Bombs Over Burma DVD Review: Chungking Express

Anna May Wong stars as an elementary school teacher in China who moonlights as a World War II spy. The movie opens in Chungking (now known as Chongqing), deep in the heart of China, as the citizens attempt to get on with their lives under constant threat of Japanese bombardment. After a gruesome skirmish, Wong ends up in Burma, where she’s tasked with escorting the Allied supply line between Rangoon and Chungking. This brings her into contact with a motley assortment of international characters riding with the convoy, until they break down near a monastery and learn that there’s a traitor in their midst.

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The casting gets off to a promising start with Anna’s character teaching a classroom full of actual Asian school-aged actors, with nary a white actor in sight until over 10 minutes into the film. It’s refreshing to see all Asian actors portraying Asian characters in a 1942 film, at least until white actor Noel Madison plays a key monk character in full Fu Manchu trappings when the action moves to Burma. That’s also where the film shifts from a failed attempt at an impassioned anti-war message to a bland and clueless whodunit that makes very little sense.

As directed by Joseph H. Lewis, the film is a B-movie with a capital B. It was reportedly filmed on a shoestring budget in two weeks, with noticeably Southern California locations not even attempting to pass for China/Burma and wartime action footage inserts seemingly cobbled together from whatever stray newsreels he found lying around the studio. He elicits totally wooden performances from the entire cast, with lines delivered with all the emotion of an initial table read. The climactic scene drags on for so long with so many closeups of extras that it seems like he was trying to prolong to hit a minimum run time rather than deliver a punchy payoff. Rather quickly, it’s impossible to take the film seriously, so the most enjoyment is found in savoring Wong’s star turn while howling at Lewis’ directorial choices.

The film has been restored in HD, making for a much improved viewing experience compared to dodgy unrestored copies available on various streaming sites. There’s no helping the shoddy original editing or varying quality of the tons of stock war footage inserted throughout the film, but the overall visuals are clearly an upgrade. The mono sound is a bit scratchy, but dialogue is light and nonsensical so clarity isn’t all that important. No bonus features are included.

This misfire is solely for Anna May Wong completionists and B-movie aficionados. At only 65 minutes long, it’s a scattered but breezy romp through a bizarre tale that Lewis never could have anticipated resurfacing over 80 years after its theatrical debut.

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Steve Geise

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