Director: Wong Kar Wai
Stars: Leon Lai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Michelle Reis
Literally sensational, the cinema of Wong Kar Wai is presently receiving a welcome shot of exposure here in the UK. In part thanks to the Criterion Collection release of eight of his films (I’m including The Hand) in a lavish, pricey, but essential boxed set of blu-rays, and also thanks to Picturehouse Cinemas who have decided to screen a retrospective season encompassing the other seven.
While general consensus seems to point to Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000) as his twin masterpieces, my favourite lies in-between them. Originally conceived as the third story for inclusion in the episodic Chungking Express, Fallen Angels ended up being expanded upon as a feature in its own right, thematically linked to Wong’s prior film, but stylistically divergent from it. The phrase “hallucinogenic” is bandied around sloppily when talking about movies, but there’s something undeniably trippy and transportive about Fallen Angels. Taking place entirely at night, it celebrates the Otherness of a major city – Hong Kong – that never sleeps, presenting it’s moonlit hours as a negative reflection of its waking world. But, chiefly, the sense of immersion and wooziness is thanks to the departure in shooting style.
Working with regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong experiments with handheld camerawork, swooping into the faces of his actors, down corridors, around walls that warp and extend as we encounter them. Utilising some extreme wide-angle lenses, it creates a kind of drunken sensibility that furthers the sense of a long, troubled and inebriated night on the tiles. Few films generate such a palpable reflection of how it feels to encounter a buzzing metropolis at night while figuratively buzzing from whatever substances. Fallen Angels isn’t a film about being drunk or high, but it feels drunk or high. An intoxicating experience indeed.
Principally, Fallen Angels presents us characters that don’t fit in to Hong Kong’s “9 til 5” society. There is Leon Lai’s disenfranchised hitman, Wong Chi-ming, who carries faked family photos in his wallet in case old acquaintances casually enquire how he tessellates with their own, more conventional place in the world. Michelle Reis is his agent-cum-maid, but her interaction with a jukebox (more on that later) displays an urge for her own escape. A comedic highlight of Wong’s cinema, Takashi Kaneshiro plays Ho Chi-mo; a man rendered mute after eating tinned pineapple beyond it’s sell-by-date. Ho invades closed businesses after hours and forces their services on unsuspecting members of the public. He is connected to Reis’ agent only by living proximity, and is more keenly focused on the elusive Charlie Yeung (Charlie Yeung) – a kooky young woman with whom his path keeps intersecting.
In Jacques Rivette’s 12-hour epic Out 1 from 1971, Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a mute character named Colin living on the peripheries of society. As Out 1 resurfaced (albeit in truncated form) in the early 1990s, one wonders whether Léaud’s appearance influenced Wong when it came to developing the character of Ho Chi-mo. Like Ho, Colin is something of a contrarian and trickster within the framework of Out 1. While we initially are led to assume he is sidelined in society due to his muteness, we are ultimately brought to an understanding that Colin’s alienation is self-made. Ho feels like his equivalent in Wong’s filmography; a kind of sad clown character very much in charge of his own Otherness.
This is arguably the least narratively focused of Wong’s features. To pull a phrase from popular usage, Fallen Angels often feels like “just vibes” and can be wholly enjoyed without paying the slightest attention to the stories told. Not that there isn’t enjoyment and enrichment to be found in the film’s stories, but on a purely sensory level, letting Fallen Angels wash over you is an experience all in itself. Set entirely at night, its rain-washed streets feel transmitted from some imminent future, one that feels tantalisingly within reach whenever we’re treated to a zooming shot through an underpass; white lines and flourescent lights speeding us toward whatever comes next.
Nobody fuses film and pop music quite like Wong. The way he steals “Take My Breath Away” away from Top Gun in As Tears Go By might be my favourite example; The Cranberries’ “Dreams” and “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & The Papas throughout Chungking Express probably his most famous. Fallen Angels is no exception, and while his prior film felt attuned to the surfer pop and shoegaze of its signature choices, this feature feels decidedly influenced by the emerging wave of trip-hop coming out of Bristol, England around the time of the film’s creation. Nogabe “Robinson” Randriaharimalala’s prominently-featured “Because I’m Cool” samples “Karmacoma” by Massive Attack and, in combining the urban awe and menace of the song with these roaming images, Wong presents an evocative time capsule of mid-90s cool.
Wong’s love of pop music is self-evident throughout his career, but Fallen Angels features perhaps his most overt love letter to it’s magic. In one languid sequence, Michelle Reis’ unnamed character visits a seedy looking bar and selects a song from its glowing Werlitzer jukebox. As the song plays, Reis’ character is studied as she leans over the jukebox, blowing smoke over it from her cigarette. It’s practically a love scene, with the camera lingering on the fall of her hair, the contours of her lips, the tightness of her skirt and – just as sexualised – the liquid that bubbles and flows within the shell of the glowing machine. The scene is indulgent – owing a lot to the booming music video culture of the time – but it is brilliant because of its indulgence. The character is mesmerised. So is Wong. So too, are we.
With its characters from the margins of society and their various brief encounters, Fallen Angels is less a driven tale of any of their existences and more a tapestry of how it feels on the fringes, whether that feeling is legitimate or not. It taps into a universal sense of alienation, while simultaneously presenting a wholly specific portrait of Hong Kong that stands as a love letter as keen as any paean to a major metropolis you could name.
Returning to the motif of pop music being knitted perfectly into a Wong Kar Wai flick, Fallen Angels ends with something of a surprise pick. Having happened upon one another by chance in the aftermath of their individual heartbreaks, Ho and the unnamed agent take to the streets on a motorbike, zipping through tunnels toward an unknown – and possibly only fleeting – future together. Their departure is eschewed in to the trills of The Flying Pickets’ version of the song “Only You”. After the moody trip-hop vibe that has dominated the film (particularly as an unofficial theme for the violence enacted by Wong Chi-ming), the use of “Only You” marks a decided tonal shift, one that suggests a renewed sense of optimism for its characters. They may live by night, but the use of the song infers that their long night (itself a heavy metaphor for their various woes) may soon be over. And if that’s only for a little while, then that’s ok too.