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May 15, 2015

Review: FALLEN ANGELS (1995)

           Leon Lai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Michelle Reis, Charlie Yeung & Karen Mok

                   Wong Kar-wai


"The best thing about my profession is that there's no need to make any decision. Who's to die... when... where... it's all been planned by others. I'm a lazy person. I like people to arrange things for me. That's why I need a partner."

                 The cinema of Wong Kar-wai appeals a lot to me. His style is different from other filmmakers. Not just for his extreme emphasis on the looks of his films but the way he weaves stories, emotions and feelings. There is no limit to it all, no obvious and conventional route. He has a particular eye for characters that many wont use in their films as central protagonists, they don't matter to others like leftover food tossed into the garbage can at the end of the day. In the hands of WKW, the most severely eccentric, troubling or 'blank' characters hold emotions and connections that transforms into something truly vivid and pulsating on-screen. It's hard not to be seduced and left completely breathless by the intensity. Here is a filmmaker who is known mostly because he works with concepts and not pre-written screenplays. A filmmaker mostly known for his use of colors, slow-motion sequences to pop music and his creative/colorful partnership with Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Indeed his films look good, the actors in it looks good but how is that bad? At least they aren't defined by that. There is a purpose to everything that is there in his films. A few years back, I decided to have a WKW marathon having previously seen and known him only for "Chungking Express". Fallen Angels made less of an impact on me than any of his other well-regarded films. There was something missing for me, the variety of characters on display just didn't click. Their eccentric nature didn't sit too well. I simply liked it for the filmmaking with little to less connection as a viewer with what was going on and what it implied or stood for. Revisiting it recently, the film suddenly made a huge emotional impact. One of those rare instance where a second look not only improves on the initial impression but completely changes perceptions and removes any hindrance and veil that hid the many shades and masterful flourishes on display. I could see and feel more, every moment stood out in ways that surprised me. My memory of these moments was trivial and lacking the impact they actually hold. Well not anymore.

                 Fallen Angels is seen as a sequel or spiritual descendant of WKW's most popular film, Chungking Express (1994). Released a year after that, Fallen Angels was originally conceived as the third story for that film. Just like 'Chungking', this film has two different stories. But unlike it, they are somewhat interconnected because of the geography and themes, the characters from each of these stories run into each other. One story ends and then the other starts, this isn't the case here. WKW shifts, mingles, interweaves and moves in between the two. Somewhat elliptical and very impactful. My second watch made me realize that this the kind film that needs you to be in a particular mood and on the same wavelength to fully experience it (like Moulin Rouge). The first story features Leon Lai as a hit man named Wong Chi-Ming as well as a woman who is his 'partner', played by Michelle Reis. The connection between the two characters is that they work together even though they have never met, until of course the very time that the opening scene implies. The black and white close-up shot, one of the many claustrophobic ones in the film has the woman asking him if they are still partners. This is a loaded question, you realize it in the end. The emphasis on the importance of this opening shot is made pretty clear then, an emotionally charged moment. You realize that these two characters are the central focus of the film. We see later that the woman cleans up his apartment and faxes him blueprints for the places he has to hit. That is all that she is supposed to do without ever seeing him. A ritualistic exercise that has to be followed with precision, they are never supposed to meet. Yet we see later that the woman is infatuated with him. She loves him, a fascination exists that has her daydream about him and visiting the places she knows he visits. The crucial opening builds an anticipation in us viewers, a very objective opening, information is revealed and we start creating expectations in our mind. Where will this lead to or how did it come to this? They never met each other despite working together... until that day... when they sat together for the first time in '...155 weeks'.

                 The second story features one of the actors from Chungking Express, Takeshi Kaneshiro as Ho Chi Moo. The first immediate connection that we learn here is that the partner of Wong Chi-Ming lives in the same building as the protagonist of the second story. Ho Chi Moo is a crazy delinquent who has escaped prison. The woman helps him hide when the police are searching for him. There is that criminal connection one knows superficially. The 'fallen angels', marginalized, conventionally the opposite of angels but desperately reaching out for connections with others. Ho Chi Moo isn't only mentally challenged but he is also mute. He still lives with his father and for work, he breaks into other people's businesses at night and sells their things. Food stalls that is and yes, he mostly forces them to buy or eat things. This character was one of my main grievances with the film upon my first time viewing. His overtly eccentric attitude and extreme delinquency not only puzzled me but also left a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn't put my fingers on why this character? Why he is what he is and instead of servicing the film, he felt like a flaw in the narrative. I was frankly annoyed by him. While going by the craziness that is his life, Ho Chi Moo meets a girl named Charlie (Charlie Yeung). He keeps running into her and she is always on the phone, agitated, depressed and sobbing. She cries on Ho Chi Moo's shoulder, tells him that her now ex-boyfriend Johnny left her for a girl named Blondie. Who is Blondie? Well she is a character played by Karen Mok, a prostitute. By nature she is very wild and aggressive, a combination of both Ho Chi Moo and Charlie. Blondie comes into play later in the film when one late night, Wong Chi-Ming comes across her at McDonald's. She follows him and tries to get near him. She seems very sure of the fact that Wong Chi-Ming is the ex-lover who left her for another woman. And then the fact that she reminds one of Ho Chi Moo due to the wildly eccentric and borderline crazy nature. Blondie somewhat ties together the two stories and the stories of those in both the sections of the film. She plays a key role in the Wong Chi-Ming and his partner's saga later, as well as the fact that she is the reason both Charlie and Ho Chi Moo grows closer together in their efforts to find her in various places.

                 The desperately broken and isolated characters in Fallen Angels yearn for love and touch. Their desire to reach out to the people is largely felt and mostly forms the basic 'plot' of the film. It is almost carnal, in many cases it is. Do they all succeed in it? No. People rarely do, specially in the films of WKW. In Fallen Angels the only character who is looking for happiness in its most truest sense is Ho Chi Moo (because none of the others have happiness as their utmost desire, that may or may not exist). Indeed, his methods are pretty strange and off-beat but they are cute and playful in nature. This is the thing that my second watch emphasized on for the character of Ho Chi Moo. He is a na├»ve person, like a child jumping up and down at every possibility of happiness. For him, it is found in things that are other's distorted version of happiness. The connection between the characters played by Takeshi Kaneshiro here and in Chungking Express are on the opposite spectrum. A cop (223) there and a prisoner (223) here. One speaks many languages and the other is mute. Then there is the Canned Pineapple connection. One can say that Ho Chi Moo's part of the film is light-hearted in nature, comically surreal. To many, much of his acts would seem as irresponsible and somewhat criminal. His arc isn't so linearly and tactfully lined up like that of Wong Chi-Ming. Much of his moments feels jumped at, not coherent. That is hardly a flaw because WKW slowly builds up on this character to a point that some of the tragic (yet comical) turns in his story packs more punch than anything else in the film. The most profoundly moving scene in the entire film revolves around Ho Chi Moo, his father and a camera. Those moments suddenly lifts the film from a narrative and technically astounding film to narrative and technically moving film. The recording and the camera further enhances the effect, inserts a kind of poignant immediacy and emotional honesty that the somewhat crazy character feels and us viewers are fully immersed in that moment with him having the same kind of impact. Memories of a relationship or experiences are bittersweet, they hurt and feel great at the same time. You can't have those moments again but you know how they felt like when they did.

                 In contrast to the wildly comical yet deeply tragic lost soul story of Ho Chi Moo, Wong Chi-Ming's part feels like something out of an action-bullets pack movies of Hong Kong, yet far from it. The precision of the profession, the moral dilemmas, the blocking of feelings, turning away from things that wont give them anything but pain, the rules and the cool but ultimately broken personality. While he masks himself with the blankness on his face, his inner voice and feelings are anything but blank. Some of the most energetic sequences of the film features ambushes and bullets flying here and there. That is his profession, he is a hitman. These heady sequences are enhanced by the excellent cinematography. The chaos is heightened and in some sequences, muted. Wong Chi-Ming for all that is said and done lacks the qualities of those typical action heroes. WKW doesn't want you to obsess over his abilities or his appearances, which lets face it, appears silly. Its the person that is put in front of us, up and center in bare focus. Throughout the film, every scene of him working and trying to find the people he has to hit and then doing his job, you see a more clearer picture of the person he is. His plot has linearity but isn't stagy. His life can take a left turn at any second and it wont be shocking. The bloodshed that he causes isn't explained, it's just something he has to do, no fuss about it. There is no moral justification given on the character or the filmmaker's part. The character himself feels so detached from it, more so than us. The violence we see is unfiltered, its in the most rawest form without any pre-conceived narrative. Objectivity has no place here, just subjective actions. The characters in the films of WKW don't do things that are BY any normal sense of understanding and typically acceptable and followed nature. They just do what they do without the need to have clear-cut understanding behind it. This increases the impact. Right or wrong, they are their actions. The existential and emotional spectrum of the characters in this film are based on their experiences, very personal. They don't have to abandon their understanding of things for a likely 'better' outcome. They are just living their lives the way they have to.

                 One of the greatest devices in the history of films to transport its viewers and characters to a singular emotional space is music. Fallen Angles has many scenes where a song just completely transforms and lifts the mood to a point that you feel complete alienation from the world around you. Or the world in the film, except for the character who is at that moment listening to the song. The song "Forget Him", sung by Shirley Kwan is used in the film as a message from the hitman to his partner. Fairly obvious in nature yet it hits you. The second time its used is very ironic and instantly transforming moment where one character recalls the significance and motif behind it while to others around him, it's just a song. A different setting at the time but the song links us to the jukebox in the bar as well as Michelle and the hitman. The visionary that WKW is, he further enhances the moment via cinematic medium. The reflections and refraction method of filming particular moments, like here the bar scenes aren't just random audacious technical choices but they connect the characters to each other. Not physically but symbolically. Reflecting on the past isn't just examining it but rather looking back through it all to that very moment in the present. Another highlight moment is when "Speak My Language" by Laurie Anderson is used. A memorable sequence that involves masturbation. These aren't just about effects but they connect the actions to much deeper things within the characters minds and the depths of their emotions.

                 Transition is another thing WKW usually focuses on. His characters go through them and at the end the transition isn't always the likely imagined one or something that the 'romantic drama' genre implies. They always meet at the end or someone dies and they move on. Fallen Angels isn't completely unlike "In the Mood For Love" in which the character somehow never unites but they never completely leave. Nothing lasts forever, things evolve and life is in forward motion always. Maybe sometimes in the future something will happen but for now, this is the best they can have and the characters accept it with open arms. "I know the road is a short one but for now, I’m feeling such warmth". Talking about performances, both Charlie Yeung and Karen Mok come across as the highlights. Their roles are fairly difficult for any actors to pull off. Charlie's performance isn't extravagant or amazing yet there is that free-fall unpredictability that keeps one guessing. Its her ability to convincingly play an unconvincing character that impresses like in some of the other characters WKW has used in his films. But make way for Karen Mok who does some of her best work in the fairly intense and fantastic performance. Leon Lai doesn't shine to be honest because of the character he plays, WKW does the work here having imagined such an amazing character. So in literal terms, his performance is the weakest of the bunch yet he is important for the film and for his character. One can't make up their mind about performances in Wong Kar-wai's films I mean they are far and away from conventional portrayals. Takeshi Kaneshiro delivers his best performance here, the hyperactive manic energy never dies. He is a good-looking and charismatic actor who truly shines in the spotlight here. It is actually the best role for any actor to play but for Kaneshiro, its defining. You can't look away when he is on-screen. That leaves us with Michelle Reis, a character and performance so complex. It is impressive how she speaks the least amount, yes I would say THE least even though Kaneshiro's character is a mute. Reis wears her character like it has always been a part of her. There is that sureness and confidence that has her speak to us via her eyes, her body and her unspoken words and emotions. It's a memorable turn, one that calls attention to itself in the most quietest way possible. An emotional wreck that isn't truly a wreck. Yet there are moments when she is overcome by them and lets loose. A magnetic portrayal.

                 Christopher Doyle is never less than impressive. With the exception of "In the Mood for Love" and perhaps to some extent "2046", this is his best work with WKW. One of the highlights of the 90's. A work of such impressive and articulate magnitude that its impossible to describe in words. The camera focuses spectacularly on the characters and their world, an actively inviting mindset that has us immersed. Immersed in their world view and experiencing things as they would. It is almost voyeuristic in nature. The framing of certain moments is different from the others, the positions and the angles are varied. A huge contrast in nature depended on the situations. The wide-angle shots, close-ups that either observes the characters or follows them are fairly unique and unlike any used in other films by the filmmaker. The use of colors and lighting is gorgeous. The production design here is good at utilizing lots of different textures that gives the film a hyper-realistic feel. Fallen Angels has different characters and their completely opposite emotions collides and crashes. It's clear in the cinematography as well as the editing of the film. Many motifs, flavors and essence of the places are mixed. The characters exist in their worlds but have the ability to transform and evolve with each experiences. Whether its hair color, dresses, taste in music or food. Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-wai's partnership always creates magic. Their images are more representative of the character's worldview than the characters themselves. Both confident in what they do, create entire worlds together that are a joy for us to experience. A transfixing marriage of sound, mood and color. Of emotions and journeys. Of montages and stories.

                 Fallen Angels is an incredible piece of work. A film full of angst, hysteria, madness, affection, warmth and emotions. Its frenetic and rapid yet deeply quiet and silent. The film runs along the characters as they experience tons of completely different emotions. Men and women, lonely and lost, bored and agitated. In pain and experiencing moments of uplift. On paper a bizarre mixture and off kilter salad with just about everything you can imagine. Yet the outcome is unbelievable. The characters betray each other and sometimes themselves. They are constantly in motion and on verge of transforming their lives. The ending of the film is very beautiful. A sudden relief of sorts for the characters, optimism in an instant. A change of sorts for us. The frenzy of the nights and neon, of the coldness and burning desires. A sudden appearance of morning sky and things to come. A film far from conventional and an experience far from ordinary.

Grade: A