Fallen Angels

Written by Anna Harrison

90/100

Fallen Angels originally existed as a third story to director Wong Kar-wai’s movie Chungking Express before he made the story its own movie; as such, it is practically impossible to separate the two upon watching. Chungking Express, divided neatly into halves, follows two cops in their charming quest for love and human connection in Hong Kong. Fallen Angels follows seedier characters in their desperate quest for love and human connection in Hong Kong. Its multiple stories weave and intertwine with each other throughout, as opposed to Chungking Express’ clean division, and the film feels more fragmented, though not in a bad way.

In both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a man named He Zhiwu: a cop in the former and a mute delinquent in the latter; in both, his characters have a strong connection to cans of pineapple and expiration dates. (In Chungking Express, he tries to buy every can of pineapple that expires on May 1 in a desperate bid to connect to his ex-girlfriend; in Fallen Angels, he claims that eating an expired can of pineapple as a child made him mute.) The Midnight Express food stand and women in blonde wigs pop up in both films, parts of disparate storylines which only partially overlap, like ships in the night. And, of course, both films look gorgeous, full of the vigor and vibrancy Wong has such a knack for. Still, Fallen Angels stands well on its own.

It’s hard to properly describe the plot of Fallen Angels. There’s a hitman (Leon Lai) and his agent (Michelle Reis), who carefully makes the bed for her employee every day; there’s He Zhiwu, who goes around mutely bullying others into giving him money; there’s Blondie (Karen Mok), the woman with hair reminiscent of Brigitte Lin’s in Chungking Express, and her apparent friend Charlie (Charlie Yeung), though the two women never share screen time. They all drift through Hong Kong, affecting the other characters but never realizing it. These characters long for human connection, trying to hold onto precious memories and prevent them from slipping through their fingers, a running theme in Wong’s films and especially poignant here when He Zhiwu sits to watch tapes he made of his deceased father, or when Reis’ character combs through the hitman’s trash just to feel closer to him.

Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle—who shot the second half of Chungking Express along with several other Wong films—breathe a very different life into Hong Kong than shown in their earlier film. Still vibrant, still gorgeous, this Hong Kong has a sharper edge to it than its predecessor, which was more innocently romantic. Wong rarely lets his camera rest, instead opting for a more chaotic rhythm with his editing, reflecting the hectic lives of his characters and giving more heft to the moments when he decides to let the camera linger. He showcases his actors in a wide lens, slightly warping their faces; their features become the only thing we see, and Wong manages to make Hong Kong and the people in it near microscopic, giving us intimate access to the city’s beating heart. 

Fallen Angels finds Wong further experimenting with time and space in his films—where Chungking Express was clearly bifurcated and its two stories only briefly overlapped, Fallen Angels jumps between its stories with little or no warning. Yet even with this irregular narrative, it is a testament to Wong’s abilities as a filmmaker that the film feels cohesive, for—as with Chungking Express—the main character isn’t the hitman, his agent, or He Zhiwu: it’s Hong Kong. Ironically, in focusing on only slivers of the city, Wong lets us know the whole better. We feel its inhabitants’ loneliness amidst a sea of people. 

Where Chungking Express had an optimism to it with hints of sadness, Fallen Angels feels far darker, though never nihilistic. One of its main characters murders people for money, after all, but a movie whose final line is “But at that moment, I felt such warmth” is hard to classify as strictly a downer. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor or later Wong venture In the Mood for Love, because frankly, what movie could? But watching Fallen Angels, I felt such warmth.

Highly Recommended

Fallen Angels Trailer

Fallen Angels is currently available to stream on Criterion Channel

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