Fallen Angels 墮落天使 (1995) – Hong Kong
Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express demonstrated an appreciation for details in film-making, fetishism for props, characters, and mini narratives. In his Fallen Angels, Wai advances another story of loneliness and obsession with a grittier, grimier aesthetic, a dark Hong Kong. It is less focused on details, but makes up for this lack by widening the spectrum for which characters take to the camera and narrate in a crazy, love obsessed way, like only Wai loners can. It’s a gorgeous, comical story that reaffirms this director as an auteur worthy your valuable time.
Wai is captivated again by the dual narrative, a two-fer of teams, quasi couples of unhappy romantics looking for greener grasses on a side they each cannot reach, dreaming big dreams. But, where Chungking Express used parallelism in character attributions, what with its two male leads being cops and its women working service jobs (note: the Blonde Wig Woman could be argued as also being one in the service industry, albeit drugs), the characters here are not so complementary, messy even.
We’re taken into darkness immediately, a shady, slummy city without supposed happiness. The people we’re are given to trust and follow, journeys to unfold of their mad little worlds, of a hit man, his assistant, a young troublemaker, a prostitute, and a rasta woman, are not easy to explain. But Wai, somehow of a gifted talent to tell cinematic stories, knows how to shoot them, their habits and plots, so that events are clear and colorful, unfolding of a kind of magic.
Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) is a killer and our entrance to the darker half of the film, not often shown as one for sympathy, cold and calloused. He is careful with only his life, cavalier with everyone else’s, their emotions too, and Wai has fun stylizing the ways in which he operates. When a hit is assigned, Wong is most noticeably working in slow motion bullet time, phat drum/bass lines accompanying his movements throughout bloodshed. Pretty. After some good killing, he’ll drink and womanize, mostly to numb a film noir pain no one can see nor understand, and it makes him most oblivious to everyone else, of their wants and needs, especially his assistant (Michelle Reis). She loves him a great deal.
Her job, to ensure that his entrances and exits to shady places within downtown Hong Kong for murders are smooth and accessible, planned out so that he doesn’t die, is a unique one, important as she genuinely holds the power. One thinks on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, their relationship, him wanting so much and her so little, much tension in between, and it is a visual display of comforting characterizations, complementary (though I thought not; see above) and nuanced.
We understand, very clearly, that she is enamored by him, his every detail, compulsive to find his weakness for love, or something close to appreciation for her. She goes to his apartment when he’s not there, both to clean, chores for the big man, and to await a sexier side of him, her often pleasuring herself in despair there as if he were alongside. It’s dark and dirty, but we can’t help but feel sorry for her isolated state. She only wants closeness. They all want closeness, but she is often squandering her role in power, too close-minded to see she can manipulate rather than he her.
Then there’s He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who shows us a lighter half of the main story. The son of a poor apartment owner, He occupies his late nightly hours working, breaking and entering into others’ small businesses during off hours, like a butcher’s shop and an on-wheel ice-cream parlor. He makes money hijacking those businesses a first priority, to make end’s meet from criminal work in secret, and it’s funny because he’s a delinquent more than anything, comical too for his attempts at bringing in return customers, binging a makeshift system of schemes, with only the shirt on his back, a dirt bike, and a later find of a video camera, voyeurism a new passion.
Business isn’t exactly booming, but he has a lot on his mind to sort out, to organize, and consume, not announcing aloud. Rather he keeps to himself, safely vaulting his thoughts for only us to hear in voice over narration, like Express.
When He meets Cherry (Charlie Yeung), a dirty dreadlocks woman in a shop one afternoon, while selling someone’s artist paper (obviously stolen) he immediately falls in love. They aren’t fitted for companionship, one would see, but somehow they become a team to pursue others, him her and her another man in another relationship. And there lies the film’s dilemma, for characters to simplify and exploit loves, they can’t get what they want. Love is too far away, difficult to obtain, but they’re still ready to pursue it, all of them. The pursuit, the ride, is the point.
And so it goes, characters woozy from love lust looking for lovers and friends during hard times is the premise through an exciting, joyously complicated set up of scenes. What we see and know to be better for the characters, as we’re watching, our advice to them, cannot be heard by them, and so it dissolves, trapping them –eternally, depending on how you envision the replayability of film–to continuously stumble upon complications for human contact and intimacy.
The components of this film and Wai’s others are expertly crafted. The cinematography (doggedly eccentric and identifiable), colors (usually fluorescent blue), and music (grungy and quirky) are remarkable evidence to genius. However, they take back seat to his writing characters that compel us to think and reflect, revealing growth onscreen and off. There’s always a message of self discovery in his pictures, to explore new avenues of story in complicated arenas in which simple problems (grown to swelling proportions) dwell. One could argue he over complicates the premise. I say that without the complicated narratives, inter cutting scenes of one duo toward an other’s, the message doesn’t quite pack the same punch. It’s complementary listening to their varying dialogue, watching persons on screen tackle chores of daily living during times of unfriended depression. Aren’t we all, fans of film, a little drawn into loneliness, the relationship behind our favorite films like those of He and Cherry and Reis’s assistant, even Wong, truthfully out of reach? Maybe, but we carry on, in pursuit of something we cannot have.