Fallen Angels was originally meant be the third part of Wong Kar-Wai’s previous film, 1994’s Chungking Express, but Wong realised he’d told his story already in the two separate but interlinked stories he already had in the can. No third part necessary. And so here it is, all on its ownsome, an expanded reworked standalone, released in 1995.
Stylistically it’s similar to Chungking Express – lurid lighting, whipcrack edits – but Wong and DP Christopher Doyle this time use very wide lenses held very close up, rather than the much longer ones of Chungking Express. A wide lenses give everything a stretched, in-your-face immediacy. Everything is tightly on and about the person in shot, backgrounds and surroundings recede nightmarishly, though Wong and Doyle nevertheless deliver a few picture-postcard vistas early on, to help reinforce the feeling that this is a graphic novel that’s somehow escaped its covers.
Unlike Chungking Express, which told two stories with very obviously different personalities at their core, in Fallen Angels Wong’s people are almost interchangeable. Again, two separate stories. In the first a hitman is in a relationship of sorts with a young woman who seems to do little more than clean his room and pine for him extravagantly and decorously in various empty Hong Kong locations. In the second another young man, mute since a childhood accident, prowls the city by night taking over other people’s businesses – a butcher’s, a laundry, an ice cream van – and runs them as a nocturnal Lord of Misrule, an updated Harpo Marx.
Things become dreamlike, as if Wong were remaking Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as a feverish neo-noir – Scenes from Several Wonky Relationships, perhaps – with all the action taking place at night, giving the whole thing a purgatorial, unsavoury buzz.
1990s Hong Kong produced some remarkable looking movies and Fallen Angels – largely thanks to Doyle’s traffic light colours and pools of noirish light – is one of them. Good looking people (though the lenses often make them look like Pinocchio, Doyle later conceded) in stark, garishly lit settings. Smoking done to an insane degree – one woman holds a cigarette in one hand while masturabating with the other; an old guy spoons ice cream into his mouth with a cigarette in the same hand. Massive Attack turn up on a soundtrack that’s been threatening all along to break into one of their tunes. Is there anything more 1990s than Massive Attack?
Leon Lai plays the hitman as a likeable guy caught in a state of arrested development, while Michelle Reis is sensationally sexy as the remote, distraught “partner” he is barely in any sort of relationship with. Takeshi Kaneshiro, who played Cop 223 in Chungking Express, plays the Harpo-like Ho, and puts on a clownish performance of such athleticism that it eventually becomes almost possible to ignore how irritating Ho is.
The film is full of disconnected characters, with jobs or conditions that push them even further out of the common run of humanity, trying to find meaning and connection in a city that’s also working against relationships of any sort. There’s not much in the way of empathy, which is how Wong wants it, but it makes for tough viewing.
Like one of those experimental novels where all the leaves can be assembled and read in any order, Fallen Angels is full of scenes that could be played in any order. And increasingly the characters, whether male or female, feel as if they could be swapped about too. Eventually a character from the hitman’s story winds up in Ho’s and it feels perfectly OK.
Nutshell verdict: it doesn’t work as well as Chungking Express, which operates in a similarly disengaged way but then brings everything together in a cathartically emotional finale. There is no such release here, a hint of something in the final shot, maybe, but let’s not get too carried away.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022