in Criterion Month

Fallen Angels (1995)

Let me try to assemble the house of cards that led to Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels. In the Sixties and Seventies, King Hu brought new technical and artistic heights to the wuxia genre with his films Come Drink with Me, Dragon Inn, and A Touch of Zen. Around the same time, Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon brought martial arts films to the global stage. This created an opportunity in the mid-Nineties for an up-and-coming filmmaker, Wong Kar-wai, to take his own shot at the genre. He wrote a prequel to the novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes for his first wuxia film, Ashes of Time.

The production of Ashes of Time was lengthy and difficult. It took so long that before its release, the studio reused the same cast in a separate parody of Condor Heroes called The Eagle Shooting Heroes, which Wong produced. More importantly for Criterion Month, it was at this time, during a two-month break in production, that Wong decided to channel his frustration into a new project: Chungking Express. The whole movie was made in just six weeks, which meant Wong only had time to film two of the three stories he planned. So, immediately after Chungking and Ashes‘ releases, Wong went back and filmed that third story. And that is Fallen Angels.

And if I can make things even a little more complicated, Fallen Angels is really two stories. The first is that of Wong Chi-ming (Leon Lai), a hitman who works with a woman who we only know as his “partner” (Michelle Reis). They have a strictly professional relationship where they don’t really ever interact. The partner gives Wong his targets, sends him blueprints of the places where the hits should go down, cleans his apartment, and buys him groceries. Wong just likes having a simple life, since his partner does all the legwork, all he has to do is kill the people he’s told to. But he is kind of lonely. Meanwhile, Ho Chi-mo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is a mute delinquent on the run from the police who lives with his father (Chan Man-lei) in the same building as the partner. Ho spends his nights “working” by breaking into shops and forcibly selling their goods to innocent passersby. Amusingly, he keeps running into the same man (Chan Fai-hung) and the recurring gag of Ho abusing him, and later the man’s whole family, never failed to make me uncomfortably laugh.

Both stories get more complicated as love triangles develop. It becomes clear that the partner’s become obsessed with Wong but he is planning on ending their relationship and leaving contract killing behind. Things get even more complicated when Wong meets a prostitute named Blondie (Karen Mok) who is convinced Wong is a former boyfriend. Whether they actually were a couple before is left ambiguous, but they become one now. At the same time, Ho keeps meeting Charlie (Charlie Yeung), a distressed woman who every night cries on his shoulder about an ex-boyfriend who has left her for a woman named Blondie. If it’s the same Blondie is also ambiguous, but seems unlikely… the whole thing may even be a delusion. I guess there’s not a lot of certainty on the dark streets of Hong Kong so close to the Handover.

Fallen Angels is definitely a darker counterpoint to Chungking Express, with a focus on seedier characters and darker resolutions. Wong has said that to him, “Chungking Express and Fallen Angels are one film that should be three hours long.” I think it’s up to you if that would work or not; taken together they paint a truly compelling portrait of Hong Kong in the Nineties. I’m not sure if the bitterness of Angels would balance out the sweetness of Chungking or dilute it. And while there are certainly thematic and structural similarities between the two movies, Angels was to me a huge leap forward stylistically. The visuals are grainy and neon-lit, often deliberately out-of-focus and just endlessly cool. The movie’s use of pop music is also top notch, although I still prefer the obsessive replaying of “California Dreamin'” in Chungking. One thing’s for sure, I still love visiting the world of Wong Kar-wai.