Everyone in the world should see a Wong Kar-Wai film before they die. That’s not to say any person should see any of his films, and it maybe shouldn’t happen right away – I would not pull a kid out of a Transformers sequel and force them to watch In The Mood For Love. But I believe that every single person out there will reach a point in their lives where one of his movies will speak directly to them. I haven’t seen every movie in his filmography, so I can’t speak as to which of his movies you would enjoy the most. However, as soon as I saw it, 1995’s Fallen Angels leapt to the top of my list of favorite Wong films.
The movie involves a pair of loosely connected tales about men who are not quite alone, but not exactly connected to the people around them. Leon Lai* plays a professional killer who arranges all of his business through a female agent (Michele Reis) who has fallen in love with him despite never seeing him in the flesh. Takeshi Kaneshiro (in the same role he had in Wong’s Chungking Express) is a mute young man who shares a tiny hotel room with his father, and lusts after a bizarre young woman who never seems to completely notice him (Charlie Yeung, playing a character named Charlie Young). Later, a bleached-blond Karen Mok (Jet Li’s Black Mask, Shaolin Soccer) will get in on the action, in a role which won her a number of Best Supporting Actress awards throughout Asia.
Any interview with any actor who has worked with Wong focuses on the same thing: his movies are almost completely improvised. Some of them have not even had scripts at the start of shooting, just outlines and ideas upon which scene after scene are ad-libbed. Some shots are carefully composed, but many more feature manic handheld camera work from the legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle. In these scenes the camera zooms around like a overeager child who wants to be as involved with the action as possible. The colorization shifts from standard to washed-out to black and white at the drop of a hat, and jump cuts are employed so liberally that at first I thought Netflix was streaming a flawed copy of the film.
The point of this is to evoke a strong mood, to sell the loneliness of the characters without using on-the-nose dialogue. Wong is film’s greatest impressionist, and this movie pushes that style to its absolute limit. The hit man action scenes could easily have been shot like a John Woo film; in 1995, when Woo was at the height of his powers, no one would have blamed Wong for imitating him. However, Wong doesn’t do that; he creates messy scenes where what little slow motion we see only heightens the confusion. His gunfights are blurry by design, a Woo film as though filtered through a Monet painting.
I think the end goal here is to make a movie about loneliness. It’s not entirely clear; that’s the way most Wong films are. What every character has in common is that they want a lover who they can’t, or shouldn’t, have. However, that’s only one small aspect of Kaneshiro’s story, and the reasons that Mok and Yeung want the people they want are murky at best. In most movies about loneliness, nobody makes a connection with anybody; in this one, the characters make connections but they aren’t always satisfying. The movie is unclear to us as viewers, in part because the characters are unclear to each other.
Lai has a pretty easy role; there is a surprisingly small gap between “male pop star” and “moody movie hitman.” I was more impressed with Kaneshiro, who is in a number of movies that I like (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), but in roles that I didn’t really remember. He also has the funniest scene in the movie by a mile, when he adopts a career of breaking into closed shops and forcing their wares onto unsuspecting passers-by. It doesn’t go over well for him, but it killed with the Movie Klub audience.
The female characters in this movie don’t go over quite so well; I joked after the film that its lesson is, “all girls in Hong Kong are crazy.” Being an impressionist, Wong does not need his female characters to be very relatable; he just wants them to evoke a particular mood, and they’re pretty good at that. My main problem is that we only get a very shallow view inside their heads. Each of the major characters in this movie gets at least one line of narration to explain themselves, but Lai and Kaneshiro get a ton, while Reis gets some and Yeung and Mok get very little.
I would have preferred that we not get any narration from the female characters at all, than to get a halfway look that just confused me as to what they’re all about. The film seems to be about Lai and Kaneshiro, and I think their loneliness would have been enhanced if the women in their life were a little more mysterious. On the other hand, I might not have been able to take more mystery from Fallen Angels. Every time I think about it, it poses new questions for me, questions with no easy answers.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*I was going to write “Cantonese pop superstar Leon Lai,” but it turns out that each of the five top-billed actors in this movie has had a lot of Cantopop success.