The phrase “style over substance” is something that I typically look at with derision. It’s certainly true that cinema is a visual medium, but I’m typically drawn to more than just eye candy when watching something. I can get all kinds of visual treats when playing a video game, so with films, I’m looking for great acting, interesting setups, or challenging material. I tend to not be one that sits down for a film and claps like a seal when some neat thing happens.
I think I just broke that rule with Fallen Angels.
Originally meant as the third part of Chungking Express, Fallen Angels offers an almost contrasting vision to Chungking’s sunny veneer. This is a dark, seedy, grungy look at the Hong Kong underbelly that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Woo movie. In fact, the beginning of the film offers a rather thrilling shootout that puts Wong Kar-wai’s editing skills to the test. It’s a pure visual treat.
As one of the earlier films in Wong’s filmography, it’s not surprising to see these more overt action elements present. Just a year prior, Wong released Ashes of Time to a somewhat mixed reception, but it showed that he had a penchant for directing intense action sequences. Fallen Angels isn’t exactly what I’d call an action film, however, as most of the film is comprised of characters interacting with their environments and longing for a connection that just isn’t present.
As is often the subject of his films, Fallen Angels goes heavy on exploring something of forbidden love. As often happens in life, you sometimes fall for a person that otherwise doesn’t care about your existence. You’ll be there giving everything you’ve got to make a connection work only to find rejection at the end of the road. We see this through all three of the main characters, Wong Chi-ming (Leon Lai), Wong’s agent (Michelle Reis), and Ho Chi-mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro).
Through often meandering camera angles and eclectic editing -making full use of Wong’s penchant for half framerate sustained shots-, we follow these three souls as they drift through life with seemingly no purpose. Each one has been rejected by society, to a degree, and landed in careers that have sapped them of their humanity. Wong kills people, his agent cleans up the evidence at his safe house, and Ho squats at various establishments just to make ends meet. It’s very depressing, to say the least.
Why I brought up “style over substance” is that Fallen Angels doesn’t offer the most in-depth look at these people. Ho gets the most screen time, which is surprising not because he is a mute, but because he is introduced roughly 55 minutes into the film. He’s almost a compliment to Wong, a character that is doing the rejecting instead of being explicitly rejected.
The first half of the film goes over a few of Wong’s assignments before he decides to call it quits. Seemingly getting wise to how his lifestyle is going to get him killed, he sends a message to his agent through a song at a local Hong Kong bar that sings to her, “Forget him.” Having become obsessed with him through his scent, Wong’s agent takes this break-up particularly hard.
Shortly after, though, Wong ends up meeting a woman named Blondie (Karen Mok) that is head over heels for him. He indulges in her company for a short time, never quite giving her the attention she so achingly wants from him. With Blondie being thoroughly convinced that Wong is the one, his eventual rejection devastates her and sets him on a path to an early grave.
On the flip side, Ho runs into a woman named Charlie (Charlie Yeung) who has an obsession with a mysterious lady referred to as Blondie. While this other woman is never seen, Charlie recruits Ho to follow her around so she can put a stop to this hussy’s “work.” You can almost read her as the sad conclusion of Wong’s agent, a woman hell-bent on getting the love and affection of a person that doesn’t want anything to do with her.
Through all of this, Wong’s usage of music becomes more apparent than any of his films prior. “Forget Him” by Shirley Kwan (which is a cover of the 1980 original by Teresa Teng) obviously has the most significance, but the haunting “Speak My Language” and the effortlessly funky “Because I’m Cool” lend a specific mood to sequences that would otherwise fall flat. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the sight of Wong’s agent dry humping a jukebox while Laurie Anderson croons, “Now that the living outnumber the dead” out of my head. It’s so striking how painfully sad Fallen Angels can be.
That’s not to say this is all gloom and doom, however. The ultimate message of the film is that life is messy, but there is something to look forward to. Wong might meet an untimely fate, but his agent and Ho have a chance encounter that brings them together. Both broken by the world around them, they find an embrace together because they seemingly are a perfect couple. They’ve both been tossed aside by individuals that don’t care, left to rot while everyone else gets to revel in their own personal joy.
Even Charlie finds some happiness, though it comes at the expense of Ho. Having finally gotten over Blondie’s antics -though I’m not entirely convinced Blondie was even real-, she is seen with another man while Ho can only look on in agony. To her, Ho was nothing but a momentary stop on the passage of life, an excuse that Wong tells himself when he departs from his Blondie. She is able to move on, with Ho’s presence behind her not even registering.
I guess more than anything, Fallen Angels isn’t meant to portray a particular narrative thread or even really have a point. It most certainly says something about life and love, but I feel that the idea here is more to portray people that have fallen from grace being given some shot at redemption through their actions. Wong ultimately fails in that regard, but that’s exactly how life is. Different people have different outcomes by walking different paths. If life were so easy to dissect and explain, we’d all be millionaires living a posh lifestyle in massive penthouse suites.