Criterion Prediction #214: Fallen Angels, by Alexander Miller
Title: Fallen Angels
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cast: Michelle Reis, Leon Lai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Yeung
Synopsis: A mosaic of criminal life from Hong Kong’s underworld, featuring a reluctant hitman and his lovelorn assistant who’s vying for his affection. Simultaneously, there’s the antics of an unhinged mute, who treats the marketplace as a nocturnal playground, “reopening” local merchants and storefronts for his after-hours amusement. Meanwhile, he befriends a scorned woman, searching for the prostitute who allegedly stole her former lover.
Critique: To say that Fallen Angels is the most dizzyingly scattershot movie in the career of Wong Kar-wai is a compliment. Wong’s made a name for himself being ruggedly committed to his unique fusing of punch-drunk stylistic panache, woozy romantic sentiment, and a sly political commentary informed by the kinetic frenzy of an ever-developing Hong Kong cityscape. By 1995, the year Fallen Angels came bouncing into our cinematic vernacular, Wong’s body of work indicated a feistily restless screen artist who can weave genre – whether it’s a more straightforward gangster film with As Tears Go By, or the sagebrush revisionist wuxia epic Ashes of Time. In between, Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express stand as more emblematic works in defining the directors aesthetic. By the time Fallen Angels comes to the fray, there’s a roiling kinetic energy bursting from Wong Kar-wai, and it’s unreservedly splashed onto the screen for the entirety of its runtime. A loose-fitting sequel to Chungking Express (according to the director “these two films should be seen as a double bill”) Fallen Angels is the pessimistic outlier. The city is darker, the alienation of the characters is amplified, and the seductive criminal curiosity is replaced with a cynical aptitude for capital gain. The urban arena of Hong Kong is vast, amplified, almost animated thanks to the rapturous cinematography of Christopher Doyle, dwarfing the characters, who, seem to communicate to us via voiceover narration solely.
Dissociative tendencies populate the film all over; names are secondary, characters are credited with titles such as “forced to eat ice cream” or “The Killer’s Assistant.” Takeshi Kaneshiro revives his role from Chungking Express, sharing the same name as the superstitious lovesick cop, here he’s a squirrelly mute, who’s absent-minded due to eating an expired tin of pineapples. This is nothing new in a Wong Kar-wai feature, but there’s so little human interaction it’s hard not to extrapolate social import seeing as anxieties mounting as Hong Kong was merely two years away from the 1997 handover, its return to China after being a Crown colony for so long.
Chungking Express pays homage to John Cassavettes’ understated neo-noir Gloria as Briggite Lin sports a blonde wig, affecting Gena Rowlands; Fallen Angels is more self-referential. Fallen Angels makes allusions to Wong’s own features it’s hard not to think of the Hong Kong’s action film maestro John Woo. As Leon Lai’s assassin sets upon his targets, dual-wielding (what looks like) Baretta’s, it feels like Wong Kar-wai’s riffing on the stylized gun-fu populating Hong Kong’s film market. The violence in Fallen Angels has the vulgar sensibilities of postmodernism with the riffy self-awareness that feels informed by the short attention span of the MTV era propelled by the indescribable instincts of Wong Kar-wai.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: As time goes on, there are more rumors that Wong Kar-wai’s films are going to get the Criterion treatment. As was the case with multiple Kieslowski and Haneke movies, it seems like the same could happen with the films of Wong Kar-wai. Plus, The Criterion Channel is streaming Fallen Angels, along with Happy Together (Criterion Prediction #95), so this could happen.