The disc presents a theatrically correct 1.66:1 1080p transfer that has been AVC MPEG-4 encoded. Although not listed on the packaging the restoration of this transfer has been personally supervised by cinematographer Chris Doyle and signed off with his approval; thus we can assume that anything you see in the picture is meant to be there.
First up, please don't expect to see a 'wow' picture transfer here, that's not what Criterion do, they make painstaking efforts to maintain the integrity of the filmmakers vision, so eye-popping three dimensionality and razor sharp detailing are not pre-requisites of their transfers and you certainly don't get that with Chungking Express. What you do get is a picture that is brimming with filmic quality and the best it's ever looked. Detailing is fine throughout, within the confines of the soft imaging that Wong Kar-wai and Doyle employ for the picture; the various lit neon signs, the labels of the pineapple tins, skin detail and the various clocks that switch time are all well seen and sharp, but overall the image is very soft; distance shots lack distinction, car lights, street and building lights blur somewhat with little of the definite edges you might expect, as was the norm for Asian films at that time.
Colours, however, are bold and striking; reds are vivid, greens lush and blues sweeping without bleed or wash. One particular shot shows CD's spinning in a juke box and the colouring here is exquisite; see too the candle light once the power goes out at the Express bar, the lens flares stretching across the screen are wonderful.
Brightness, unfortunately, does wonder a little, blacks tend more towards the grey than to the black and this does shorten the frame somewhat, although it's never distracting, just different to what you might expect. It also fluctuates on occasion meaning some images do pulse lighter and darker; a common problem with older prints. Contrast is set to give some gorgeous whites, though, the occasional boosting does loose some detail on window frames with bright exteriors, but this is more to do with the original print that any transfer problems; Asian films often push the whites.
The original print is amazingly clean compared to other SD DVD releases which, at times were positively repulsive with damage going to show how far Criterion have gone with their restoration and still maintained the integral grain; I did spot the odd white speck here and there, but I'm nit picking really; there were also two scenes that contain quite obvious tram lines, that are also a lot more grainy that the surrounding material leading me to believe (along with Doyle's approval) that they were intentionally 'dirtier' film stock leading to look seen; another oddity I spotted is during the freeze frame of officer 223 at the end of his story the left hand side of the frame swirls rather unnecessarily. Digitally there were no compression problems nor was there any edge enhancement. In all this is an excellent transfer preserving the original image as it was intended to be seen, however it is not a good high definition transfer in the traditional sense but I'm still awarding an 8 because it's so damn gorgeous.
Only the one soundtrack on the disc, Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround. Much as the picture has been re-mastered so has the sound, bringing a much wider feel to the stage. Remember this is no action flick and therefore there are no dynamics to contend with; but what we do have is some lovely ambience from the surrounds that really open up the feel; this is particularly apparent in the first story and the various markets that the Blond lady walks through.
Bass is pretty much non existent, even with the thunder claps or aircraft taking off, LF effects are minimal at best, but there is a decent enough range; California Dreaming sounds particular punchy when needed; plus the added expanse of the speakers give some decent reverb when it is supposed to be playing in the shop. It is also suitably loud nearly but not quite drowning out the dialogue when it's supposed to. Dialogue is clear and precise and firmly anchored to the centre. There are no real effects, don't wish to be sitting in the centre of the 'action' because that is not what the track is about. It is quiet, so getting the most out of it does require turning up the volume a tad higher but you are rewarded with some nice open sounding ambience.
The, new and improved, English subtitles are in a round easy looking font, a little on the large side, to be honest, but grammatically correct and easy reading.
- Audio commentary by Tony Rayns
Noted Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns delivers an incredibly informative commentary recorded earlier, exclusive to this latest release, in 2008. He talks at length about all aspects of the film, his knowledge, as well as personal information knowing the makers, means he is the perfect choice to discuss the themes, the relationships, Hong Kong in general and the way this film works in particular. His delivery is quite dry but the information comes thick and fast, almost too fast at times so if you want to know anything about the production, of the relationships between the makers, then this is a one stop bucket load of information.
- U.S. theatrical trailer
As it says, uses sensationalised published titles such as “Stunning” from various critics magazines but I felt the trailer somewhat misrepresented the actual film.
- Moving Pictures excerpt
Short excerpt from the BBC Television series Moving Pictures in which Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle discuss their working relationship (at the time) and visit some of the locations used in the film. It's quite frantic and not really informative but interesting none the less. In HD but originally camcorder recorded and therefore suffers from the usual picture problems associated.
- A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Amy Taubin
A highly thought provoking essay, entitled Electric Youth, that accompanies the commentary well and discusses, with a wide vocabulary, the themes and ideas presented in the film; a recommended read.
Whilst it may not look like much what extra content there is, is very worth while investigating, Rayns' commentary is chock full of information and will probably take two (or three!) listens too to gain all that you can from it and is a recommended listen to fans of the film.
Chungking Express is not a masterpiece, but it gets as close as one can get. It gained numerous awards ranging from best acting to best film and this is a testament to its quality. As I've already stated it is quite unlike any other Asian film I've seen and as such it deserves to be watched. It does demand some concentration from the viewer and that is no bad thing. The stylistic camera work fast becomes part of the story giving it an unconventional stance. It does have a unique charm, it is touching in places, funny in others and all held together with visuals and score that make watching it a pleasure. Perhaps not to all tastes, but those that make the effort will be well rewarded.
As a Blu-ray package Criterion's re-mastered picture and sound may not give that HD wow factor that many might be expecting but it is clearly the best looking and best sounding the film has ever been. The extras package may seem a little light but is very concise and informative. Roll on the rest of the catalogue!
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