Wong Kar-wai’s fifth feature reunites the Hong Kong filmmaker with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, for another dose of slo-mo fast living.
This is two stories in one: the first a hitman (Leon Lai) looking to exit the business, the second a mute ex-con (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who breaks into other people’s. The two strands never majorly intersect; all that really connects the characters is that Kar-wai has chosen to put them in a film together, as though capturing strangers in the same photograph. One pair is in a long-distance (or emotionally distant) relationship despite regularly crossing paths, interacting exclusively via jukebox. They cut lonely, non-communicative figures; the hitman too cool to express his feelings, the ex-con silent ever since he ate an outdated tin of pineapple slices.
Echoing both Chungking Express and Mr Fish Balls in As Tears Go By, this character provides much-needed levity missing from Days of Being Wild. Where the hitman likes his work for the lack of responsibility (“It’s all been planned by others”), the ex-con loves being his “own boss” and running his own business (he commandeers shops in the middle of the night and forces haircuts on people or makes them buy ice cream). We hear his thoughts in noirish voice-over: “The night is full of weirdos.” Fallen Angels seems to suggest as compelling an explanation as any: they have no responsibilities, and therefore no particular reason to be up the next day.
The 1995 drama largely avoids the potential irritation of its oblivious characters, thanks to its eccentric love interests (Karen Mok and Charlie Yeung) and intoxicating visual style. A master photographer, Kar-wai deploys all manner of fallen angles (plus fish-eye lenses, extreme close-ups, slow-motion, fast-motion and mirrored shots) to reflect the disorientation of disaffected youth, bathed in glowing neons and deep blacks that swallow them like the night. Coupled with the trip-hop soundtrack, you can see where films like Fight Club and The Matrix found their ultra-stimulating neo-noir aesthetic.
Kar-wai unleashes 90 minutes of wild abandon, where fights break out for no reason and stories have neither beginning, middle nor end; merely snapshots of lives glimpsed in passing at great speed. But for all its hyper-stylised urban cool, Fallen Angels is ultimately romantic (“We all need a partner”) and surprisingly personal. Tellingly it is only when the ex-con discovers love and then a camcorder that he begins to make sense of the world, a proxy for Kar-wai’s own relationship with the camera. Only in his hands can a McDonald’s look so attractive when you’re not desperate for the toilet.