I had a revelation while watching Fallen Angels, the fifth film by Wong Kar Wai and a companion piece of sorts to Chungking Express (it was originally conceived as that movie’s third story). Enlisting almost none of the recurring actors we’ve seen in Wong’s previous four films (save one), the movie nonetheless wears like a comfortable pair of shoes. It did not take me long to realize I was drawing this feeling of comfort and affection directly from the Hong Kong landscape being depicted.
Of course, I have admired the urban portraits Wong paints in his previous works (and even called it out as a big strength in his first film), but with Angels it truly struck me just how deeply Wong’s affection for Hong Kong runs, and how stylishly adept he is at making its streets feel alive and warm, even as the frame is stuffed with violent imagery. I realized he does for Hong Kong what Scorsese and Allen do for New York, what Godard does for Paris and even what Jon Waters does for Baltimore. Wong shows us what it means to be a part of Hong Kong, using that meaning as the connective tissue that ultimately links together all his films into a larger, singular work of vermiculate world-building.
Since he seems infinitely more interested in exploring his Hong Kong setting and its inhabitants, we should know very well by now that plot in a Wong Kar Wai film is generally relegated to second-class status. That is never a problem; structured storytelling doesn’t actually facilitate the director’s best traits (his most plot-driven effort so far, As Tears Go By, remains his weakest). Instead, Wong focuses on three principle characters, beginning with an assassin (Leon Lai) and the female partner to whom he is deeply attracted – far too attracted to maintain a healthy business partnership. He channels his affection as much as he can through other women, most notably a blonde-haired airhead he picks up at a McDonald’s (Karen Mok). Growing weary of his life as an assassin – a profession apparently not nearly as lucrative or stimulating as you might expect – he sleepwalks through this relationship to his substitute lover with considerable malaise.
The assassin’s female partner (Michelle Reis), whose tasks include taking care of the “details” around each hit – which somehow includes cleaning his apartment/hideout – clearly reciprocates these feelings and seems far more willing to compromise the partnership with emotional attachment. She rarely sees or communicates with him, yet she rummages around his garbage, thereby assembling what fragments she can of her employer’s identity. When alone in his living quarters, she occasionally even pleasures herself while on his bed.
Wong Kar Wai film veteran Takeshi Kaneshiro plays the most compelling of the three characters. Identifying himself as “Ho Chi Moo – Prisoner 223,” Kaneshiro’s character is a lovelorn young man who went mute at the age of five upon eating a can of expired pineapples (bonus points to whoever can identify all three Chungking Express references I just hinted at). Living with his father, his primary source of income involves breaking in to businesses after hours, using their vacant facilities to perform a multitude of services – be it butchering, barbering and even serving food. Should would-be patrons decline his services, well, let’s just say Ho Chi Moo wields a rather amusingly aggressive method of salesmanship. Ho Chi Moo finds something more fulfilling in his life, however, when he meets another lovesick individual (Charlie Yeung) and begins to lose interest in his unorthodox line of work.
There is little about Wong’s characterizations or technique in Fallen Angels truly distinguishing it from his previous works. He pulls from the same bag o’ tricks he’s been using since As Tears Go By, from choppy slow-motion to wide-angle lenses to archaic tracking shots. For Angels, Wong seems less interested in innovating new elements of his craft than he is in perfecting what he knows. I can see why some might thusly write off this effort as Wong venturing into self-parody (as J. Hoberman suggests in his review); but the film struck me as the moment in this Marathon where Wong seems finally to have mastered his most definitive sensibilities as a blossoming young filmmaker.
That is not to suggest Wong doesn’t misstep occasionally. The film – relentlessly kinetic and mostly preoccupied with mood and visual bravura – admittedly does not carry the thematic richness of Chungking Express or the reserved elegance of Days of Being Wild. This is also the first Wong film since Tears that failed to present a single female character I could connect with. Whether they were conniving, overwhelmingly jealous or emotionally erratic, I could not escape the notion that they existed exclusively for the purposes of developing the two male protagonists. Given that the story is being told from the perspective of two essentially unreliable (male) narrators, though, I suppose a case could be made that the disproportionate attention given to the assassin and to Ho Chi Moo lends the film a more intimate, first-person level of introspection that might otherwise be unattainable. Seeing the streets of Hong Kong through their eyes, it conceivably could be easier to understand their flaws and idiosyncrasies. Even if you buy into that theory, however, it still doesn’t make the female characters’ suffering any less predicated on banal female stereotypes.
If you buy into that argument of patriarchal introspection, though, there is still substance to be found within the style of Fallen Angels. This is the last film Wong Kar Wai made before Happy Together brought him to a national stage. As this film’s two male characters progress – as the assassin grows more weary of his profession of violence and as Ho Chi Moo finds new meaning in the connections he makes with others – the story almost begins to frame itself as some kind of “coming of age” story. Eventually the time for childish things – playing “assassin” or moving from one non-vocation to the next – must be cast aside, and the responsibilities of adulthood beckon. By the time the end credits roll, we get the sense that Wong, aged 37 when he made Angels, might very well have been re-mapping the trajectory of his career in favor of material that is, for lack of a better term, more grown-up.
I’ve not yet seen Happy Together, so I don’t really know if this theory holds any water, but I can’t wait to see if Fallen Angels winds up imprinting itself in my mind as the end of a Wong Kar Wai we’ve grown to like a whole lot, and the beginning of a more mature Wong Kar Wai we just might grow to love.
Bottom Line: Wong Kar Wai breaks very little new ground with his fifth feature, but the old ground he retreads is tweaked with considerable style.