The New Cult Canon: Fallen Angels

The New Cult Canon: Fallen Angels

"Forget him, and it's like forgetting everything. All sense of direction seems lost, like losing oneself. Forget him, and it's like forgetting the joy of life. It's like a stab in the heart, bleeding and in agony." —Voiceover, Fallen Angels

Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels almost plays better in the memory than onscreen, which isn't meant as an insult. I've seen the film three times now, and every time, it slips through my consciousness like a beautiful vapor, not unlike the tracks of neon blur that pass its characters by as they zip through the urban nightscape on fast-moving trains and motorcycles. There's very little tangible narrative architecture; true to Wong's jazz-like improvisational style, he doesn't seem to know where he's going until he riffs his way there, and he expects his audience to live similarly in the moment. Storytelling means virtually nothing to him—connecting these images into something cohesive seems like a headache at best, a production-stalling nightmare at worst. He winds up making mood mean more to his work than perhaps any other major filmmaker.

For this column, I could have selected any number of Wong's films—Chungking Express, Happy Together, In The Mood For Love, 2046, et al.—but Fallen Angels, while not his best movie, is probably the sharpest distillation of his nocturnal, ultra-romantic sensibility. It's a film of glimmering surfaces, with nothing to pin it down other than its characters' collective melancholy. The moments that linger are wholly cinematic: a motorcycle speeding at double time through a highway tunnel, the lines of a woman's body as she prowls a would-be lover's apartment in latex and fishnets, the driving rain that beckons strangers to play in the streets, the golden glow of a jukebox against black bangs and ruby-red lipstick. Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle supply seductive images like these with stunning regularity, but as each shot yields quickly to the next, they flutter away into the ether. It's hard to make a great argument for their cumulative value, but as pure sensory experience, movies like Fallen Angels are a rare treasure.

Fallen Angels features very little dialogue, but interior monologues like the one quoted above are rampant, and granted to all three of the major characters. There's a simple reason for this: They're in a Wong Kar-wai movie, which means they spend far more time trying and failing to connect than actually connecting. Along with a wave of contemporaries like Tsai Ming-liang (What Time Is It There?) and Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flowers Of Shanghai), Wong is a poet of urban alienation and ennui, though his sense of whimsy, his swooning romanticism, and his—let's face it—"cool" set him apart from the rest. His characters tend to exist in a perpetual state of longing, and the world conspires in subtle and unsubtle ways to either keep them apart, or limit their interaction to a brief, tantalizing taste. They can grow and learn and maybe find some peace in their lives, but nobody's walking arm-in-arm into the sunset.

Fallen Angels was originally conceived as the third story in Wong's 1994 diptych Chungking Express, but typical of his seat-of-the-pants style, it never quite fit into that movie, and it took on a life of its own. In retrospect, Fallen Angels' darker tone and visual palette seem like the wrong fit for Chungking Express' more buoyant spirit, though there's plenty of crossover between the two, including references to expired cans of pineapple and locations that situate them within the same general vicinity. Leon Lai, who made his name as a Hong Kong pop star, and Michelle Reis, who made hers as 1989's Miss Hong Kong, bring their absurd beauty to the unnamed roles of a contract killer and the agent who handles him, respectively. The two have worked together for three years, but they never cross paths: The Killer carries out an assignment, and the Agent handles the rest, taking particular relish in scrubbing his apartment of evidence (and in a later scene, fantasizing more explicitly about its tenant). Here she is at work:

For his part, the Killer professes to enjoy the job because all the decision-making is out of his hands, and he doesn't have to worry himself about the whos, whens, and wheres of a person's death. Though that sounds like an attempt to distance himself from the moral implications of being an assassin, he says he's just "lazy." Nonetheless, he wants out of the business, which means he has to end his partnership with the Agent, who's devastated by the news. Meanwhile, Wong follows a parallel storyline involving a mute small-time crook (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who makes his living breaking into shops after hours and badgering night-owls into becoming his customers. Every night, he opens a new business, from butchering to doing shampoos and shaves at a barbershop to playing short-order cook at a fast-food stand. It's tempting to claim him as the wild card, offering a comedic counterpoint to the angst-ridden duo at the film's center, but later scenes about his complicated and ultimately touching relationship with his father give the role unexpected emotional depth.

There's really nothing more or less at stake in Fallen Angels than matters of the heart—no morality, no politics, no history, not even proper jobs—which may explain why Wong's detractors often dismiss his work as shallow and solipsistic. But love isn't such a minor thing to consider, and it takes a special talent to make those heightened emotions felt the way only Wong can do. While I'll admit the three main characters in Fallen Angels aren't as specifically affecting as Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love—one of the great romantic pairings ever, in my view—the film creates a lonely ambience that's intoxicating far beyond what any individual player could contribute. In this world, the lyrics of a dreamy pop song say more than anyone could—or would be willing to—articulate.

Fallen Angels's lovelorn mood seems tough to square with the characters' outlaw occupations, especially that of a man whose sole responsibility is to kill strangers for money, without thought and without cause. Wong could hardly be less interested in the codes of honor or mushy redemptive arcs that accompany most Hong Kong movies about hitmen with hearts of gold, and his apathy is revealed in shoot-'em-up sequences (like the clip below) that are stylish but deliberately crude, little more than the Killer inelegantly cutting up a room. The explanation may be as simple as "dude holding a gun looks cool," but I think it has more to do with the assassin's life as one of ultimate detachment. The Killer reveals some flickering desire—briefly, a fling with a orange-haired pixie brings it out of him—but his partnership with the Agent can never transcend the professional, and his one last romantic gesture is to offer himself up for annihilation.

Ultimately, a mood piece like Fallen Angels defies descriptive language in the same way that I imagine a great ambient or electronic record does for a music critic. There may be a theme or two to discuss, and a surfeit of psychology, but there's an essential mystery to Wong's process and his results—don't bother trying to interview him—that can't be accessed through analysis; it has to be absorbed through the senses. (The title of Doyle's reputedly disastrous attempt at directing, 1999's Away With Words, sums it up the feeling nicely.) Fallen Angels should be experienced in the same spirit with which one of its characters dashes into the monsoon rains—arms out, eyes open, ready to get drenched.

Coming Up:

Next week: Exotica

Dec. 18: Reservoir Dogs

Dec. 25: Hiatus (Christmas)

Jan. 1: Hiatus (New Year's)