"Fallen Angels" - Wong Kar Wai (1995)

Of all the Wong Kar Wai films, this is my favorite: Fallen Angels (1995).  This film is a further exploration of the unique, lush, inscrutable, yet intuitively sensuous, cinematic aesthetic of Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi). To some extent, in fact, this film represents a further step in Wong’s aesthetic progression that was in evidence in his earlier films, As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), and Chungking Express (1993). 

Again we are witness not so much to an outward, external narrative that depicts a progression of significant events, but to an internal narrative of subjective yearning for love.  Throughout Wong’s films one senses that his characters are cut off from real, meaningful engagement with others.  Much of the time we witness the non-events of missed opportunities and lost connections, as his principal characters try to come to the grips with their endless search for an authentic and satisfying connection with another person.  The lives of Wong’s people are primarily taking place in their own dreamworlds, which are sometimes radically mismatched with and disconnected from reality.  Wong, the Master of the Broken Heart, highlights this sense of frustrated isolation with several memorable scenes of sexual self-gratification.  In addition, the moody ambience of loneliness is ironically accentuated by the crowded environs and atmosphere of Hong Kong, a cramped and intensely claustrophobic urban jungle.  Wong achieves this pervasive sense of existential longing by means of his expressionistic visual and temporal stylistics that make his films less like traditional stories and more like extended riffs of beat poetry.  

Fallen Angels (Duo Luo Tian Shi) is closely connected with its predecessor, Chungking Express, since the themes in this film were originally planned to be additional parts of the multithreaded Chungking Express but were ultimately cut out from that story.  The setting here is still in the colourful Chungking Mansions locale of Hong Kong, and there are somewhat jocular allusions, or perhaps homages, to the earlier film at various points.  For example, Tekeshi Kaneshiro, plays lovelorn principal characters in both films, and his Fallen Angels character has some explicit connections with his Chungking Express character. In the earlier film he was cop #223, while in Fallen Angels he is (an escaped) prisoner #223.  Moreover, his earlier character honored his former girlfriend by eating daily doses of her favorite food, pineapple; while in this film we are told that it was his childhood consumption of a tainted dose of pineapple that made him permanently mute.

Like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels has two narrative threads that are only loosely and occasionally connected with each other.  While Chungking Express expressed its two threads serially, Fallen Angels, interleaves their presentation, as we switch back and forth between the two.  This switching back and forth perhaps creates the unfulfilled expectation that their parallel actions are more closely connected than they turn out to be, but never mind – the connection is more associated with the internal, psychic canvass than with what is going on in the external world.

The first narrative thread involves three principal characters:
  • Wong Chi-Ming (played by Leon Lai) – a cold-blooded and alienated contract killer for the Hong Kong gangster community.  He can get into an amiable conversation on a bus with an old schoolmate just after having killed a roomful of people.
  • The Agent (Michelle Reis) – a gorgeous gangster “manager” who makes specific arrangements for the killings.  She and Wong are strictly business partners, but she secretly yearns for an amorous involvement with Wong.
  • Blondie (Karen Mok) – a pretty and vivacious punky girl with died hair who falls in love with Wong.
The second narrative also features three main characters:
  • He Zhiwu (Tekeshi Kaneshiro) – a mute eccentric who has escaped from some institution (perhaps a mental institution) in which he had been confined.  He makes his living by breaking into shops after they have closed for the night and making passers-by pay him money in order not to be his customers.
  • He’s father (Chen Wanlei) – he is an assistant manager of the Chungking Mansions hotel.
  • Cherry (Charlie Young) – a beautiful girl that He Zhiwu occasionally meets on the streets and with whom he falls in love.
Although throughout the film there are various spectacular and bloody gangland shootouts, as well as laughably absurd nocturnal street encounters involving He Zhiwu, this film is really about the disappointments of the sought-after love affairs involving the main characters.  Like its counterpart, Chungking Express, the narrative presentation follows the inner monologue voiceovers of the two principal main characters, Wong and He Zhiwu (although he is mute, we still hear his voice in voiceover).  But there is a distinct difference in perspective.  While in Chungking Express we followed the internal sufferings of the two principal males who had been dumped by their girlfriends, here the ones who suffer unrequited love are primarily the women.   But we see these suffering women from the outside – basically from the man’s perspective, not from an internal perspective.  There are some inner voiceovers from two of the female characters, but they are brief and don’t seem to represent their authentic feelings.  Instead those few voiceover moments seem to be showing the girls trying to cover their feelings, both to the unseen witness and to themselves, in an effort to save face.  And the two male perspectives here are extreme opposites.  Wong is alienated from human feelings and avoids meaningful relationships.  Perhaps partly on account of this attitude, the women he meets are strongly attracted to him.  He Zhiwu, Wong’s opposite, desperately wants to make human contact, but be cannot express himself and noone wants him around.

The two stories of Fallen Angels go through four phases.
1.  Establishing the base relationships
  • 1st thread.  Wong lives in a tiny, cramped apartment next to the subway, which is cleaned every day by his “agent”, who has been his business partner for three years.  She “cases” the intended hit scenes and then faxes a drawing to Wong so that he can know how to attack and plan his escape routes.  The agent lives in the hotel managed by He Zhiwu’s father.
  • 2nd thread.  He Zhiwu, escaped prisoner #223, hides in the gangster agent’s apartment while fleeing the cops.  He spends his time at night hassling people to pay him money so that he will stop annoying them.  This segment also establishes the one meaningful relationship that He Zhiwu has, that with his father.
2.  New relationships
  • 1st thread.  Wong meets Blondie at a McDonald’s.  Like Yuddy in Days of Being Wild, Wong is self-obsessed and likes to admire himself in the mirror.  Meanwhile Wong’s agent seethes with lust for Wong back in her own apartment.
  • 2nd thread.  He Zhiwu meets and befriends Cherry, whose boyfriend has just dumped her for another “Blondie”.  He Zhiwu helps Cherry look around for her old boyfriend and in the process falls in love with her.
3.  Lost Opportunities
  • 1st thread.  Blondie anguishes over the ephemerality of her one-night stand with Wong, who says good-bye to her and then proceeds to dissolve his business relationship with his manager – an act that has disastrous consequences. 
  • 2nd thread.  He Zhiwu loses track of Cherry, but later discovers that she has become an airline stewardess (another homage to Chungking Express), has a new boyfriend, and has forgotten even what the heartbroken He looks like.
4.  Finale 
There is a final merger of the two threads, when Wong’s agent happens onto He Zhiwu during one of her gangster operations.
What makes this film so appealing?  As usual with Wong, the expressionistic cinematography of Chris Doyle plays a big part.  There is incessant use of wide-angle camera shots that bizarrely distort and enhance the sense of separation on the part of the perceiver.  This is sometimes alternated with long-lens shots, in the fashion of Antonioni, where the depth of field is so short that only the subject of interest is in focus and the background is entirely blurred.   There are relentless moving camera shots, sometimes closely tracking faces as people walk through a scene.  The occasional shifts to black-and-white color renderings accentuate a lovesick character’s bleak feelings of unfeeling dismissal by his or her beloved.  Additionally, there are odd glances, like memory fragments, that momentarily focus on a piece of clothing, a curve of a leg, a torso – all memorabilia that persist in the mind.  

It has the same nocturnal, brooding flavor as Chungking Express, only perhaps a little better.  This may be due to the magnetic performances of the three women, particularly Karen Mok, who energize the screen with emotion.  Although everyone in Hong Kong, it seems, is trying to mask his or her true feelings, the women are inevitably more emotional and compelling than the more stoical men.  It’s all a dream, and yet this is the real world in which most of us live.  It is the realm of consciousness – longing after moments and fragments that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and which in retrospect were thrilling, but which then quickly disappear and are lost forever.  Particularly memorable are the haunting shots of He Zhiwu riding on his motorcycle through a dark tunnel that seems to lead straight into the unknown darkness of the future.  Fallen Angels ends on one of those shots.
★★★★

1 comment:

Jim Higgins said...

very good review of a wonderful film - especially liked "longing after moments and fragments that suddenly appear out of nowhere, and which in retrospect were thrilling, but which then quickly disappear and are lost forever"