Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) isn’t as beloved as some of his other films, most notably Chungking Express (1994), because the characters that populate it aren’t as inherently likeable. They are more standoff-ish or too cool or just plain odd to invite audience identification like the ones in Chungking. As a result, Fallen Angels is a film that is admired rather than loved, which is a shame because there is a lot to love in it. Made a year after the much-celebrated Chungking, it also consists of two separate stories one of which was originally intended to be in the 1994 film but when Wong found it was getting too long removed it and saved it for Fallen Angels.
Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) is a stylish hitman that believes it’s not wise to get emotionally attached to his business partner/handler (Michelle Reis) who secretly pines for him even while setting up assignments and prepping him for them. She goes through his trash and frequents the same bar even sitting in his usual spot just to feel close to him. They are very beautiful, cool-looking people with the former killing his targets to the strains of the trip-hop-like song, “Because I’m Cool” by Nogabe “Robison” Randriaharimalala remixing “Karmacoma” by Massive Attack, while using two handguns in a pretty mean Chow Yun-Fat impersonation.
Wong deflates the overt coolness of this action sequence in the next scene when Wong Chi-Ming takes public transportation home and runs into an old classmate from grade school that proceeds to babble on about his job, which is selling life insurance. This causes Wong Chi-Ming to think to himself, “I often wonder if any insurance company would insure a professional killer.” He leads a simple life because his handler arranges everything for him. As he muses via voiceover narration, “The best thing about my profession is that there’s no need to make any decision. Who’s to die… when… where… it’s all been planned by others. I’m a lazy person.” All he has to do is show up and do the job. They are quite a pair: he has no interest in making human connections, preferring to move through life like some kind of ghost, while she craves it, obsessing over a man she can never have.
In the other story, Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is an ex-con that was rendered mute at the age of five when he ate a can of pineapples that expired – a sly nod to his cop character in Chungking who collected cans of pineapple with a very specific expiration date. Not surprisingly, he finds it hard to make friends or have a job so he sneaks into businesses after hours and works. We even get an amusing montage of him terrorizing customers unaware that he is working off the book, including one guy he forces to eat a ton of ice cream. In his spare time, Ho Chi Moo looks after his father (Man-Lei Chan) who still mourns the death of his wife.
One night, Ho Chi Moo meets an excitable woman named Charlie (Charlie Yeung) whom he lends money to use a public phone to call a girlfriend she’s mad at only to then cry on his shoulder afterwards. They make for an amusing pair as she talks incessantly, ranting and raving, while he exaggerates his reactions for comedic effect.
Wong cuts back and forth between these stories with the characters interacting briefly with each other at key moments in seemingly random fashion, much like in Chungking Express. There is a feeling that these two stories are simply just a couple of the many tales in this world – Wong’s own version of The Naked City (1948) – Hong Kong style.
The cast is uniformly wonderful. Leon Lai epitomizes the cool hitman and this is juxtaposed with his voiceover narration that suggests a self-aware killer. Michelle Reis’ handler is a tragic figure, pining for a man oblivious to her feelings towards him. Like Faye Wong in Chungking, her character gets lost in music as evident in a captivatingly hypnotic scene where she drapes herself over a jukebox while Laurie Anderson’s “Speak My Language” plays over the soundtrack.
Takeshi Kaneshiro delivers an inspired performance as he uses his expressive face and body language to convey what Ho Chi Moo is thinking and feeling towards others, often in humorous ways. The actor plays well off of Charlie Yeung whose character is akin to a verbal explosion, creating chaos wherever she goes. The most heartfelt scenes in the film are the ones depicting his touching relationship with his father. We see them goofing around as son films father cooking with a video camera and then later he watches his father checking out the tape, laughing at the memory of that moment. Their relationship is the heart and soul of Fallen Angels and prevents it from being a merely an exercise in style.
Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle adopt an even more intimate stylistic approach with Fallen Angels than on previous efforts as characters’ faces loom close to the camera and are distorted slightly thanks to the use of a fisheye lens. It gives the impression that they are trapped in a fish bowl, trying to find a way out. Wong and Doyle adopt a very similar restless camerawork approach and jump cut editing style as they did on Chungking, which makes Fallen Angels a spiritual sequel of sorts. It is very easy to imagine the characters in both films existing in the same cinematic world. In fact, Ho Chi Moo ends up working at the same fast food joint that Faye Wong did in the previous film.
Fallen Angels is populated by attractive characters full of existential angst as they wax philosophically about their daily ruminations and life via voiceover narration. As a result, we get a soulful hitman, his romantic handler and a playful ex-con. Much like with Chungking Express, we get the feeling that these characters live in the moment with very little thought about their future. At one point, Wong Chi-Ming even flirts with the notion of quitting but doesn’t know how. Wong employs even more voiceover narration than Chungking so that there is more of it than actual spoken dialogue, anticipating what Terrence Malick would do later in Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012).
Much like with Chungking, Wong uses Fallen Angels to show how fleeting and precious human contact is, whether it is a brief encounter with a chatty woman in a restaurant or cooking with your father. They are all moments to be treasured because life can be fleeting and one never knows when exactly it will all be over. Wong populates his films with dreamers and romantics. Ho Chi Moo may be one of the most distinctive – a holy goof, as Jack Kerouac would say, who sees the world from a distinctive perspective and expresses himself in an equally unique way. Wong spends more screen-time with him than with Wong Chi-Ming because he’s a more interesting character and one that best encapsulates his cinematic worldview so it makes sense that Fallen Angels ends with him riding off to an uncertain future.