“I have heard people say everything has its expiration date. I wasn’t sure this would apply to her and johnny, but I thought it might soon.”
Wong Kar-wai had conceived Chungking Express and Fallen Angels to be the part of the same trilogy where the latter would be the final part. However, he decided against it and developed on individual elements and themes instead. With Christopher Doyle as a brilliant cinematographer, this film, which was shot mainly at night, is exhilarating due to the manic movement of the cameras that uphold the dark underbelly of Hong Kong and the city life at night which seems to have a distinct personality of its own. The location in question seems heartless and cheap where it is a site of romance and nightmares. Steeped heavily in themes of loneliness, desire, nocturnal shenanigans, adventure, crime, isolation and obsession, the filmmaker makes good and repetitive use of the arcades, subways and other elements of the streets and the cityscape to juxtapose the butling urban setting to the slow development of the characters.
Wong Kar-wai is all about claustrophobic shots involving fast and slow camera movements to uphold the sensuality, alienation and loneliness in the urbanscape while he constantly flirts with the city of Hong Kong, using wide-angle lenses and handheld cameras, aesthetically using frames and shadows to convey his vision. According to Wong, “When I look at Fallen Angels, I realise it is not a film that is truly about Hong Kong. It’s more like my Hong Kong fantasy. I want Hong Kong to be quiet, with less people.” In Fallen Angels, Wong makes good use of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography skills to show how Hong Kong is a frenzied maze where the characters get lost and drown in isolation, adding to Wong Kar-wai’s pursuit of finding the connection between the human soul and the metropolitan city. The characters exist as a montage sequence where their experiences are weaved in carefully to fit the city aesthetic and their lives are given meaning and purpose when they exist in tandem with the Hong Kong nightlife.
The film has two different intersecting plotlines which are quintessential to Wong. a hitman named Wong Chi-ming (Leon Lai) is cold, emotionless and lonely. He carries out his job with epic nonchalance and lives a solitary life, devoid of family and friends, in a dingy apartment with neon signs, close to the underground railway. His ‘Partner’ (Michelle Reis) frequents his apartment when he is eating out at a fast-food chain, cleaning his home and receiving messages on his fax machine, scrubbing his place in her stockings and leather dress, buying him groceries and beer and rummaging through his trash to understand what kind of a person he is. Her infatuation borders on obsession and she wants to pursue a relationship with him yet is jilted in form of termination of the business relationship when she learns of his infatuation with Blondie, a mysterious woman he meets at McDonald’s and follows to her apartment only to know that she is still hung up on her elusive ex-boyfriend Johnny.
The story similarly features Ho Chi-mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a hilarious mute who has lost his speaking abilities due to excessive gorging on pineapples. Ho has a bizarre way of making a living for himself. He barges into cafes ice cream trucks and restaurants at night after hours and coerces people to purchase goods that are left on shelves. During one such nocturnal escapade, he encounters Charlie (Charlie Yeung) towards whom he feels an insane attraction. However, Charlie does not reciprocate his feelings and enjoys his quiet company while pining for her ex-boyfriend, Johnny, who has allegedly abandoned her for a woman named Blondie.
All of Wong’s characters undergo a journey; a physical as well as an emotional ride. The theme of disconnect, of course, is plainly evident throughout the plot. Wong, who is oblivious to what the audience wants, maps out the film according to his fancy. The flashbacks and the linear narratives are bound within frames, Ho’s father is shown via the video camera that he inherits. All the encounters are unique, including the one that the hitman has with a former classmate of his. The commuter train journey shows the hitman being compelled to show a ‘family’ photograph to his classmate; the woman was paid to pose with him while the child had been bribed with ice cream. To save his grace, even the hitman had to be bound within family structures to prove himself to his friend, despite his unease and distress. The urbanscape is no longer a place to inhabit and there is no defining space of a home. The idea of rootlessness and alienation looms large over Fallen Angels. Amidst the bustling traffic and street light-clad roads, Wong excels in his art of deviating from traditional storytelling by focusing more on the imagery that conveys a sense of desolation and despair. The interior monologues and doomed romanticism complements this Asian auteur’s poetic genius, one that reeks of metropolitan alienation and cynicism.
With brilliant and complicated intercourse of the prevalent themes of nightlife, humour, isolation and crime, the film is exactly how Wong defines it, a take on the “dark” side of Hong Kong, involving ordinary characters in extraordinary scenarios, trying to battle loneliness and the drudgery of life. The characters have an unimaginable emotional depth and their ethereal presence is enough to lull the viewer into a state of collective melancholy. The final scene with the motorcycle ride is warm and tender but Wong Kar-wai leaves the film on an ambiguous note. The characters’ fates are suspended by a thin thread of uncertainty yet emotional fulfilment. While Wong’s other movies are a more deft exploration of love, longing, alienation and isolation, especially Chungking Express with which this film has been oft-compared, Fallen Angels is an under-appreciated Wong Kar-wai gem that reflects his auteurist style, with well-crafted, haunting background music and sublime cinematography accentuating the beauty of melancholy and loneliness, adding a harrowingly poetic rhythm to the film.
Fallen Angels is a tantalizing experience and a devastating journey through the streets of Hong Kong conceived by the imagination of Wong Kar-wai, a journey that one embarks on with the characters that seem too familiar yet distant.
“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.”
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