Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 2/7/07 w/ Additional Edits.
Before such moody masterpieces like 2000's In the Mood for Love and 2004's 2046, Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai was just another filmmaker from Hong Kong trying to get international attention. Earlier films like As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild revealed an alternative to the fast-paced action of other Hong Kong films led by John Woo. Kar-Wai reveled more into mood and colorful visuals to convey stories of youth in the dark world of Hong Kong with elements of violence and romance. In 1994, Kar-Wai made his third feature that would give him a full-on international breakthrough including the attention of Asian film fan Quentin Tarantino for the film Chung Hing Sam Lam (Chungking Express).
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Chung Hing Sam Lam tells the story of two different romances with two policeman as one of them try to track down an assassin with a blonde wig. One of the cops falls for the mysterious woman while another is in love with a free-spirited diner cashier. A moody mediation on loneliness, Kar-Wai's crime drama reveals the atmospheric tone that would be set in later films while spinning a new take on the Hong Kong films of the time. Starring Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chui-Wai, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, and Valerie Chow. Chung Hing Sam Lam is a vibrant, colorful masterpiece from Wong-Kar Wai.
A mysterious woman (Brigitte Lin) in a blonde wig is walking through the slums of Hong Kong while a cop named Cop 223 aka Ah Wu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is chasing a criminal where for a brief second, Ah Wu and the mysterious woman nearly bumped into each other. Within 57 hours, they would meet again. The woman is a part-time assassin and a smuggler as she with a group of Indians hoping to smuggle drugs through various products and things for them to sell out of Hong Kong. The only problem is that after the woman order the plane tickets, the Indians suddenly disappeared as she runs into new problems into finding them. Ah Wu meanwhile, is feeling heartsick after breaking up with May after a long relationship that lasted for a few years. Often hanging out at a local food counter, Ah Wu often talks with the manager (Chen Jinquan) about his love life where for nearly a month, Ah Wu's breakup with May had happened.
Taking an obsessive hobby in buying cans that were to be expired from April 1st to May 1st (which is his birthday), Ah Wu revels on his heartbreak while doing his duties as a cop. While the food counter manager suggests in going with an employee of his named May (Liang Zhen), Ah Wu doesn't want to. Mulling over everything that goes wrong, he goes to a bar where he sees the mysterious blonde woman. Thinking she wants company, she wants to be alone. Eventually, she gets tired as they stay at a hotel for the night with her in bed sleeping and Ah Wu watching TV and eating food. After that night, Ah Wu continues with his business while the blonde woman settles up some unfinished business.
Back in the food counter, May has now been replaced with a new girl named Faye (Faye Wong). Faye is a free-spirited young woman with a love for the Mamas & the Papas' song California Dreamin'. Ordering a chef salad at the counter is a beat cop known as Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chui-Wai). Faye is immediately attracted to the cop but he often talks to the manager about his stewardess girlfriend (Valerie Chow). The cop has broken up with his girlfriend where he's taken an obsession in buying chef salad and later, fish & chips through the suggestion of the manager. Then one day, the stewardess goes to the food counter to give the manager a letter. Everyone in the restaurant reads the letter including Faye who finds a key in the letter. Learning that the cop has now taken a new shift and beat, she sees him again while getting food for the restaurant. After a brief conversation and moment, Faye is falling for the cop where she has the key and decides to break into his apartment.
With the cop often obsessed with things in the apartment including towels and soaps, Faye decides to make some changes believing that his ex-girlfriend is there and making these radical changes to the apartment and stuff. The cop doesn't notice at first but then becomes suspicious. Then one day when the apartment was flooded, Faye appears where he becomes more suspicious as the cop wonders about his own love life and what Faye knows.
While the film does explore the world of loneliness and romance like other Kar-Wai films, the difference between this and latter-day films like In the Mood for Love and 2046 is in its energy and style. Originally supposed to be a three-segment story with the third being Fallen Angels, Chung Hing Sam Lam is a film about loneliness and lovesickness in all of its innocence and melancholia. More importantly, the film has a unique structure in its story. The first half of the film is a part crime-drama with a study of character in Ah Wu. The second half is a far more energetic, innocent love story that has a lot of quirks. Yet, the theme of loneliness is relevant in both stories where there's a balance in its story. In Kar-Wai's direction, the film is done with a lot of style both visually and cinematically. Especially in conveying moments of action and emotion through half-speeds and having the camera observing what's going on. The direction of Kar-Wai is exquisite and vibrant in every scene and frame. It also has a sense of improvisation where it feels real to the audience. Overall, it's a wonderful film filled with a lot of heart and spirit.
Longtime cinematographer Christopher Doyle along with Andrew Lau Wai-Keung do amazing work in the film's visual presentation with its colorful photography. The shades of red, blue, green, and white are wonderful to convey the energy of the Hong Kong slums, especially in the Chungking mansions where it's filled with an array of different cultures. In the first half, the camera is mostly hand-held in some of the intense moments with a bit of grainy look to bring a sense of realism. In the second half, the look is more intimate and vibrant, including one beautiful shot involving candles. That sequence is the most breathtaking moment of the film. Longtime collaborator William Chang does excellent work in the art direction with Qiu Weiming to capture the look of the slums and counter where it looks like Hong Kong. Even the apartment of cop 663 (which is really the apartment of Christopher Doyle) is wonderfully decorated to bring the sense of energy. Chang's costume design also works with the blond wig that Brigitte Lin wears to the small t-shirts and youthful clothing that Faye Wong wears.
Chang along with editors Kit-Wai Kai and Chi-Leung Kwong bring a lot of style to the editing. The film has a great rhythm with its use of jump-cuts and half-frame speeds to convey the sense of action and emotion. The editing is superb in every way as Chang and his team do amazing work. Music composer Frankie Chan, Michael Galasso, and Roel A. Garcia create a score that's a bit suspenseful in the first half with ominous arrangements along with moments of sadness to convey the loneliness of the blonde woman and Ah Wu. The rest of the music is filled with a reggae song in the film's first half while the second half is largely dominated by the Mamas & the Papas' California Dreamin' which will never be heard the same way again. The rest of the soundtrack includes a couple of covers by Faye Wong, one is a cover of a Cocteau Twins song and the other is a cover of Dreams by the Cranberries that is wonderful.
The film’s cast features brief appearances from Liang Zhen as the second May and Valerie Chow as the cop 663's ex-girlfriend stewardess. Chen Jinquan is excellent as the food counter manager who tries to help the situations of the two cops with their girlfriends while dealing with the usual problems with his restaurant. Takeshi Kaneshiro is great as the lovesick, naive Cop 223 who tries to figure out about his own heartbreak and attempt to go into other relationships. Brigitte Lin is great as the mysterious blonde woman by sporting a blonde wig and sunglasses in which, she doesn't show her eyes and real hair. Lin is great for bringing a lot of mystique and ambiguity to a role where she’s a very bad woman and doesn't want to surround herself with anyone or anything. It's a great performance from the iconic actress. Tony Leung Chui-Wai is great as the quiet cop 663 whose obsessions towards food and objects surrounding his ex-girlfriend makes him a great foil of sorts for the Faye Wong character. Leung's understated performance is wonderful in dealing with the ideas of love and all of its hopes and disappointments.
Finally, there's Faye Wong in her feature-film debut as Faye. Wong's free-spirited energy and presence definitely lights up any scene she’s in. From the use of California Dreamin' and Dreams, there is something about Wong’s performance that is just breathtaking and a joy to watch. There's a quirky innocence and playfulness in Wong that is so natural and intoxicating, she's someone that a viewer can fall in love with. Especially in the same way someone like Natalie Portman in Garden State or Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary have which is indescribable. Wong has that intoxicating quality that makes anyone want to fall in love with her.
The Region 1 DVD from Miramax and Quentin Tarantino's defunct Rolling Thunder Pictures video label presents the film in its widescreen format ratio of 1:85:1 for 16x9 TVs with Dolby Digital Sound. The DVD includes two different trailers including the original Hong Kong trailer and U.S. trailer. The U.S. version of the film adds extra minutes and scenes with a few, slightly re-edited sequence that doesn't change much of the film. The DVD includes an introduction track from Quentin Tarantino who discusses his introduction to Kar-Wai after seeing his second feature Days of Being Wild. He enjoyed the film and saw Chung Hing Sam Lam at the Stockholm Film Festival in 1994 where Tarantino was also showing Pulp Fiction and fell in love with the film.
In the wrap-up after the film, Tarantino discusses why Kar-Wai made the film. After going through some exhausting problems in editing his martial arts epic Ashes of Time, Kar-Wai decided to do something different. For 23 days, he immediately made Chung Hing Sam Lam. Taking Kar-Wai regulars Tony Leung Chui-Wai and Brigitte Lin, Kar-Wai decided to do some the same improvisational style like one of his favorite directors, Jean-Luc Godard. Lin, who is considered the Greta Garbo of Hong Kong films, retired after doing Chung Hing Sam Lam. Tarantino briefly mentions Faye Wong, who is a popular pop singer in Asia and this was her film debut. Tarantino mentioned Fallen Angels which was supposed to be a third part of the film but Kar-Wai was already tired at the point of making the two stories that he decided to make the third story into a bigger feature-length film. After finishing it in 1994, Kar-Wai released both Chung Hing Sam Lam and Ashes of Time.
***Updated DVD Tidbits 10/11/09***
The 2008 Criterion Collection Region 1 DVD for Chungking Express presents the film in a new, restored high-definition digital transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound which are all supervised by Wong Kar Wai. Presented in its original 1:66:1 aspect ratio in the widescreen format. The DVD includes two special features exclusively for the DVD. The first of which is a feature-length audio commentary track from Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns. The British-based critic reveals a lot about Kar Wai’s background plus his early film career. Particularly at where Kar Wai was at during the making of Chungking Express following the overwhelming difficulties and troubles he was going through making Ashes of Time.
Rayns also reveals tidbits on the production where the film's two different storylines were shot by different cinematographers. The Brigitte Lin/Takeshi Kaneshiro storyline was mostly shot by Andrew Lau Wai-keung, who would later forge a filmmaking career of his own with his most notable success being a co-director for Infernal Affairs. When Wai-keung had to leave production to start work on a film of his own, Kar Wai brought in Christopher Doyle whom he worked with on Kar Wai's second film Days of Being Wild despite a contentious relationship with the two. Rayns reveals the different between Wai-keung's approach in comparison to Doyle which would lead Doyle to become one of Kar Wai's regular collaborators until 2004's 2046 in which the two had a falling out after production of that film.
Rayns talks about Kar Wai's casting choices where the film’s still photographer Piggy Chan Kam-chuen ended up playing the Midnight Express food stand manager. For Brigitte Lin, this was her final film role before going into retirement to raise a family while Rayns delves Takeshi Kaneshiro multi-lingual background as he was just starting to act at this time since he was a pop singer. Rayns also goes into detail about Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's relationship with Kar Wai that began during the troubled production of Days of Being Wild along with directing Faye Wong who didn't have any dialogue early on because she felt tense during her performances. The overall commentary is informative and insightful about Kar Wai, the film, and the Asian film scene along with some details about Kar Wai's recent work and some reasons into why Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle will never work together again.
The second big special feature is a 13-minute clip from a 1996 British TV series called Moving Pictures which features interviews from Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle. The film explores Kar Wai's film collection up to 1995's Fallen Angels as Kar Wai gives a tour of the Chungking mansion area where he based part of the film on. The apartment that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai's character stayed in is actually the apartment of Christopher Doyle which he reveals while was upset over the flooding and losing some things in nice humor. The two also talk about film aesthetics as it's an informative, fun little featurette about Kar Wai and Doyle. Another special feature that also appeared in the previous DVD version from Miramax and Quentin Tarantino's Rolling Thunders Pictures label is the trailer in a remastered form.
The DVD also includes a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Amy Taubin of Film Comment & Sight & Sounds. Entitled Electric Youth, Taubin compares the film to Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin since both films featured popular singers of the time in leading roles. Taubin also goes into a bit of Kar Wai's career at the time following the troubled production of Ashes of Time as well as what was happening in Hong Kong three years before being handed back to China from Britain. Taubin goes in depth to the film's plot and characters while revealing that the film despite Quentin Tarantino's endorsement for the film, failed in the U.S. box office upon its 1996 release in that country. The overall essay is definitely a great read for those who love the film as the Criterion DVD itself is a more definitive version than the original Rolling Thunders DVD back in 2002.
***End of DVD Tidbits***
While it doesn't have the same elliptical, moody textures of latter-day films like In the Mood for Love or 2046, Chung Hing Sam Lam is still a vibrant, intoxicating masterpiece from the brilliant Wong Kar-Wai. Fans of Kar-Wai will no doubt consider this film as one of the essentials of his films. Those new to Kar-Wai will find this as a great starting point as well as a nice introduction to Hong Kong films that aren't action films. In the end, for anyone wanting to find a nice movie about love and all of its quirks and disappointment, Chung Hing Sam Lam is the film to see.
Wong Kar-Wai Films: As Tears Go By - Days of Being Wild - Ashes of Time/Ashes of Time Redux - Fallen Angels - Happy Together - In the Mood for Love - 2046 - Eros-The Hand - My Blueberry Nights - The Grandmaster - The Auteurs #28: Wong Kar-Wai
Favorite Films #5: Chungking Express
Favorite Films #5: Chungking Express
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