Chungking Express (重慶森林, Wong Kar Wai, 1994)

4K

Despite scoring an early success with his debut film As Tears Go By, an atmospheric gangster picture starring some of the most popular actors of the day, Wong Kar Wai’s second feature Days of Being Wild, a melancholy arthouse drama of loneliness and longing set in the heady 1960s, proved disappointing at the box office and divisive with domestic critics. Unable to secure funding for a planned sequel, Wong founded production company Jet Tone Films and agreed to a studio offer to direct a wuxia adventure which was at that time an extremely popular genre. The shoot on Ashes of Time was however notoriously difficult (Wong eventually extensively revised the film for its 2008 “Redux” re-issue), and during a short break from its various demands he shot Chungking Express (重慶森林), an extremely vibrant, zeitgeisty journey through pre-Handover Hong Kong in which a lovelorn policeman is preoccupied with expiration dates while another reflects on new possibilities when his stewardess girlfriend rediscovers her right to make her own choice. 

Lovelorn policeman He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), badge number 223, has just been dumped by his girlfriend of five years but as she chose April 1 to break the news, he assumed it was a joke. To go along with it, he’s been buying tins of pineapple which expire on May 1, firstly because his girlfriend May loves pineapple and secondly because May 1 happens to be his birthday. If she hasn’t got back with him by then, he’ll accept that their love has “expired”. A rather melancholy young man, Qiwu gets his emotional release through jogging in the rain, avowing that while running your body sheds water so you don’t cry as much and in the rain no one can see you anyway. The password for his answering service is “love you for 10,000 years”, but his attempts to hook up with old flames from his little black book are a series of embarrassing misfires, the first having turned in early, another already married with two children, and the last not even remembering him. Nevertheless, despite his melancholy he lives in a constant state of possibility as his opening monologue reminds us in his defence of the city as a place in which one may brush past a hundred people a day some of whom may later become friends or lovers. 

Nevertheless, the Hong Kong he inhabits is one of infinite nostalgia. He tells us that his girlfriend is often likened to ‘70s Japanese pop star Momoe Yamaguchi, only to lament that he was never quite her Tomokazu Miura, Yamaguchi’s frequent co-star whom she later married and thereafter left showbiz to become the ideal housewife and mother. The woman that he falls for, a mysterious drug trafficker (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia) hot on the trail of a group of Indian tailors she’d hired as mules who absconded at the airport, wears a trench coat, blonde wig, and sunglasses seemingly modelled on Gena Rowlands in Gloria. She too however is caught in a moment of crisis, admitting that the sunglasses and raincoat are in a sense an attempt to hedge her bets while the expiry date on an abandoned can reminds her that time is running out. The conclusion Qiwu comes to is that to May he is no different to a can of pineapple, past his best and fit to be abandoned, while the mysterious woman eventually implodes her assumed identity by taking her revenge and thereafter shedding her trademark wig to recede back into the crowd pausing only to send Qiwu a happy birthday message via his pager in another act of distanced communication.  

The irony of Qiwu’s seeming obliviousness to his proximity to crime is never touched upon despite his apparently deep, essential connection with this slightly older mysterious woman whom he manages to woo despite his awkward opening gambit of asking if she likes pineapple in four different languages. Nor does he seem to be familiar with fellow officer badge 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) who frequents the same late night food stand as he does, while neither of them apparently know the mysterious “Richard” who seems to have beaten them both to win the heart of previous assistant also coincidentally named May who has now been replaced by proprietor’s cousin, Faye (Faye Wong). Obsessively listening to California Dreamin’ at high volume because it stops her thinking too much, Faye falls for 663 who is apparently unceremoniously dumped by his air hostess girlfriend (Valerie Chow Kar-Ling) after being persuaded to alter his regular order of Chef’s Salad for Fish and Chips introduces a new element of choice into their relationship. 

In a kind of meta, expressionistic irony, 663 becomes obsessed with his sadness gently consoling the inanimate objects of his apartment in his girlfriend’s absence, lamenting that his soap bar has grown thin while his dish cloth weeps until finally the whole place floods. This last incident is partly down to the ministrations of Faye who has been, in the nicest possible way, semi-stalking him, using the keys which were returned to the food stand along with a letter 663 refuses to read to break into his flat and literally breathe life back into it by tidying up and replacing the fish in his fish tank. 663 appears not to notice as her distanced care seemingly nurses him back to health even as they begin in a sense to swap roles, he shedding the policeman’s uniform his ex mistakenly thought suited him better for the flannel shirts left by Faye which reflect perhaps his authentic self as observed by the woman who truly loves him. 

Even so she remains restless and bound for (temporary) exile while 663 once again refuses to open correspondence which may prove hurtful or unpleasant, getting a second chance at a fated love only thanks to the magical coincidences of the forever buzzing streets of Hong Kong. At once frenetic and anxious, Christopher Doyle’s swooping, mobile photography with frequent alteration in frame rate and transitions to slow motion capturing a sense of nervous energy, Wong’s take on the pre-Handover society is more positive than most as his neurotic, lovelorn protagonists breeze through their melancholia ultimately discovering a sense of forward motion in hope for the future born of chance connection in an ever moving city. 


Transfer: The 4K restoration is presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio and in keeping with new the house style, has shifted slightly towards the green in terms of colour grading which is overall darker and richer than the previous Criterion release.


Chungking Express is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠, Tsui Hark, 1983)

“I never imagined that the righteous would not only refuse to unite, but also be incapable of action” laments a reluctant soldier realising there are no heroes coming to the rescue in Tsui Hark’s SFX-laden fantasy wuxia, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠). Inspired by the work of Huanzhulouzhu (Li Shoumin), Tsui’s feudal fable marked a departure from the more “realistic” swordplay movies which were popular at the time harking back to an earlier era of fantastic adventures which drew inspiration from traditional Chinese folklore. It was also, however, an attempt to prove that Hong Kong could rival Hollywood in the post-Star Wars world, blending what might now be viewed as fairly camp but then cutting-edge special effects with classic wuxia action. 

Accordingly, after a brief voice over, Tsui opens with a world in chaos in which several factions are currently vying for hegemony over the hotly contested, mystical and mountainous terrain of Shu. Lowly retainer Ti Ming-Chi (Yuen Biao) has been tasked with delivering a message regarding troop movements to his superiors, but there is a difference of opinion in the chain of command as to whether to attack by land or sea. Placed in an impossible position, Ming-Chi eventually sees himself pledge to obey both captains, only for infighting to emerge within the group forcing him to flee for his life which is how he encounters “Fatty” (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a soldier from a rival faction and discovers, quite ironically, that they are from neighbouring villages which makes their rivalry all the more ridiculous. In the course of his attempt to escape, Ming-Chi falls into a mountain crevasse and finds himself entering a mysterious cave which takes him to another world in which he becomes similarly embroiled in a war against the evil Demon Cult which apparently practices child sacrifice and then uses the bones as a kind of magical armour. 

A reluctant soldier, Ming-Chi finds himself captivated by the “Great Hero” Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and determines to become his disciple while the pair form an uneasy alliance with a pair of similarly matched Buddhist monks, master Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) and his assistant I-Chen (Mang Hoi), also hot on the trail of the Demon Cult. Finding this world also confusing, he is nevertheless reassured by I-Chen’s simple explanation “they’re bad, we’re good” as the two masters face off against the Demon Lord, but comes to discover it’s not quite all as black and white as it seems and this world too is torn apart by chaos and disorder because “the hearts of men are so corrupt.” Ming-Chi begs Ting Yin to use his “peerless martial arts skills” to “save mankind”, but Ting Yin cynically tells him his best course of action is to retreat into the mountains and avoid human society because “neither you nor I have the ability to bring about change”. 

Yet Ming-Chi remains pure of heart, certain that “as long as everyone puts in the effort, peace can be restored under heaven”. “Teach me martial arts and once I’ve mastered it, I can fight oppression, help the weak, and save the masses” he pleads, but Ting Yin once again refuses him. In fact, in one of the later SFX sequences, Ting Yin will “transfer” his martial arts knowledge near instantly via a laying on of hands assisted by some elaborate prosthetics which see Ming-Chi’s body warp and bubble to accept it. Nevertheless, the lesson that Ming-Chi begins to learn, bonding with fellow assistant I-Chen who ignored his master’s petty parting words to bid him goodbye to hope they meet again along the way, is that the masters care only for themselves and are no better than the warring nobles from his own lands, obsessed with their rival sects and ideologies. If they want to save the world they’ll have to save themselves through mutual solidarity in pursuit of their goal, tracking down a pair of mystical swords which are the only way to end the demonic threat for good. 

There might of course be an added dimension to this allegory in the Hong Kong of 1983 which is perhaps also beginning to feel like disputed territory coveted by duplicitous elites who fight amongst themselves while ordinary people suffer, but Tsui is in any case more interested in zany action and excuses to employ zeitgeisty special effects making full use of the technology of the day from lasers to animation along with in-camera stunts to recreate his epic fantasy world in which old men can keep evil at bay for as long as 49 days using nothing but their powerfully hairy eyebrows and a fancy mirror. With small roles for Brigitte Lin and Moon Lee as an ice queen with a warm heart presiding over an all female palace and her spiky guard respectively, Tsui’s bonkers fairytale moves on at a glorious, confusing pace but is nevertheless filled with warmth and humanity as the goodhearted heroes attempt to head off the folly of war with human solidarity. 


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Eureka release trailer (english subtitles)