunts. Faye (who is obsessed with The Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreaming," which she plays endlessly at high volume) expresses her affection for 663 in a decidedly original manner: she breaks into and secretly tidies his apartment. Over the course of several visits, she cleans, rearranges furniture, and even switches the labels on tins of food. Slowly but surely, this adds variety and mystery to 663's dreary routine and, in the end, Faye becomes his lover...sort of.

Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia (left), Takeshi Kaneshiro

Better experienced than recounted, CHUNGKING EXPRESS is gratifyingly clever and worthy of multiple viewings. Wong has always twisted narrative conventions and this effort will be no less disconcerting to those taken aback by his other work (there are no introductions, just recapitulations). Even by 1994, the director’s films had already had substantial impact in their home territory, and served as a choice point of reference for critics and comedians alike. Meanwhile, Wong's trademark "Blur-O-Vision" action sequences were picked up on by everyone from Tsui Hark (THE BLADE) to Wong Jing (RETURN TO A BETTER TOMORROW), and became a stylistic requirement of the flourishing goo wak jai crime genre. When all is said and done, CHUNGKING EXPRESS (which won several prizes at the 1994 HK Film Awards, including Best Picture) will probably be remembered as Wong Kar-wai's signature film. It is laidback and lightning paced, cutting edge and retro, capricious and somber, a mass of incongruous actions, missed opportunities, unguarded sentiment and unfettered bliss. Just like life...sort of.

Faye Wong Tony Leung Chiu-wai

Two versions of CHUNGKING EXPRESS have been issued on domestic video. The film was the first release from Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Pictures, and he presented Wong's "International Cut" of the film. World Video’s tape and laserdisc were derived from the original, shorter 98 minute HK release. Among the differences: the scenes where The Blonde and her mules prepare for the smuggling trip are much shorter in the HK version; the sequence where Qiwu loiters outside his girlfriend's window occurs earlier in the US print; traditional Indian music plays in the background during the smugglers' arrival at the airport in the US print, while the HK version features the title theme; the HK version deletes most of The Blonde's search for the smugglers and all of her subsequent kidnapping of a little Indian girl (in order to extort the whereabouts of the drugs); Faye Wong's rendition of "Dreams" no longer plays in the background of a sequence in the international version but can still be heard later on and during the end credits. The longer version is more satisfying and the HK print may have been shortened for no good reason other than to keep the running time under 100 minutes, thus insuring the requisite five shows a day in theatres.

Valerie Chow Kar-ling Faye Wong


Criterion released a laserdisc edition of CHUNGKING EXPRESS back in 1997 and, like that large platter release, the Miramax/Rolling Thunder DVD presents the aforementioned longer international version of the film, which includes approximately 4 minutes of material not seen in HK prints. However, the new transfer may be too spic and span for its own good. Wong made CHUNGKING EXPRESS on the fly, and it is a small picture with a rough-hewn texture that was at least partially by design. Criterion’s 1.66:1 transfer retains more of the expected flaws, as well as a light amount of grain, giving it a more film-like appearance. Miramax’s rendition (which features a sliver more on the right side, but crops the horizontal portion of the image to the North American standard of 1.85:1) benefits from the extra resolution, but removes most of the wear and grain. One suspects that the older transfer is probably a bit more in line with what Wong and Doyle would have liked, but if you do not have access to the LD, this is still not a bad way to see the film. The DVD includes an introduction and wrap-up by Quentin Tarantino, the HK and US trailers, and a Sneak Peeks section featuring promo spots for six other titles. Onscreen title: CHUNG KING EXPRESS.

Tony Leung Chiu-wai Faye Wong

This DVD is available from Amazon:

Images in this review courtesy of Miramax. To read captions, hover mouse over image.

Click here for more information about The Hong Kong Filmography

Copyright © John Charles 2000 - 2005. All Rights Reserved.

- U.S. Release

- NTSC Region 1 Only

- Miramax Home Entertainment #25652

- Dolby Digital 2.0

- Sync Sound Cantonese Language

- Subtitles (Optional): English

- English Closed Captioning

- 20 Chapters

- 16:9 Enhanced (1.85:1)

- 102 Minutes

- Argentina: 13

- Finland: K-12

Germany: 12

Great Britain: 12

Manitoba: 12

Ontario: AA

Portugal: M/12

Quebec: G

Singapore: PG

South Korea: 15

Spain: 13

United States: PG-13

Contains mild violence and mature themes

10 A Masterpiece
9 Excellent
8 Highly Recommended
7 Very Good
6 Recommended
5 Marginal Recommendation
4 Not Recommended
3 Poor
2 Definitely Not Recommended
1 Dreadful