Directed by: Wong Kar-Wai » Written by: Wong Kar-Wai, 1995 » Region/Time: Hong Kong, 94 minutes
Starring: Leon Lai as Wong Chi-Ming/Killer » Michelle Reis as The Killer’s Agent » Takeshi Kaneshiro as He Zhiwu » Charlie Yeung as Charlie/Cherry » Karen Mok as Punkie/Blondie/Baby.
“The best thing about my profession is that there’s no need to make any decision. Who’s to die? When? Where? It’s all been planned by others. I’m a lazy person. I like people to arrange things for me. That’s why I need a partner.” – Wong Chi-Ming
This film may be the most “difficult” so far on this list. Writing of another Wong Kar-Wai movie, Roger Ebert said “you enjoy it because of what you know about film, not because of what it knows about life.” In some ways this is true of all Wong Kar-Wai movies. I would argue, however, that he merely has his own techniques of transferring his thoughts on life and love, in particular, to film. What he aims to capture are the ephemeral moments and feelings that no other medium can capture so well: how one’s heart can soar over a look or a gesture from someone else; how falling in love isn’t a decision, but happens in gradations over time; or how memory is a collected series of snapshots and not a linear script.
Wong Kar-Wai has two significant collaborators on this and other pictures, William Chang in charge of costume design and art direction and Christopher Doyle in charge of cinematography. Together, they record the manic pace of Hong Kong with every cinematic tool at their disposal. Scenes play out in exaggerated colours, black and white, in wide-angle lenses, fast edits, overlapping edits, hand-held cameras, tilt shots, slow motion, fast motion and video, as well as some interesting shots in which the main characters are in slow motion, but everyone in the background is in fast motion. There are also moments when the camera becomes completely still and observes, often with a wide-angle lens in an extreme close-up, distorting the face of one of our main characters. This proliferation of technique is overwhelming, yet manages to convey the emotions of the characters and is where the film’s sense of humour lies. The characters may take themselves very seriously, but the film does not.
Fallen Angels tells two parallel stories, one of a professional hit man and his relationship to his female manager, and the other of a mute slacker and the girl he falls for. It is worth noting that most of the characters’ names are not mentioned in the movie. The Killer and his manager never actually meet, but for one time, late in the movie. She scouts out his targets for him, faxes him their location and, when, he goes out to perform the hit, cleans his apartment. She also falls in love with him and goes through his garbage and finds the bars he goes to, not so they can meet, but so she can be in the same places he has been in. The opening shot of the movie, however, is the two of them together with her voice over saying “the best partners don’t get emotionally involved.”
The Killer finds out she is in love with him and ends their partnership, winding up in a relationship with a crazy blonde girl. The Killer allows his manager to set him up on one last mission, and it is left ambiguous what her intentions are and how much he knows or expects of his fate. In the other storyline, He Zhiwu becomes mute after eating a can of expired pineapple, and much of the movie deals with the idea of love and life having an expiry date. His storyline is both the most ridiculous and the most affecting. The Mute lives alone with his father, a chef, and spends his time breaking into shops after hours and opening them for business. In one amusing scene he takes a family hostage and forces them to eat all the ice cream they can. He falls in love with a woman, Charlie, who is obsessed over an ex-boyfriend and spends time with her, although she only talks about her ex. The “relationship” doesn’t last long, and he is surprised later when she doesn’t recognize him. Acting very strangely, he videotapes his father in all sorts of situations, only for us to find out it is a present for his 60th birthday. The footage turns out to be very moving.
In watching Fallen Angels, one should try to feel the sheer joy and exuberance in the film and not expend energy in trying to figure out what is happening, which will only lead to frustration. This is not a movie that concerns itself with such things as plot, character or even causality. For example, the mute character, who speaks to us in voice over, falls in love at which point his hair starts turning blond. When his love is spurned, his hair turns back to black.
The Mute is played by Takeshi Kaneshiro (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), currently one of the biggest stars in Asia, who also appeared in Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express (1994) playing another character by the name of He Zhiwu obsessed with pineapple expiry dates. Though a number of scenes in this film connect up to Chungking Express, of which Fallen Angels was supposed to be a third section, it can be seen on its own without missing much. Wong Kar-Wai has made two other philosophical movies that are ostensibly gangster films, As Tears Go By (1988) and The Days of Being Wild (1990). If you are thinking of picking up the DVD, it is not worth buying the expensive Kino disc, which has overwhelming interlacing problems, over a cheap Chinatown copy that might be ported from a superior Asian or European transfer.
In the final scene of the movie, there seems to be some possibility of a connection between The Mute and The Killer’s Manager, although it may ultimately only be temporary. Her voiceover tells us she has found a moment of solace in the hectic world she lives in: “The road wasn’t long and I knew I’d be getting off soon, but at that moment, I felt such warmth.”
Up Next in the Film Canon: A film icon of thirty years plays a villain for the first time.