Cop 223 Gets Lucky

Inside Criterion / Production Notes — Oct 14, 2008

Okay, quiz time.

What does the music video for Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” have to do with the Criterion Collection?

Give up?

Well, it was shot by none other than ace director of photography Christopher Doyle, whose work is being brought back into the collection—after our release of In the Mood for Love six years ago—with our forthcoming Chungking Express DVD.

The prospect of producing “yet another disc” of writer-director Wong Kar-wai’s effervescent 1994 pop cinema classic was a little daunting. I myself already owned two different laserdiscs (including the 1997 Criterion/Rolling Thunder edition) as well as two DVDs. To add to the pressure, Chungking was slated to be one of our first Blu-ray editions. Talk about heavy expectations, especially for a movie that’s renowned for its highly influential visual style. What else could be done or said with this new presentation?

Naturally, the primary goal was to make the transfer of the feature itself as faithful to the filmmakers’ vision as possible. Ideally, that’d be a piece of cake, considering that all of the creative talents associated with Chungking are alive and well today. But at the time that production of the disc was under way, Doyle was wrapping up his directorial effort Izolator (a.k.a. Warsaw Dark), Wong was busy reduxing his martial arts meditation Ashes of Time, and I just didn’t have any luck getting in touch with the other cinematographer, Andrew Lau. There were lots of close calls and “almost there” possibilities, but in the end nothing jelled. (Although, thankfully, I did get word from Wong’s associates that the film should definitely be presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.) I kind of felt like Chungking’s Cop 223, always being separated by an infinitesimal 0.01 cm from getting lucky.

Anyway, the Chungking production kept chugging along—our standout MTI department executed a Herculean restoration job on the picture, Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns recorded a breezy commentary that fits the movie’s spirit perfectly, and a British TV program containing excellent midnineties interviews with Wong and Doyle turned up (thank you, David Thompson!)—but basically we had to do our best with the feature master, based upon visual references recommended by Jet Tone Productions, Wong’s company.

Fast-forward—or, to mirror Wong’s cinematic language, jump-cut—to a couple of weeks ago, when we heard Doyle was in New York working on the latest Jim Jarmusch picture. (Pretty great the way all these talents in the collection just crisscross each other, isn’t it?) That’s right, the hardworking DP was actually in the Big Apple.

Now, by this point, we were already at our initial DVD-R and BD-R stages for Chungking. That means that . . . we were done. Basically, we just had to go through the discs and check them to make sure there weren’t any errors or problems.

But the prospect of getting Doyle’s stamp of approval on our transfer was too tantalizing, and important, to let slip by. So our tech director, Lee Kline, contacted Doyle and persevered until he got the cinematographer to find time in his hectic schedule to swing by and check out the results of our work. Not surprisingly, Doyle did request some changes, ones that only someone closely involved with Chungking’s overall visual presentation would’ve known. They weren’t anything too major: dialing out some green in a few shots, warming up Kai Tak airport interiors, fixing a couple of skin tones. Still, it meant we’d have to “start over” to a certain extent, inserting those fixes and reauthoring both the standard-def and Blu-ray discs.

But it was a price worth paying. Not only did we get Doyle to sign off on our presentation of the film, but we also had the chance to meet a bona fide cinema visionary, one who happens to be a total riot in person. Lee likened him to Keith Richards, and I have to say that it’s a dead-on comparison. We were treated to some pretty hilarious stories of Doyle’s transcontinental adventures (believe me, he’s had plenty of them) and a bit of insider gossip to boot.

So, even though it’s unfortunately too late to include this important bit of info in our printed packaging, let the news break here first: cinematographer Christopher Doyle approved the Chungking Express transfer. And thank you, Mr. Doyle, for helping to make what I truly believe to be the best possible DVD presentation of this much-beloved film.