The whiplash, double-pronged Chungking Express is one of the defining works of nineties cinema and the film that made Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai an instant icon. Two heartsick Hong Kong cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung), both jilted by ex-lovers, cross paths at the Midnight Express take-out restaurant stand, where the ethereal pixie waitress Faye (Faye Wong) works. Anything goes in Wong’s gloriously shot and utterly unexpected charmer, which cemented the sex appeal of its gorgeous stars and forever turned canned pineapple and the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” into tokens of romantic longing.
Criterion’s Blu-ray version of Chungking Express presents the film in the director’s preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc. The image is presented in 1080p and has been enhanced for widescreen televisions.
I think what shocked me was at first glance there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between the hi-def Blu-ray and the standard-def DVD. They’re transfers are at heart the same thing, though it was obviously downscaled for the DVD release. This isn’t a knock against the Blu-ray, though, but rather real praise for Criterion’s DVD transfers, which upscaled do look better than most DVD transfers.
The Blu-ray on further inspection is still an improvement over the DVD, though the improvements are not going to be as obvious as other Blu-ray titles compared with their DVD counterparts (unless your TV is in the 50” range.) I can’t really detect a true difference in colours between the two, as both present rather vibrant, bright colours, and both contain nice deep blacks. Where the Blu-ray wins out most obviously is in sharpness and detail. There is most certainly far more detail in the Blu-ray’s presentation, and film grain is more prominent, Criterion trying to keep the natural look of the film as best they can (which I and others definitely appreciate.) It’s also a much smoother, natural looking presentation, lacking any artifacts.
Comparing the two is unfair since Blu-ray has far more in the way of technological advantages than DVD. The DVD transfer is incredibly strong, and comparing it to the Blu-ray really only shows how strong it is. But, in the end, the Blu-ray presents the strongest picture for the film.
(Screen captures below have been provided by DVD Beaver. Grabs have been downscaled somewhat but should provide an idea of the image quality.)
The DVD edition presented the film with a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that was quite active and worked very well for the film. Criterion’s Blu-ray edition comes with a DTS-HD 5.1 surround track, and I was sort of shocked how much better it actually does sound. The opening sequence is perfect for comparison. Both make great use of the surround speakers but the DTS-HD track presents a much sharper, clearer sound track. I’ll admit I have trouble finding real differences between some audio tracks, but the differences here are more obvious: It’s certainly far crisper and the details are more apparent. The range to the music is great, volume overall is stronger, and movement between the fronts and backs, when it occurs, is natural and noticeable. I was more than thrilled with this track, really going above and beyond what the film really requires.
This was a fairly big release for Criterion, one that had been on fan’s wish lists for years, and not only would Criterion release it on DVD but it would also be one of their first Blu-ray titles. All of that makes the small selection of supplements (all of two of them, not counting the trailer and booklet) a bit bizarre. There’s more that could have been placed on here, like deleted scenes that can be found on YouTube, which makes the release a little more frustrating.
Other than one feature which is exclusive to all of Criterion’s Blu-ray releases the supplements are the same across both the DVD and Blu-ray version. I have simply copied the supplement section of my DVD review for this review.
There is an audio commentary by Tony Rayns, recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2008. I enjoy Rayns’ tracks overall (I especially liked his track for Vampyr) but I found this one to be just an average track. Rayns thankfully keeps everything going and while I assume he has notes it doesn’t really sound like he’s reading from them, though at times it sounds like he’s trying to keep up with his own train of thought. He gives a decent analysis of the film and offers some interesting facts about the production, like how the original story was to have the four characters crossing paths constantly throughout (shooting schedules didn’t allow that,) and also gets into the careers of the actors, even the minor ones. He also enjoys pointing out locations and some of the unique features of Hong Kong (such as the escalator that plays a fairly big role in the film.) It’s informative and I’m glad I listened to it, but I can’t say it really added that much more to my appreciation of the film and in all I was a little let down by it.
Unfortunately the only other big feature comes from a 1996 episode of Moving Pictures, presenting an interview with Wong Kar-wai and director of photography, Christopher Doyle. The two tour the locations used in Chungking Express and talk about their work, including what would have been their newest film at the time, Fallen Angels, talking a lot about their style. It’s interesting but runs only a 12-minutes and offers very little in the end.
The disc then closes with the U.S. Theatrical Trailer, which, as one might expect from a Miramax ad campaign, doesn’t really do a good job of capturing the film.
The one unique feature on this Blu-ray when compared to the DVD is Criterion’s Timeline. You can open it from the pop-up menu, or by pressing the RED button on your remote. This is a timeline that shows your current position in the film and you can jump through it using the arrows on your remote. It lists the index chapters for the film and the commentary track, and you can also switch to the commentary track from here. You also have the ability to “bookmark” scenes by pressing the GREEN button and return to them by selecting them on the timeline. You can also delete bookmarks by pressing the BLUE button. This is pretty common on Blu-ray (also common on HD DVD) so it’s nothing new, but a nice presentation still.
A booklet included with the release contains the same essay by Amy Taubin found with the DVD release, who gives an analysis and synopsis of the film and how it represents Hong Kong at the time. It’s a good read and may actually be the best part of the release.
I’m glad they went the route of a scholarly track, but I was still a little let down with it. Again, considering the surprising popularity of the film I’m shocked this wasn’t a more lavish special edition.
The supplements are the same disappointing across both the DVD and Blu-ray release. Their presentations also both come from the same hi-def transfer so they look similar in many respects. Colours look quite good on both releases and both are quite sharp when the source allows it. The Blu-ray of course wins out in the end for visuals since it contains more detail than the DVD version ever could (and shows the film’s natural grain all the better,) and there are no artifacts to speak of. So in the end, if you have the capabilities, the Blu-ray is the one to go with (especially since the price for both releases is the same.) For those still not on the hi-def wagon, the DVD is still perfectly acceptable.