Some directors just create a world with their films. A world that you can become lost in, or even an inhabitant of, if you allow yourself. Wong Kar-Wai is one such director.
Along with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-Wai has created a series of films (including "In the Mood for Love" and "Happy Together") that are as seductive as they are devastating: full of rich colors, exotic fabrics, immaculate interior decorating, and lovesick characters.
It's a Wong Kar-Wai movie so of course everybody smokes
"Fallen Angels" is easily one of his best works. It's the flipside to "Chunking Express," which came just a year earlier in 1994. Whereas that daylight-soaked film focused primarily on the excitement and anticipation of beginning to fall in love, "Fallen Angels" is the perpetual twilight of unrequited love, jealousy, and one night stands. This is what Wong Kar-Wai excels at.
The close-ups of Michelle Reis as she rests against a glowing neon jukebox as though it props her very existence up, cigarette in hand, her dress seeming to undulate on its own, is a master-class on how to convey emotions through images and music alone.
The plot follows two seemingly unrelated stories that dovetail nicely by the end of the film. Leon Lai is a detached, emotionless hitman who carries out his job with a ruthless efficiency, largely because he leaves all the decision-making and planning to a young woman with connections to the Chinese Triad, played by Michelle Reis. The duo rarely ever see each other but Reis maintains an intense, unrequited love for her partner.
Elsewhere on the neon-lit streets of Hong Kong, an eccentric mute played by Takeshi Kaneshiro tries to make enough money to take care of his older father and finds himself falling in (and out) of love for the very first time.
There are several motifs that harken back to "Chunking Express": Michelle Reis lets herself into Leon Lai's apartment both to clean it and to deliver information about his upcoming hits; Takeshi Kaneshiro's character has gone mute after eating a can of expired pineapple; and Takeshi's father runs the Chunking Hotel.
Michelle Reis: deadly beauty
While "Fallen Angels" creates a world unto itself, you may truly have to give yourself over to the film to enjoy it as it seems to follow its own internal sense of logic at times. Scenes of Takeshi Kaneshiro smelling Charlie Yeung's hair or pretending to put his arm around her while she stares disinterestedly out a window would probably seem creepy or strange if Takeshi wasn't so handsome.
Likewise, the moments where he breaks into closed down shops and then harasses random passerbys into becoming his patrons will seem unrealistic to some unless you allow yourself to be taken in by the movie (or just chalk it up to cultural differences, this being Hong Kong in the early 90's and all).
I'll have a cup of tea and tell you my dreaming
"Fallen Angels" has some of the best action sequences I've ever witnessed, which is almost hysterical because they're not really action sequences at all. Leon Lai takes out a few targets during the course of the film; each assignment is extremely brief but choreographed down to the micro-detail. Wong Kar-Wai seems to say, "So people love John Woo movies because of his use of slow motion? Then I'm going to use even SLOWER motion."
Sparks fly, bodies are torn apart by bullets, furniture is blasted open…and yet it's not exhilarating like "Hard Boiled." Somehow the action feels more realistic - despite how invincible Leon Lai seems - and as though it's primarily to reveal character. Indeed, these shoot-outs are what I'd call "existential action scenes" more than anything.
"Fallen Angels" contains some of the best shoot-outs I've ever seen,
even if they fall under the "blink and you'll miss them" category
I really cannot praise Christopher Doyle's cinematography enough. There is perhaps no one else working in film who knows how to photography women quite like he does. Michelle Reis is an attractive gal in real life but in "Fallen Angels" she looks as beautiful as I've ever seen anyone look; the kind of instantly striking visual appeal that harkens back to the silent era. And KINO Video's recent blu-ray edition reveals just how stunning the photography in "Fallen Angels" is.
It's worth noting that, much like "Chunking Express," the atmosphere in this film is erotically charged. In "Chunking Express," the intimate moments were about the joy of exploring a partner's body for the first time; here, they're used to communicate the character's isolation and loneliness. And yes, there's a famous scene of Michelle Reis writhing herself into ecstasy on Leon Lai's bed while he's away (and while she's wearing fishnet stockings, no less). It's a pleasant change of pace considering that most Hong Kong movies are devoid of sexuality outside of Category III exploitation.
Granted, the film isn't perfect. As I mentioned, it tends to follow its own logic and whims so you have to choose to go along for the ride or potentially be pulled out of the film. I've never been a fan of actress Karen Mok but I have to say that she's especially annoying here: her character seems perpetually drunk or just plain crazy, it's hard to tell, but I have difficulty imagining that any sensible man would pick her over the smoldering good-looks of Michelle Reis.
Quibbles aside, I'm genuinely surprised by how divided the reviews for "Fallen Angels" are at Netflix, with several 1-star ratings and one reviewer describing the first 15 minutes as nothing but "shots of wide hallways, narrow corridors, and escalators." Some may find "Fallen Angels" to be self-consciously "cool," but it's just as easy to interpret that sense of style as parody. All the elements of your standard Hong Kong flick are here: the distant hitman, bloody shoot-outs, the femme fatale, and extreme emotions. However, Wong Kar-Wai skews the genre tropes just enough that you could easily see this as a parody or a deconstruction.
Takeshi Kaneshiro's performance is broadly physical, given that he
can't talk, and it's one of the best roles of his career
What Wong Kar-Wai was expertly able to capture with both "Fallen Angels" and "Chunking Express," and part of what makes his work so compelling, is the paradoxical feeling of isolation that comes from living in a bustling city - finding yourself reduced to but one among many (millions in the case of Hong Kong) - tempered with the hope and promise that, just when you find yourself at your lowest, you could brush elbows with someone who might save your life.
Young hearts be free