Wong Kar Wai’s international breakthrough came with this 1994 masterpiece, a two-sided look at life in Hong Kong in the ‘90s that would become one of the defining works of its era. Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung play Hong Kong cops looking for love and connection in one of the world’s most crowded cities. The vibrant streets of Hong Kong are a character in this film that Roger Ebert felt recalled a time when the French New Wave was a bigger part of the American moviegoing experience. It’s interesting that Roger never gave a Wong film over three stars, and his review of this one is particularly fascinating in that it almost seems to criticize the movie for not appealing to average American audiences. He writes, “This is the kind of movie you’ll relate to if you love film itself, rather than its surface aspects such as story and stars. It’s not a movie for casual audiences, and it may not reveal all its secrets the first time through.” He goes on to say, “Many of today’s younger filmgoers, fed only by the narrow selections at video stores, are not as curious or knowledgeable and may simply be puzzled by ‘Chungking Express’ instead of challenged.” While he was right that Wong would never be for casual audiences, he underestimated the way his reputation would grow and develop from this movie, finding film lovers who want to be challenged and even respect being puzzled. Like his other flat-out masterpiece, “In the Mood for Love,” this film gets richer with each viewing. It had already been released on a Criterion Blu-ray but it’s now available in this set with the new 4K digital restoration approved by WKW with a new 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
When WKW conceived “Chungking Express,” it was originally a triptych, but the third story grew so much that he essentially spun it off into its own film. He says on one of the special features here that he believes “Chungking” and “Fallen Angels” should be watched as a double feature to fully appreciate the experience as he intended it. Again, Wong experiments with overlapping narratives, but this film is largely remembered for its visual style, a frantic, wide-lensed experience that drew comparisons to music video culture of the ‘90s. It’s a darker flip side to “Chungking,” chronicling a hitman (Leon Lai) and the woman (Michelle Reis) who cleans his apartment, even though they rarely connect. Night lives and day lives that don’t intersect, connections that aren’t physical, brutality countered with dreamy romance—this couldn’t be mistaken for a film by anyone but Wong, which actually led to some criticism that he was already becoming self-indulgent. It’s worth noting that this is the film in this set that feels like it’s been changed the most drastically in the restoration process because Wong has altered the format to CinemaScope, which he originally intended. It gives the film an even wider, broader feeling, and makes its characters feel even smaller amidst the chaos and lights of Hong Kong at night. This disc includes one of the best special features in the set, an “interview” in which Wong answers ten questions from filmmakers around the world, including Sofia Coppola and Rian Johnson. (Note while we’re on aspect ratios: “Chungking Express” and “In the Mood for Love” were released theatrically in 1.66:1 and converted to 1.85:1 on video, but have been returned to their original ratio here.)
If “Fallen Angels” felt a little too detached for some viewers, Wong Kar Wai bounced back in 1997 with one of his most emotionally resonant films, a romance starring Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung as a couple traveling through Argentina. Wong has long been fascinated by the Hong Kong handover to China in 1997 (it surfaces in other works too), and so he uses the emotion of that giant event about change on a broad scale to examine change on a more intimate one, looking at how the country’s LGBTQ community faced an unknown future. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography here is some of the best of his career, and the lead performances from Leung and Cheung stand among some of the best in the entire Wong oeuvre. There’s a deep humanity in “Happy Together” that reflects the more romantic side of Wong’s work, pulsing with passion and emotion. During a fire in 2019, some of the original negative of “Happy Together” was destroyed, which means that this version is actually shorter than the theatrical, and some of Tony Leung’s monologues have been trimmed.