Fallen Angels

Charlie Yeung and Takeshi Kaneshiro

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.

Leon Lai and Michelle Reis
Leon Lai and Michelle Reis: the hitman and her

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.

Fallen Angels – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Chungking Express

Woman in Blonde Wig with Cop 223

Written on the hoof while shooting on his previous film, Ashes of Time, was paused, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is one of the defining films of the 1990s and, thanks to Wong’s remarkable approach to storytelling, one of the great films of all time.

It’s two stories in one, or one story told two ways, if you like, as if Wong had assembled all his elements, used them to tell his first story and then given the kaleidoscope a tiny twist. Hey presto, here are the same bits and pieces arranged in an entirely different way.

Both are romantic fever dreams and take place in a world that’s not really our own, where love strikes and people are entirely undone by it, gripped, obsessed, zombies of infatuation, prisoners of their own… they don’t even know what. All they do know is that they are lost.

Story one is about a policeman, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), pining for an ex-lover called May and living in a betwixt and between world doing his job out on the streets of Hong Kong, eventually bringing all his homeless emotions to fixate on a mystery blonde (Brigitte Lin). When he’s not pursuing Woman in Blonde Wig (as she’s billed), who turns out to be at the centre of a drug-mule operation, Cop 223 is gorging on tinned pineapple, specifically tinned pineapple whose best before date expires on his birthday. His birthday is 1st May, the ex-lover’s name was May, there’s also another May at the fast food joint, Midnight Express, where he also eats most nights. As if in a dream, a song, Dennis Brown’s song Things in Life, keeps recurring.

Story two is about another cop, Cop 663 (Tony Leung), another forlorn loser in love. He eats at the same Midnight Express as Cop 223, but this time there’s no May, instead a pretty young woman called Faye (Faye Wong), who falls instantly and insanely in love with him, though he’s barely aware of her, and sets off on her own pursuit of the unattainable. The tinned food this time is sardines; the recurring song is The Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’.

Cop 663 and Faye
Cop 663 and Faye

Though he’s shooting using the familiar bright colours of the mid 90s, Wong uses two different DPs to light his different stories – the same but different is the watchword throughout. Story one moves at speed, with DP Andrew Lau emphasising the energy and movement of a city that never sleeps with cameras that blur movement and skitter through scenes alive with people. Story two slows down a bit, with Christopher Doyle drenching everything in that familiar Wong atmosphere – see In the Mood for Love if this Wong/Doyle approach leaves you hungry for more. Story one tends towards the frenzied; story two really wants to swoon but both come at the odd equation of distance versus love from opposite ends of the telescope. In story one the camera emphasises isolation in a multitude, in story two it’s connection while separated.

There was a story three, which Wong eventually turned into another film – 1995’s Fallen Angels (makes mental note to see that) – but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chungking Express is that Wong shot the whole thing in 23 days, all those exquisitely composed images, the technically bravura moments that come and go in a shimmer. Look out for the shot where Cop 663 bumps into his old love, whose body language is confusingly of the “take me right here” variety, and she then disappears off on the back of a motorbike with some other guy. As she goes, she swivels around in the pillion and waves at him. Wong catches all of it in the reflection of a shop window, almost as if it had all happened in Cop 663’s imagination.

Maybe it did. There are enough moments in this film that make no sense, if we’re assuming it’s all set in the real world rather than some amalgam of the real and the fantastic. It’s film-making done at a level of technical accomplishment that’s breathtaking, with an imaginative impulse that’s also remarkable. It’s spectacularly good. This was the film that prompted Quentin Tarantino to found his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company so it could get a US release. It works as well now (writing this in 2022) as it did in 1994. By isolating it away from its origins, time might even have improved it.

Chungking Express – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Grandmaster

Zhang Ziyi and brothel women in The Grandmaster


There are misgivings even during the opening scene of this decade-straddling epic about Ip Man, generally described as “the man who trained Bruce Lee”. There’s legendary martial artist Ip Man (the impassive Tony Leung) in a stylish straw hat taking on a phalanx of uglies in a torrential nighttime downpour. Slo-mo rain. It’s the sort of visual cliché you might expect from Uwe Boll rather than one of the most gifted film-makers in the world.

But, a bit of plot. The film kicks off in the 1930s when, Leung’s voiceover tells us, Ip Man is about 40, a content, wealthy resident of Foshen with a lovely wife and a rich cultural life. This is all kicked into the air after a bake-off between competing branches of kung fu called by the retiring Master Gong, who has in tow his beautiful, skilled and icy daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger fame) and wayward disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin). Over the intervening years the Japanese invade, the nationalists come and go, and the era of Mao begins, with Gong Er and Ma San both re-appearing in Ip Man’s life like punctuation marks.

Why is Wong Kar Wai making a biopic about Ip Man, whose story has already been told many times before (notably by Donnie Yen in two films)? I suspect it’s his attempt to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And maybe in the original four hour edit it does. But in this incomprehensible two hour ten minute edit (Wong says he will “never” release the original version) little makes sense, and Wong’s choices always tend towards the visual rather than the dramatic. In short, half the time it’s difficult to know who everyone is.

There are two distinct ways of shooting physical action in movies. When it’s people who know their stuff, say Donnie Yen or Fred Astaire, the camera stays back, letting the viewer take in the spectacle – real bodies doing really amazing things in real space and time. When the actors don’t know their stuff, say Bruce Willis or the cast of Chicago, then the smoke and mirrors of the edit suite takes over.

Leung trained for 18 months to do this movie, but even so is no grand master. Wong reciprocates with an ingenious shooting style that is a little bit Astaire, a little bit Willis. And he comes up with something that does actually work: impressionistic blurs of movement, fast edits and swivel pans pausing periodically to focus on a decisive tactical moment – often a “push” move of the hands or feet. It’s very effective and, now and again, breathtaking.

Wong stages these fights in locations that are chocolate boxy in the extreme – a lush high end brothel, a station wreathed with locomotive smoke, a snowy landscape.

But never mind all that, the martial arts fans will be saying, who did the fight choreography? The answer is Yuen Woo-Ping, of Kill Bill and The Matrix fame, and Yuen does put on some mighty fine shows, though I was often not sure who Ip Man, or Gong Er, was fighting, and why – except when the two leads fought each other and all was abundantly clear. This was chop-socky courtship.

With this romantic Ip Man/Gong Er strand Wong is aiming specifically for the withheld love vibe of In the Mood for Love, his most famous film, which he also tried to re-bottle in his Blueberry Nights. And it doesn’t work here either, this time because Wong has introduced Ip Man’s wife early on and then not clearly explained the nature of their relationship. Or maybe all was explained in the four hour version. And who is this guy Razor who pops up here and there, spoiling for a fight? Again the four hour edit might have the answer.

But never mind all that, Wong appears to be saying in his editing decisions, look at all the pretty pictures. In this he’s directly in the tradition of David Lean after his work jumped the shark (about halfway through Lawrence of Arabia) when his visual eye started to get the better of his storytelling brain.

This is a heroically beautiful film but a godawful mess in all other respects. I followed it up with Lav Diaz’s epic Filipino masterpiece Norte, the End of History – a four hour epic I sat through with my eyes glued to the screen. Did Wong Kar Wai not trust audiences with the full banquet? Perhaps he should think again.


The Grandmaster – Watch it now at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2014



In the Mood for Love



Escape the tyranny of the huge flatscreen TV for an evening and surrender to a slow-moving visual feast best seen on the big screen in a darkened room with lots of people barely breathing. They’re holding their breath for a variety of reasons. The gorgeousness of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography for one, depicting 1960s Hong Kong as a kaleidoscope of butterfly blues, resinous ambers and neon reds. The unusual focus of the plot for another – on the man and woman realising that their other halves are having an affair with each other. On the losers not the winners in the game of love, in other words. And on the awful, stomach-clenching feeling of a love – yes, they fall for each other – that dares not express itself. Why not? After all, they have every right. The answer is because it is 1962 and they’re in Hong Kong and because they are moral people to the core. Or possibly they’re just cowards. Though the more Wong Kar Wai takes us into their world, the more we lose track of our own. Little by little we too are living crowded lives in tiny back-to-back rooming-houses, lives that remain genial, decent, tolerable because everyone obeys the rules. And little by little, we start to accept the unrequited lovers’ explanations for their actions, or lack thereof. Wong Kar Wai has made films as beautiful since, but never as immersive or painfully romantic.
© Steve Morrissey 2007


In the Mood for Love – at Amazon