The laconic hired killer Chi-Ming stands as still as a statue as he empties his clips into the men and women in front of him.
In the opening shot showing the Agent, hired by Chi-Ming and attracted to him, the two characters’ placement conveys the disparity between them.
The Agent, clad in a leatherette mini-dress, goes to clean the absent Chi-Ming’s apartment...
...and masturbates on his bed there.
The Agent in a coffee shop in the movie’s penultimate scene: “There are some people you can never get close to. Get too close, and youll find him boring.”
The elusive “Baby” by her apartment building allows Wong once again to play with Western beauty standards.
Cinematography blends with intentionally garish set design (by William Chang) to counter “realism.”
One shot, when Qiwu realizes that hes in love with Charlie, occupies the screen for two and a half minutes.
At the height of Qiwus love for Charlie, his hair turns blonde all on its own—only to become black again after Charlie stops seeing him.
If Chungking Express is the antithesis of Ashes of Time, then Fallen Angels is their synthesis. Like Wongs dashed-off masterpiece, Fallen Angels also combines two very different stories, a crime drama and a romantic comedy. However, Wong now integrates these two disparate tales much more thoroughly. And like Wongs martial-arts movie, Fallen Angels portrays characters who are trapped by the demands of genre. But where Ashes of Time dooms its characters and itself with no vision beyond nihilism, Fallen Angels borrows the optimism of Chungking Express and leaves its characters room for escape.
Set in contemporary Hong Kong, Fallen Angels follows a laconic hired killer, Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai), who employs a beautiful female Agent (Michelle Reis) to stake out his targets. Although the Agent is clearly attracted to him, Chi-Ming insists that they not get emotionally involved. However, a bleach-blonde sprite called “Baby” (Karen Mok) eventually seduces Chi-Ming into a sexual relationship. When the two women find out about each other, Chi-Ming breaks up with Baby and terminates his business relationship with the Agent. She asks him to kill someone as a parting favor, but Chi-Ming turns the hit into a suicide mission and dies. This dark story is intercut with the light-hearted adventures of He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro, the actor from Chungking Express, playing a different character with the same name), a mute trickster who makes money by breaking into other peoples businesses. He falls in love with Charlie Young (played by an actress with the same name: Charlie Young), a garrulous young woman obsessed with winning back her soon-to-be-married ex-boyfriend. But Charlie suddenly stops seeing Qiwu. Wistful over the death of his Father (Chen Wanlei), Qiwu offers a ride one night to the Agent, who is now equally wistful over the death of Chi-Ming. However, the film ends with the two characters acknowledging that they will never get together romantically.
Yet again, Wong gives us a story of people unable to connect. Expanding on an idea that was originally to have been the third story in Chungking Express, Fallen Angels tantalizingly offers several opportunities for its five main characters to pair off into permanent relationships, but they never do. Qiwu chases after Charlie, who chases after her ex-boyfriend; both Baby and the Agent chase after Chi-Ming, who insists on staying emotionally distant from both of them. The only deep emotional connection to be made is between Qiwu and his Father—but only after the Fathers death: while hes alive, the Father and Qiwu have a semi-antagonistic relationship. For one more movie, Wongs characters make do with yearning and unrequited love.
Rather than conveying these relationships through exchanges of dialogue, Wong relies heavily on voice-over, more than in any of his other films (although Qiwu is mute on camera, his voice speaks freely on the soundtrack). The character with the most dialogue is the motor-mouthed Charlie who has one-way conversations with the mute Qiwu (though she seems to be able to read his mind). To construct the story, we must put these fragments of character together for ourselves. Moreover, as Tony Rayns has noted, the narrative jumps wildly in tone between the somber story of Chi-Ming and the comical antics of Qiwu (“Fallen Angels,” 42). And although Chi-Mings gunplay and Qiwus shenanigans evoke the “heroic bloodshed” and slapstick-comedy genres, respectively, Wong treats their most photogenic actions as incidental: cinematic spectacle is important only insofar as it illuminates the protagonists personalities. The story is clearly not built around the expectations of genre. Wong once again insists that we view these characters with a critical eye.
Wong and Doyle manifest this “critical eye” on a visual level. They shoot virtually the entire film with the actors in close proximity to the cameras wide-angle lens, which distorts the figures with a “fisheye” effect. The cinematography blends with the intentionally garish set design (by William Chang) to produce images that relentlessly refuse a naturalistic appearance. In addition, Wong and Doyle punctuate these images with either step-printing or swift snippets of black & white, which Rayns regards as “the films convention for marking the isolated moments of truth between the characters” (30). Fallen Angels visual strategy has been criticized because “it verges on being an exercise in mere style” (Abbas, 71). And indeed, part of the films appeal lies in the conscious virtuosity of its cinematography and the pleasure of seeing so many cool young men and attractive young women skulking across the screen in fashionable outfits. Had the film used these elements for their own ends, the charge of being a mere stylistic exercise might have been apt. However, the visual overload cannot be divorced from the narrative.
The opening shot of Fallen Angels—one of the most stunning and startling in recent cinema—instantly warns the viewer that this film is not to be watched passively. Distorted by the wide-angle lens, the Agent sits in a canted, claustrophobic close-up with Chi-Ming behind her in a less distorted but soft-focused medium shot. The gnarled placement of the two characters within the monochrome frame creates an acute visual disparity between them. The nervous, seemingly strung-out Agent immediately asks Chi-Ming if theyre still “partners,” a word with both professional and romantic implications (cf. Gross, 6). Without answering her, Chi-Ming reflects on how business partners shouldnt become emotionally involved. Clearly, these are characters who cant see eye to eye—despite their feelings for each other. Moreover, the black & white photography, the low-key lighting, the underworld ambiance, and the ubiquitous cigarette smoke all evoke the artificial atmosphere of film noir. Combined with the contorted composition, these elements self-reflexively declare their condition as outgrowths of the cinema—as products of photography, narrative, and (film) history—an effect made all the more explicit when the monochrome cuts to color in the next scene. From its first shot, the film proclaims that the cinema is an integral part of its narrative, and the viewer is made uncomfortably conscious of this.
Early in Fallen Angels, we see the Agent—decked out in a black leatherette mini-dress and fishnet stockings—cleaning Chi-Mings hide-out. For the second time, Wong shows us a woman who cleans an absent mans dwelling to displace her romantic feelings for him. The incongruity of the Agents sexy party outfit and her mundane domestic task is both startling and humorous. Over this image, we overhear North American-accented television announcers (from a T.V. in the hide-out) talking about the Vietnam War and the 1960s protest movement, thus giving the scene a pointed political undercurrent. Abbas argues that the Agent “is doubly caught in the stereotyped images of genre and gender, of femme fatale and housewife” (74). But like the androgynous Faye in Chungking Express, the the hyper-feminine Agent is negotiating these roles, playing with them. The visual disparity between her appearance and her chores—coupled with the politically conscious T.V. voices—suggests at least as much resistance as surrender to these stereotypes.
After Chi-Ming impassively kills several people at a gambling den, the Agent cleans the hide-out of any evidence and then rifles through his rubbish in an effort to learn more about the man she loves. Later, the Agent goes to a bar frequented by Chi-Ming (who isnt there), and she sits in his favorite chair to feel close to him. At the same time, she rationalizes not being with him: “There are some people you can never get close to. Get too close, and youll find him boring.” The Agent then plays a languid Laurie Anderson song on the bars juke box, and Doyles camera spends the next two and a half minutes (an eternity on the screen) lingering over her slender, alluringly attired body. The scene shifts to the hide-out, where the Agent—alone and fully clothed—masturbates on Chi-Mings bed. Doyle films this scene largely from the foot of the bed, his wide-angle lens staring up at the Agents fishnetted, high-heeled legs, which are brutally prominent in the foreground. The severity of the diagonal composition stuns the eye: we become acutely aware that the extravagance of the Agents apparel overcompensates for the absence of her desired object, Chi-Ming. In this way, the film acknowledges the Agents elaborate attire as a fetish for her unfulfilled sexual desire, and by extension, the wide-angle lenss elaborate distortion of space serves as a perceptual projection of the characters lack of fulfillment.
The frustration of the characters desire is also echoed by the recurrent use of achronological editing. As Larry Gross observes:
In Fallen Angels, [Wong] shows the killers agent preceding him through the scene of an assassination, but later he intercuts their movement to condense and smash the logical temporal sequence altogether. He cannot bring them literally together, so the editing process illustrates their proximity, their desire and the impossibility of its fulfillment. (8)
The visual elements in Fallen Angels, then, have a distinct narrative function. This is not an “exercise in mere style.”
A hired assassin unable to admit his love for a woman, Chi-Ming is the modern-day counterpart of Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time. And like the swordsman, Chi-Mings emotional entrapment is marked by the confines of genre —in this case, the “heroic bloodshed” film exemplified by John Woo (who moved to Hollywood in 1993).25 With the resounding success of A Better Tomorrow in 1986, Woo inaugurated a multitude of Hong Kong movies that portrayed unflappable gunmen upholding a chivalric “code of honor” as they coolly riddled everyone around them with bullets in elaborately staged choreography. Stars such as Chow Yun-Fat and Simon Yam became synonymous with the genre. The bullet-riddled bodies that litter these movies may signal their own subversive subtext about the permeability of the national subject, but as Abbas says of the genre:
We do not find in the end a critique of moral values coming as a response to new social conditions, but rather a return to a less complex moral system that largely precludes the need to register any ambiguity . John Woos films are essentially conservative and sentimental— which is one reason for their successful transplantation to Hollywood. (52)
Chi-Ming in Fallen Angels is no hero, however. He claims to have become a contract killer because he is “lazy” and likes to have others make decisions for him, so he is not presented as the upholder of a moral code. As we watch him stalk to the scene of his first hit in the film, the camera shows him walking in slow motion, a standard convention of the “heroic bloodshed” genre. When he comes upon his targets in the gambling den, Chi-Ming unholsters his guns and fires upon them. In the typical “heroic bloodshed” film, the photography and editing would play upon the excitement of the gunplay and the writhing, blood-gushing bodies. This would be enhanced by choreography and costuming (such as wind-blown raincoats) that heighten the movement within the scene. But in Fallen Angels, the cutting is quick and fragmentary, jumping between grueling slow motion and alienating step-printing. Moreover, Chi-Ming stands as still as a statue as he empties his clips into the men and women in front of him. The scene is ruthlessly void of dynamism or derring-do. And since we never learn why any of Chi-Mings victims are marked for death, our emotional involvement in the action is undermined further. We witness a cold-blooded killing by a man who takes life because he doesnt know how to enjoy it. And any sense of “heroism” in this scene is instantly undercut in the next, when Chi-Ming bumps into a talkative former classmate who tries to sell him (of all things) life insurance. This otherwise funny scene drives home Chi-Mings toxic insularity. Unwilling to forge relationships with either the Agent or Baby, the killer agrees to make one last hit as a favor to the Agent. And in a step-printed shoot-out totally void of heroism, Chi-Ming allows himself to be gunned down. Like Ouyang Feng in Ashes of Time, Chi-Ming cannot bring himself to tell either of the women in his life that he loves them, so he dies to himself. His physical death is a mere formality. The nihilism that Wong saw at the heart of the martial-arts genre in Ashes of Time also lurks in the “heroic bloodshed” movies.
Because it started out as part of Chungking Express, Wong intentionally sprinkles Fallen Angels with references to his earlier film. The most obvious is the use of Takeshi Kaneshiro to play another character named He Qiwu. Moreover, this Qiwu also has a bad reaction to eating canned pineapple, lives in Chungking Mansions, eventually goes to work at the Midnight Express, and falls for a woman who becomes a flight attendant and leaves him. But the Qiwu of Fallen Angels is on the other side of the law (the first Qiwus badge number becomes the seconds prison number). Unable to speak (he went mute from eating the pineapple), Qiwu makes money by breaking into other peoples shops at night and forcing hapless passers-by to buy things. Somehow, Qiwu always gets away with this, and the film takes humorous delight in showing this silent clown forcing his wares upon unwilling “customers.” Like Faye in Chungking Express (whose body movements he mimics behind the counter), Qiwu frolics in the flip side of Hong Kongs prized work ethic. In a comical manner, he takes what Teo calls the colonys “can-do attitude” to its logical extreme: Qiwu becomes the impish embodiment of capitalism as coercive compulsion.
However, Qiwu changes his ways when he falls in love with Charlie. The two strike up a rapport when the single-minded young woman insists that he help her track down the fiancée of the ex-boyfriend she desperately wants to win back. Unable to find the fiancée, Charlie and Qiwu end up harassing the other tenants in the elusive womans apartment building and beating up a blow-up doll. The fiancées nickname is “Blondie,” so the blonde-haired blow-up doll becomes an appropriate target for their frustrations. Once again, Wong raises the issue of Western beauty standards being more desirable than Asian features, and the futility of finding Blondie suggests that such standards remain equally elusive for Asian people. However, at the height of Qiwus love for Charlie, his hair turns blonde all on its own—only to become black again after Charlie stops seeing him. Fallen Angels parallels this story with that of Baby, who dyes her hair blonde to win back Chi-Ming (she succeeds, but only temporarily). Viewing these stories alongside that of Chungking Express blonde-wigged Smuggler, Wong seems to suggest that inner fulfillment for Hong Kong wont come from unthinkingly adopting Western standards (standards of beauty, standards of the cinema). Just as Qiwus black hair has the mysterious power to turn blonde, so the Hong Kong Chinese possesses their own innate attractiveness and ability.
Like the story of Chi-Ming, the story of Qiwu also utilizes the undercrank/step-printing motif. One shot in particular, when Qiwu realizes that hes in love with Charlie, is the most lyrical in the film. We see Qiwu and Charlie in monochrome as they sit at a table behind (what we assume to be) a restaurant window. Charlie stares off into space, her thoughts an enigma. Qiwu hovers next to her, taking in her presence, barely daring to touch her. A blurry, indistinct mass of people seems to stampede in the background. Rain pelts the window from outside, and a languorous blues tune smolders from the soundtrack. Without cutting, this single take occupies the screen for two and a half minutes. This is a considerable amount of time for a single, relatively static scene with no on-screen dialogue, but the shot is never boring. The frame creates internal tension between Qiwus slow, almost ethereal movements and the maddening rush of bodies behind him. The bleary streaks of rain ebb and flow across the figures, creating pulsating rivulets of haziness and clarity. “They say women are made of water,” says Qiwu to himself. “So are some men.” This amazing image shows Charlies effect on Qiwu: by loving her, he absorbs her liquescent spirit, and it floods the entire frame. More than any other image in Wongs canon, this shot magnificently envisions the rapture of human connection.
The step-printing appears again in the final shot. For unknown reasons, Qiwu has just been beaten up in a restaurant. Quickly recovering, his voice-over paraphrases his opening lines in Fallen Angels and those of the other He Qiwu in Chungking Express: “We rub shoulders with many people everyday. Some may become close friends or confidants. Thats why Im always optimistic. Sometimes it hurts. Not to worry—I try to stay happy.” Qiwu sees the Agent, his neighbor, at the restaurant. He finds her “alluring,” although he knows that theyre not each others type; theyre not destined to be together. The lonely Agent asks for a ride home on Qiwus motorcycle. The step-printing kicks in as the two speed through the Cross-Harbor Tunnel from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. Obviously still recovering from Chi-Mings death, the Agents weary face is extended in time as she rides behind Qiwu on his bike, her head on his shoulder. She says to herself: “I havent ridden pillion in a long time, nor have I been this close to a man in ages. The road home isnt very long, and I know Ill be getting off soon. But at this moment, Im feeling such lovely warmth.” Following a waft of smoke from Qiwus cigarette, the camera tilts up as the ceiling of the tunnel gives way to the Tsimshatsui skyline, its towers seeming to touch the sky. This final, fleeting image—with its buildings pointing heavenward—hints at something larger than the two characters, something connected to the “lovely warmth” the Agent feels. The spiritual connotations of the last shot add to the spiritual connotations of the films English title, Fallen Angels,26 and this encourages the viewer to look back on the relationships between the characters in light of the inner fulfillment that they do or do not provide.
The relationships in the film, however, are marked by very little “warmth.” The most meaningful emotional connections in Fallen Angels are Qiwus new appreciation for his Father, once the older man dies, and a Japanese restaurant owners love for his absent family. As in Chungking Express and Ashes of Time, Wong presents the romantic possibilities between his characters as highly flawed: given their obsessiveness and self-centeredness, they seem to be looking for partners who would only affirm their solipsism, not challenge it. Its easy to believe that any attempt at romance between the men and the women would only run aground on their narcissism. By filming their stories in such a distancing manner, Wong seems critical of these relationships, and they become difficult to root for. The director suggests that he wants his characters to discover something more fulfilling, a sense of genuine connection and intimate understanding. And seeking ones identity in relation to others touches directly on the idea of the nation.