Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is his most Wong Kar-Wai-ish film yet, for better or worse
“That night, I saw that woman again. I knew we’d never be friends or confidants… we’d let too many chances pass us by.”
Visionary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is certainly an interesting man. The way he describes his filmmaking process is almost like listening to a student director trying to understand how to make a good first feature. He often begins shooting without a finished script, relying on improvisation and the actors’ grasp on their characters to get the story across. As filming continues, he’s been quoted as “drawing inspiration from the music, the setting, working conditions and actors”, relying heavily on what it looks and feels like than whether or not it’s comprehensive; this why it’s sometimes a bit tricky to get invested in his films, especially ones like Fallen Angels.
So Fallen Angels features two stories running independently from another. The first is about Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai), a hitman who lives in a tiny apartment next to the train tracks. Michelle Reis plays the woman (unnamed) who cleans his apartment and acts as a business partner to him, providing him with blueprints of buildings he needs to hit. She is in love with him and collects his trash and laundry to fantasise about him with, but he is indifferent. One night, Chi-Ming is at a McDonald’s when he meets Blondie (Karen Mok), a prostitute who believes him to be an ex-boyfriend of hers.
The second story centres on Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a crook who lives with his father (Man-Lei Chan) in the Chunking Mansions. He is mute, and unable to find work, so he runs his own business by breaking into shops and restaurants after closing and forcibly dragging ‘customers’ in (as dark as this sounds, these scenes are arguably the movie’s funniest). Every night, he bumps into a girl, Charlie (Charlie Yeung), who is still hung up on an ex, who she claims ran away with a girl named Blondie. Together, they search Hong Kong for her, and Ho slowly starts to fall for her.
It’s a bit tough to write about the plots for these, largely thanks to Wong’s non-traditional style. Due to this, it takes a bit of time before the seemingly random pieces of footage you’re shown begin to piece together into a narrative, and even then it’s not really all there. The stories don’t feel particularly engaging, not compared to something like Chungking Express, which Wong had released the year before. This is no fault of the actors’ though, who imbue their characters with tonnes of personality. With the exception of Kaneshiro, no one is particularly fleshed out within the story, so it’s up to the cast to invent their own backstories, and credit to them: they all seem like real people with real pasts.
It’s good that the cast make their characters so interesting because there’s not a lot new there: there’s a bubbly, crazy girl and a stoic but deep hitman. Ho Chi Moo is really the most interesting character, and ultimately is given the most touching story because of it. His quirks are incidental (his being mute was caused by eating expired pineapples), but the personality that comes from them is fresh and interesting. I love his idea of breaking into shops in order to moonlight as a shopkeeper. He has frequent interactions with the public and essentially kidnaps them until they agree to buy some of his produce. In one scene, an entire family is stuck in the back of an icecream van, miserably eating vats of ice cream as Ho cheerfully drives. And if Ho is the most fascinating, then Chi-Ming, the lead from the other short, is the least. He mumbles and stares blankly throughout, and it’s clear that he is watchable thanks to Leon Lai’s natural charisma. I get that his backstory is purposefully murky – he is a hitman after all – but it does not make for great character studies. And then we have the female cast, who all do wonderful things with their archetypes. None of them are particularly sane, but the script and the portrayals give each one a variation on a theme which makes them definitely entertaining. Wong giving the actors free rein to explore their roles is one of the strongest aspects of his movies.
But story has always taken the back seat in these 90s Wong Kar-wai films, and he knows it. The other star of the picture is the visuals presented therein and as you might guess, they’re just as good here as in any other of his films. There are fish-eyed close-ups and Dutch angles aplenty, which aid to give the film a strange, almost dreamlike quality. The still, right-angled shots are more present in still scenes and moments of clarity. Using his camera, Wong brings us into the minds of his protagonists and while we may have trouble understanding what’s going on, what they’re thinking is certainly no mystery.
His use of colour is also quite powerful here, with the neon blues, reds, pinks and greens playing as large a role as any of the actors. A cool teal seems to be the predominant hue, emphasising the characters’ isolation. The locations and lighting used show us a grimy, seedy underbelly of Hong Kong that almost looks like it would be interesting to live there. Almost. It’s a perfect reflection of the characters and the inner turmoils they’re going through. Everyone here feels disconnected with the world and themselves, either through choice or circumstance. And while the story might not play these aspects up too much, the visuals and music do the heavy lifting. There’s a particularly strong moment at the end, where Kaneshiro and Reis’ characters are riding on his motorcycle, uncertain of their futures but finding solace in someone they yet had not, with the Flying Pickets’ Only You playing over the scene. This is where Wong Kar-wai is strongest: in finding the small, meaningful moments amidst the chaos of a dreamscape.
But this is all to be expected and there are times when it looks just a little bit too familiar. At this stage, Wong knows what he’s doing, and what his audiences like in his films. Using cues from all of his previous films, notably Chungking Express, he makes what could very well be a Greatest Hits album, putting together every technique we’ve come to expect, and he excels at it. He creates in Fallen Angels an arthouse great that might not be the mini masterpiece of some of his previous films, but nevertheless is an affecting and often touching piece of cinema.
Verdict: While it sometimes relies too much on his own past, Fallen Angels still hits all the high notes you’ve come to expect from master Wong Kar-wai.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Wong Kar-wai-isms: Tonnes.
References to Chungking Express: I counted 5
Snack of choice: Ice cream. Lots of ice cream.
Fallen Angels (1995)
Also known as: Do lok tin si
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Writer: Wong Kar-wai
Leon Lai – Wong Chi-Ming
Michelle Reis – Wong’s partner
Takeshi Kaneshiro – Ho Chi Moo
Charlie Yeung – Charlie
Karen Mok – Blondie
Fai-Hung Chan – Man forced to eat ice cream
Man-Lei Chan – Ho’s father
Toru Saito – Sato
To-hoi Kong – Ah-hoi