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Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels

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Appreciation: Wong Kar-wai’s <em>Fallen Angels</em>

A kaleidoscope of alienation and longing, Wong Kar-wai’s 1995 film Fallen Angels remains one of Wong’s least discussed and least appreciated films. Of course, compared to the sheer beauty and maturity of his latest work—his intimate In the Mood for Love (2000); his majestic 2046 (2004); even “The Hand” (2004), his relatively brief yet masterful contribution to the omnibus film Eros—-earlier films like this one and Chungking Express (1994) come off as energetic though show-offy stylistic exercises.

But Fallen Angels is no mere exercise. In some ways, it is almost as important a film in Wong’s oeuvre as Happy Together (1997). If Happy Together represented a stepping stone, an emotional deepening of Wong’s usual themes of love, loss and desire, Fallen Angels represents both a look back and a look forward for one of cinema’s most important current directors.

Wong’s first feature film was a gangster flick titled As Tears Go By (1988), a Mean Streets ripoff that seemed to take its emotional cues from the popular Hong Kong action films of the time (such as John Woo’s 1986 gangster melodrama A Better Tomorrow). Tears may have been derivative and at times even dated and cheesy (on hearing the film’s Cantopop rendition of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” a friend said, “And I thought the original was bad enough!”), but it had an operatic power, and more importantly, it laid out some of Wong’s stylistic signatures, including exaggerated neon-tinted lighting, the use of pop music to underscore moods, and pixillated slow-motion action scenes.

Fallen Angels is the only other film of his that could be considered a “gangster film,” although certainly it’s quite different from As Tears Go By. What Fallen Angels adds to what he was already doing visually in his first film is his experimentation with voiceover narration, allowing the characters to express their thoughts and feelings to us in ways that they are unable to articulate to each other. Also, in contrast to the linear plot of As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels pretty much disregards rules of classical storytelling. Instead of focusing on one linear plotline, it tells two interlocking stories filled with digressions and jumps in time.

In Fallen Angels, Wong takes all of those stylistic signatures to extremes. He pours on the slo-mo, the pixillated action scenes, the neon lighting and the pop music (one Canto pop song even becomes the source of a message from a killer to his assistant). In addition, the voiceovers become a dominant creative force: there’s barely any dialogue, and nearly all the characters’ thoughts and emotions are expressed through narration.

For all its youthful stylistic brashness and crisscrossing plots, though, one of the major themes of Fallen Angels is the idea of moving on, or at least trying to do so: moving on from an unfulfilling job, in the case of Leon Lai’s assassin-for-hire; moving on from a broken heart, in the case of Michelle Reis’s personal assistant; and especially, moving on from a slacker’s existence, in the case of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s mute He Zhiwu.

Surprisingly enough, that last instance of moving on—-part of the film’s barely-related subplot rather than its main plot—-may be the key to explaining Fallen Angels’ significance in the context of Wong’s body of work.

Early in the movie, He, who has escaped from prison, is seen breaking into shops every night and running them after hours. In his voiceover, he reasons that because the rent has already been paid, someone should still maintain these stores after hours. In some of the film’s funniest moments, He essentially hassles people into giving him money; a young man who professes to have mob connections is one of his accidental frequent “customers.” Eventually, though, he finds himself falling in love with a nutcase named Charlie (Charlie Yeung). When he discovers that his love is unrequited, he responds by trying to settle down from his older, wilder ways and reestablish a familial emotional connection, inspired by a Japanese restaurant owner who used to be a filmmaker: he decides to make a video of his widowed father, owner of the Chungking Express Mansions (one random Chungking reference among many in this film), as he goes about his everyday business.

I’d like to think that this plot turn holds at least a whisper of personal confession for Wong: his way of taking stock of the kinds of films he made before while expressing a desire to move on to something different and arguably more mature. Consider some of his previous film characters: the heartless ladies’ man played by Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild (1991), for example, or Faye Wong’s free spirit in Chungking Express. Both characters express one of Wong’s major cinematic preoccupations: a yearning for some kind of freedom within societal boundaries. Fallen Angels throws a wrench into his obsession by presenting a group of characters who, in their own ways, yearn for the opposite: a semblance of stability, in the case of killer; or an emotional connection to one closest to him, in He Zhiwu’s case.

As it turns out (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen the film) the killer ends up getting killed as he tries to do one last job for the assistant, and He returns to his aimless ways after his father dies. The personal assistant, meanwhile, having decided never again become personally involved with her partners, becomes a disheveled mess after the killer’s death (an event she may have helped orchestrate, although the film only suggests it obliquely). One could understandably see these developments as regressions for these characters-—real fallen angels. But I prefer to see them as Wong taking one last pained, wistful glance at his old preoccupations with free spirits and forbidden love before finally deciding to go in a different direction.

Thus, it is fitting that the film’s final image is a pixillated slo-mo of the assistant riding He’s motorcycle: He has possibly made the human connection he’d sought, while the assistant has at last found some genuine “warmth.” As is typical of Wong, he leaves the ending unresolved—-the two characters’ futures hang in the balance—-but emotionally and thematically it is complete and satisfying.

Of all of his early films, Fallen Angels, for all of its high style, is arguably his most outwardly deceptive. I saw it soon after Days of Being Wild, probably the earliest Wong Kar-wai film that could be said to be a spiritual precursor to In the Mood for Love and 2046. Compared to that relatively relaxed feature, Fallen Angels at first seemed a mere exercise: effectively moody, yes, but seemingly less interested in defining the characters and deeply involving us in their thoughts and emotions than in looking “cool,” playing with certain romantic notions, and revelling in changing film stocks, pixillated action sequences, and glamorous neon lighting (by Wong’s regular collaborator Chris Doyle, his cinematographer on every feature after As Tears Go By,). The result at first struck me as superficially impressive but rather detached and empty; one could be easily dazzled by its MTV veneer, but was there really anything beneath the pretty surface?

These days, though, as a young film enthusiast still working out my views on cinema in general, I’ve become less interested in placing emphases on “well-told stories” or “three-dimensional characterizations” all the time, as many filmgoers are wont to do. Perhaps that’s why, a few months after getting my first full glimpse of this film, I couldn’t get its powerfully alienated feel out of my head.

And so, while I would concede that the characters in Fallen Angels are rather thinly defined, and the style at times a little too flashy—-although more subtly expressive of characters’ emotions than I realized on first viewing—-the film is more important to Wong’s body of work than it first seems. In pushing his visual approach and his feel for hopeless romantics to extremes, he carries his modern style to its zenith. In emphasizing the changes his characters experience, I think Wong is implicitly looking ahead in his own career: wanting to enjoy the same free-spiritedness as his characters—-a freedom reflected not only in those characters, but also in Wong’s rampant technique throughout the film—-but realizing, with a wince, that even in a big city like Hong Kong, there’s a price to be paid for living such a lifestyle. That Wong continued to explore similar themes of love and alienation in an equally gorgeous yet more mature and intelligent style is further proof that he is one of the most exciting and fascinating filmmakers working today.

Kenji Fujishima is a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of the blog My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second.