Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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Fallen Angels 墮落天使 (1995). Roxie/BAMPFA 4K Retrospective (virtual)


"Chungking Express' lonely oddball cousin

As Quentin Tarantino tells us in the comments at the end of his Miramax/Rolling Thunder edition DVD of Chungking Express, Wong made the latter as a way of unwinding and taking a break during the long process of making his Ashes of Time. (Both came out in the same year, 1994.) Ashes of Time is a highly wrought and complicated and unique kind of wuxia/historical martial arts movie, and it was really taking a long time to finish. Chungking Express is light and improvisational. Wong had a good time making it and it really cleared his head to go back and finish Ashes of Time. Just as Chungking Express is a sort of offshoot of Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels is an offshoot of Chungking Express. Chungking Express was meant to be made up of three stories. But, Wong decided two stories were enough; they're the two halves focused on the two lovelorn policemen, Cop 663 (Tony Leung) and Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Wong Kar-Wai has declared "Chungking Express and Fallen Angels together are the bright and dark of Hong Kong." The intoxicating beauty of this film dominated Wong's work from here on.

The third story that went into next year's film, Fallen Angels, is about a professional hitman, Wong Chi-Ming, played by Leon Lai-ming, who, like Faye Lin of Chungking Express, is a pop singer (he's been in a lot more films). This story branches out, and there's the alternate story of He Zhiwu, a wild mute misfit played by Cop 223 of Chungking, Takeshi Kaneshiro - and you will see some playful references to his other identity: same name, and this one was once "prisoner 223"; and and it was after eating a can of expired pineapple as a small child that "I stopped talking." The hitman has an unnamed "agent" or "partner" he never sees, played by Michelle Reis. Glamorous, sexy, and yet lonely and sad, she wears glam, sexy clothes and lots of lipstick when she cleans, and she masturbates, in two gorgeous scenes, lying on the hitman's bed. She comes and cleans his flat and tends to his affairs only when he's out, yet somehow this relationship is all-important to her. All three of the main characters, the hitman, his "partner' and He Zhiwu, have their own voiceovers describing their separate alternately colorful, strange, glamorous, dangerous, and lonely lives.

A variety of disparate scenes dominate Fallen Angels that never come together, but that is the point. Though one of Michelle Reis' voiceovers near the end remarks how you run into everybody sometime, these are lonely strangers who pass in the night. Only at the very end Reis hitches a ride with He Zhiwu (who she theorizes she may have seen before more than once, but doesn't know) out of a fast food joint on his motorcycle. "Actually," her voiceover says, "I hadn't been that close to anyone for a while...But at that moment, I felt such warmth." That's where the movie ends, that one little moment of lovely, wordless warmth.

Think of the hitman and his partner who never meet, and who go out at night - as does the mute guy, a raucous outcast. The images by Christopher Doyle are dark, colorful, angular, beautiful, and sometimes sad, "the dark of Hong Kong." There are some violent scenes in dives like the mah-johngg parlors and restaurant of As Tears Go By, but, thanks largely to dp Doyle and elaborate editing techniques, they're both more violent and much more stylized, with ultra slo-mo or Wong's step-printing technique combining to turn the chaotic action as the hitman's two pistols blaze into an abstract-expressionist blur, music unifying the gun blasts and sounds of crashing glass in the prettiest, most remote violence you've ever seen. Wong comes a long way here from the relatively conventional violent, more genre-style scenes of As Tears Go By. This is a gorgeous stylishness that to some may seem alienating and very strange, but to the cinephile can hardly fail to delight for its own sake.

Certain scenes of Fallen Angels especially linger in the memory. The hitman's flat seems to be beside a train line, and appropriately narrow and elongated. Everything is long, tilted, and angular, the fish-eye lens images shifting to tilt first down to the right, then down to the left. These lonely, alienated images of urban night are extraordinarily glamorous and beautiful. In the squinched-in confines of the hitman's long, narrow flat, Reis, the hitman's partner/agent busily tidies up, going over the hitman's trash meticulously to find out about him. (As her voiceover explains: with these lonely, isolated people, the voiceovers become essential for us to know them.)

Meanwhile, He Zhiwu is leading a manic nocturnal existence busily invading and temporarily taking over other people's businesses late at night. We see him forcing a shampoo and a shave on someone at a barber shop; forcing a huge vegetable on a lady in a produce market; in a laundromat doing someone's clothes against his will; or most memorably, force-feeding people from an ice-cream truck and treating an entire family, the children eager, the adults not. This impishness, with its parallel in the invasive house-cleanings of Faye Wong in Chungking Express, surely owes a lot to Takeshi Kaneshiro's own personality: we see how playful and silly he can be and how much he likes improvising in Chungking Express, where he makes being jilted into a comedy routine. Kaneshiro is an incredible star, half Taiwanese and half Japanese by birth and fluent in Mandarin but also a Cantonese and Japanese speaker, he is impossibly good-looking and boyish from birth, it would appear. He began as a teen idol but became a devastatingly handsome costume epic star a decade later in Zhang Yimou's House of Flying Daggers. But he seems most unique and engaging here, though his kookiness is passive-aggressive, to be sure, and totally a thing of improvisation in a variety of late-night real-life sets. Kaneshiro starred in nine movies in 1995. This is the keeper, though.

Wong Chhi-ming (Leon Lai) is always seen dressed with a cut-down undershirt under a dress jacket and a gold necklace that gives him an incongruously effete and feminine air. Nothing can compare with the first kill sequence, also memorable, when he bursts into a restaurant and murders most of the customers - and then takes a bus home. On the bus, he's spotted by a high school classmate and shyly looks away, toward the camera, while this classmate hovers behind, chattering about this and that, inviting him to his impending wedding and offering to sell him top quality life insurance at a bargain rate. Hitman Wong shows the man a photo of his black "wife" and "child," both, he explains to us casually in voiceover, shots he hired people to pose for, for use in occasions just like this. He has no family. He doubts, confidentially, that an insurance company would provide coverage for a professional hitman. Indeed, he is not a good risk. Wong also points out his work is sporadic; he has to take debt enforcement jobs sometimes, and might otherwise have months of no work. This playful humor suggests that the mass murder scenes aren't to be taken too seriously either, are just playful riffs on the Hong Kong gangster movie style.

Days of Being Wild, when Wong Kar-wai unquestionably became Wong, is almost all sad romance; gunshots are used sparingly. Fallen Angels, like Chungking Express, reintroduces a crime element. The people in Fallen Angels are lonely misfits. But they're busy. And they're not complaining. Next, Wong was going to make a movie whose loneliness is much more intimate, and more becalmed: the doomed gay romance Happy Together.

Of course anthemic, emotional pop songs continue to be important here, as "California Dreamin'" is in Chungking Express and other songs are in Happy Together. Songs express emotions and convey decisions. The hitman can't meet with his "partner" to tell her he's dissolving their bond: he sends her to a bar jukebox to listen to "1818," which opens with the words "Forget him." The final song is Yazoo's "Only You."

I haven't even mentioned Charlie Yeung, and Karen Mok. They are would-be girlfriends for the hitman and the mute, who don't quite work out... but: see the movie.

Fallen Angels, 墮落天使 (Do Lok Tin si, "Fallen Angel") 99 mins., came out between Ashes of Time and Happy Together . It debuted at Toronto Sept. 1995; it showed at Berlin Feb. 1996, Oslo Nov. 1996; and in the NYFF Oct. 1997. It has a US theatrical release Jan. 30, 1998. Kevin Thomas wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "An exhilarating rush of a movie, with all manner of go-for-broke visual bravura that expresses perfectly the free spirits of his bold young people." Metascore 71.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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