I think with Wong Kar-Wai this cutting would be easier to dismiss as "original intention" if we hadn't seen the Ashes of Time Redux first. That was a case in which Wong claimed there was damage to the original film negative, and that served as his justification for a total overhaul of that film. WKW even addresses the fact that people complained to him directly about the Redux cut in his restoration notes for the new movies––he dismisses all those criticisms right off the bat, essentially claiming it all boiled down to people having watched bootleg versions of the film, and that their memories for those bootlegs informing their judgement of his later Redux. But the Redux was really a complete reworking of the original film, made in the pseudo-classy tone of In the Mood for Love––an approach that WKW hadn't developed yet in 1994. Changes like the re-orchestrating of the score altered the mood of the film completely (with Yo-Yo Ma's anodyne cello substituting for Frankie Chan's screaming electric guitar). Thirteen years on, the original Ashes of Time has not been restored; if you want to stream Ashes of Time, or buy a blu ray, you'll get the Redux version. So Wong has effectively erased the original cut of the film. No new viewer is going to pick up an old, washed-out, non-anamorphic DVD of the movie to see the theatrical cut. And in this earlier case, Wong similarly thumbed his nose at restoration practice and decided not to go with the next generation of available elements, but instead to rework his movie to fit his new tastes. I think in that case a side-by-side comparison really makes it clear how much this reworking was a deliberate aesthetic reconception of the film, presented disingenuously to the public as "better," "preferred by the director," and even in some cases, "original intent." To be fair, Wong has become a little more subtle in presenting his desire to remake his films and have everyone embrace only the remake. In his director notes on the set, he admits that these are redone to suit his contemporary liking. But it's interesting he still falls back on various justifications for the individual changes as "I originally wanted it this way," and "the negative was damaged." He doesn't mention archival restoration practice, and I wonder if he knows much about it. I think he is rather committed to another approach, where he is the painter stepping into the gallery and touching up his already hung painting to fit his current mood.
Of course, it will make no difference for first-time viewers, since this new version is all they'll have seen. I think Criterion––and Wong himself––are counting on this set being a sort of introduction to––and definitive statement on––Wong's work for many casual cinephiles who have heard about Wong's films in the past, but who have not sought them out before. Having 2046 and The Hand in there helps to lure in longer-term WKW fans. For those of us who have become alienated from Wong's films by WKW's own penchant to change them after–the–fact, I think Wong and Criterion rightly assume this miniscule fan-base can be railroaded into submission––and certainly that will be the case. The game plan is following largely the same path as Wong's plan for Ashes of Time; supplant the old version with the new. It is ironic that a filmmaker so fascinated with characters trying to recapture a lost moment is so adamant that we wholeheartedly accept a new version of these films as the only version there ever should have been, even though it runs contrary to the moments we experienced in the past. For some of us, that "lost moment" spans the whole of the Hong Kong new wave, and includes isolated screenings beyond that time––where we saw the film in various ways, and yet still came away with a general sense of how the film was presented that runs contrary to what Wong is insisting here. There is a weird kind of contempt for the audience's memories of Wong's films present in his handling of these "restorations," and in his statement on the changes he has made. For those of us who dislike the new changes, our situation is eerily similar to the scene in Chungking Express where Takeshi Kaneshiro tries to get the expired cans of pineapple the store has already removed from the shelves. I suppose we look just as foolish to most people. But the changes Wong has made on this set do alter the qualities of the films––in some cases irrevocably, since we'll be hard-pressed to maintain what pre-existing copies of Fallen Angels are out there, and every new edition will be this dastardly reformatting of the film. And I think what this makes clear for some of us is how resigned Wong actually is in the viewpoint he presents in his films. The past cannot be recaptured, only recreated. In a way, I suppose Wong is being very true to that belief. But it seems a strange philosophy to ascribe to the act of preserving film. If anything, Wong's actions now underline how much that belief that the past can't be recaptured is a pose he is already sure of when he embarks upon these films. It makes the movies themselves seem a little more rigged for melancholy than they ever seemed before.
The most destructive new editing and formatting is reserved for Fallen Angels, of course, but I think the changes to Chungking Express also affect the way the narrative, the mood, the themes play out, as well. The bullet sounds behind the title imply a bullet-ridden crime caper, and the new color-correction deepens and darkens shadows, making for a Fincher-looking neo-noir appearance for the film which was not quite there in the past. The intention is to push Chungking Express into neo-noir territory––whereas the 90s presentation of the film had it riding the line a lot more, offering hints of neo-noir, but with the very 90s-era sense of out-dated genres changing and blending and fading into the background, and the idea that an off-duty cop meeting an ex-girlfriend at a convenience store and getting a vague sense of closure being more important than guns and handcuffs and money schemes. The softer light leaking and blurring in many shots is gone, because of the significant contrast bump. In a lot of movies this wouldn't matter so much, but there was a very dreamy 90s bleariness to the movie, which was aided by the airy look to the cinematography (particularly in the section shot by Doyle), and I feel it very lessened by this new look. Maybe this is simply my patently incorrect memory of the film, but this was something that was present on version after version of the film I saw, from the Rolling Thunder VHS to the Ocean Shores VCD and DVD, to the Mei Ah DVD, to the Rolling Thunder DVD, to the 35mm screenings I've seen of the film, to the original Criterion Blu-ray. Similarly, in the 10 times I saw In the Mood for Love in cinemas in its initial run, in retrospectives, in the French DVD of the film, the Criterion DVD of the film, the previous Criterion blu ray––in none of those sources did the film look tinted green. I suppose all these different version could come from the same incorrect source, as per Memories of Murder, but these constituted versions of the film we all saw and embraced––these are the versions that made Wong an international film figure. In the case of Fallen Angels, I don't see any justification for not including the original theatrical presentation, because the alterations there are enormous. The other changes are certainly of a less total impact, but when I consider them next to the fatally damaging Ashes of Time Redux (that movie was good in its original version, and nothing special in its later reworking––and the regard people have for the film has, I think, lessened as the film has become more accessible in only the Redux form), it looks like a pattern of fiddling and rejiggering that I think is of a piece with Tony Rayns' assessment that Wong has always been trying to recapture the artistic success of Chungking Express––but that he goes about it with a kind of insecurity that means he shoots and shoots and edits and re-edits, trying to re-engineer a success that was once spontaneous in its nature, constantly frustrated by the lesser results, and driven to tool and retool the films until they reach his current measure of success––regardless of the experience of audiences. I think after In the Mood for Love became successful worldwide that film became the new benchmark, resulting in fewer and fewer new films or an increasingly perfectionist nature. I think the effort to remake his previous films is a part of that impulse as well. And it's frustrating that he can't let it be, because Wong seems to demand that we can't have our experience of the film preserved. Compromises may have been made in the making of his films; producers wanted more action in Ashes of Time, perhaps, giving us in the process a framing device that flatters much-increased meaning and clarity on the rest of the picture; the decision to scrap the extreme stretching of the image in Fallen Angels was made perhaps because they decided it would make the theatrical audience sick to watch that way––and the end result was a movie that was actually watchable. These are the kinds of compromises every filmmaker makes, and though I feel it goes a little against the grain of orthodox auteurship to say, these compromises and concessions more often improve the watchability of the films than detract from it. It strikes me that watching the new version of Fallen Angels is an extreme, absurd exercise of devotion to auteur theory, proving you approve only of what the director says they deeply wanted, even if it hurts your eyes to see it (like staring for minutes on end at fish-eye security cam footage, or maybe like trying to find joy in the colorized version of It's a Wonderful Life). If Wong would merely deign to let Criterion include original versions of the films alongside the new restorations, I wouldn't have anything much to say about it; I wouldn't even be upset. But Wong's attitude is as unwavering as mine; he wants these new versions to be the only versions people see or think about. As to the idea that burned-in subtitle tracks constitute a version of the film different than intended, I would say that those exist in a different plane in most cases than the generalized experience of the film. We don't process subtitles as part of the picture, and I think we tend to edit them out of our memory when recounting the film, or reliving the experience. We subconsciously know that authorial intent isn't directly behind these subtitles––they were required by law on all these films; though, of course, Tsui Hark used to brag about how fast he got them made and how little he spent on them, so there is some authorial element to them, I suppose. Either way, I don't think they affect our way of experiencing the film in the same way that stretching the film out of ratio does, or changing the cut of the movie, or even changing the colors in the picture. And to my eyes, these new versions of the movies are different enough to make the whole experience of this new box set slightly bogus. It's very hard to accept Wong's explanations; they seem as disingenuous as his explanation for Ashes of Time Redux. And it looks likely that the effect the Redux had is set to happen again here; that these new versions of the films will simply supplant the older versions––that they'll eventually be the only versions available. 60 years from now, if I live to be 100 or so, these or some newer restoration will be the version of the films everyone sees, and the context of seeing these films in the 90s will be entirely moot, I suppose. But I don't know. I feel less certain about that. Because I think it is possible to watch films from 60 years ago, say, and still understand something of the mood, the feeling, the ideas of an era. The bunker hill sequences in Joseph Losey's "M" are still fascinating in their presentation, partly because they are not being presented in any nostalgic sense; they are the city as the filmmakers are experiencing it. And I think there's a value to that experience of the time that is being erased in a subtle way by Wong's tinkering––very much the way George Lucas' tinkering with Star Wars brings in new visual inspirations, that didn't exist when he made the original films. I think the Star Wars prequels and restorations were highly influenced by James Gurney's book, Dinotopia, in a way that the original films were not––and that influence is all over the additions to the films. What that has done is limit the way it's possible to experience the films as an unadulterated document of their time period. And that's a loss I feel the WKW movies are sustaining here, as well.