Nite Owls: Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) – Blu-ray / DVD review
The movie as remix album, complementing and jostling with its predecessor to achieve total freedom from the norms of movie-making. Consequently, it’s perfect cinema.
(Wong Kar- Wai, 1995)
When Fallen Angels was released in Britain in 1996, I’d not long seen – and fallen in love with – what is still one of my favourite films, Chungking Express. The latter had come out of the blue, on a late-night Channel 4 screening, so the chance to see Wong Kar-Wai’s follow-up so soon was equally unexpected and thrilling. And then, in the foyer of Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema, I saw it: one of the most eye-catching, heart-achingly cool movie posters I’d ever seen. The film was almost a secondary concern when the staff kindly let me take a copy. I still have it, worn around the edges but now framed to keep it intact.
That love of things is very much in keeping with Fallen Angels, a film about abstract, messy emotions find their surrogates in more tactile, tangible concerns like work, sex, music and food. It’s the story of night owls whose restless, insomniac drive demands that they do things – kill for money, or take over closed businesses – rather than dwell on the existential dread of being alone and unloved.
With that description, it’s very much Chungking Express Part 2, and if you’ve seen that film, it’ll come as no surprise that Fallen Angels is the bits and pieces left over from the earlier film: a ragtag collection of abandoned storylines, in-jokes and thematic riffs. It’s very much a minor-key flipside, symbolised by the difference in signature tracks – where Chungking went doolally for the sun-kissed pop of California Dreamin’, Fallen Angels is defined by a Cantonese cover version of Massive Attack’s Karmacoma. Given the trip-hop vibe, it’s hard to see this as Wong Kar-Wai’s attempt at making a movie remix.
But it works, because it sings. Seldom has narrative been so deftly brushed aside in favour of the pure excitement of sound and image. Fallen Angels is an MTV movie in the best sense, intoxicated on the possibility of trying new things. Christopher Doyle’s camera probes and pierces space with looming wide-angle lenses, drunkenly saturated colours and pell-mell momentum, while Wong rewires time with poetic time-lapses and elliptical, staccato editing. Doyle describes it in the film’s accompanying extra as “what you see is what you get,” and the heighted realism – off-the-cuff but transformed in camera – makes for one of the most beautiful films ever made, perfect in its imperfection.
The two stories – one about a hitman whose agent/partner has fallen in love with him despite them never meeting; the other about a mute miscreant who can’t help but get in trouble – are linked by Wong and Doyle’s claiming of Hong Kong’s neon-soaked, cigarette-hazy night as a place for, well, fallen angels. It ought to be the ultimate triumph of style over substance, but the stories have heat and heart. The impossibly hot Michelle Reis as the agent, sneaking into the hitman’s apartment for some self-love, is smouldering, while Chungking veteran Takeshi Kaneshiro is engaging and funny as a mental guy who can only reach out by kidnapping people off the street and forcing them to have haircuts or buy ice creams. His relationship with his father – especially in a sequence where his videotape of dad’s outward grumpiness reveals secret tenderness – is gorgeous, leading to the spine-tingling ending where, finally, a connection is forged as day breaks in the otherwise eternal night of Wong’s film.