An insufferable movie snob wanders off the beaten track, comes back and talks about what he has seen.
February 12, 2015
Kar Wai Wongs’ Fallen Angels is a hard film to get close to. It’s not fair to say it is without plot, but it IS fair to say that it only uses the skeleton of a plot to do the things it really wants to do. No, where FA really excels is in using images, mood, lighting and music to create a self-contained world that is at once sterile and sensual, violent and tender, and bleak and colorful. I really can’t think of anything else to compare it to.
Fallen Angels is set in Hong Kong, and follows three strange individuals: The Killer (Leon Lai) is a super-cool hired assassin. The Agent (Michelle Reis) is his partner, and sets up his jobs for him. In addition, she sneaks in and cleans his apartment when he’s not there. She is sexually obsessed with him, even though she has basically never met him. The third character is The Mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who supports himself by breaking into businesses at night and intimidating people into letting him sell and perform services for cash.
These bizarre characters have one common thread – They are all isolated from normal human contact. With the Killer, it’s by choice. His narration makes the point that in his job, all his decisions are made for him. He gets a name and a place, and just goes and does the job. He admits to being lazy, and in this way, he doesn’t have to go to the trouble of meeting people. The Agent talks about setting up the hits, and it’s instructive to hear how she distances herself from the reality of what she does.
“I don’t know them. I’m not interested in them, either. Because they’ll soon be gone forever.”
The Mute is a bit different. He is the only one of the three main characters who could be said to be a social being. His solitude is due to his inability to speak (Due to eating a bad can of pineapple). He is an ex-convict who lives with his father. In the case of the Mute, he seems to use his disability as a tool. His job entails forcing people to buy pork, or have their clothes washed, or to buy ice cream cones. To the world, he is a madman, and the muteness is a part of the act.
This concept of people who are separate, but linked is illustrated in back-to-back sequences with the Agent and the Killer, where she stakes out a card game, and then he comes in later to kill all the participants. The camera concentrates on the prep work, following her closely as she walks through a deserted subway station and enters a boisterous restaurant where the hit is to take place. As the targets play and laugh behind her, she impassively sits eating noodles. When the Killer comes in later, he walks through the same subway, still deserted, and enters the same restaurant. Both characters are presented in the same way.
It’s in the aftermath of this bloodbath that the film’s strangest scene occurs. Leaving the scene of his hit, the Killer jumps onto a bus, and is recognized by a former classmate. The classmate natters on about school and career (he’s in insurance!). The Killer hands over his own card (“You have your own business!”), and a photo of his wife and kids. The juxtaposition of the bloody shooting spree and the inane chatter of the classmate is absurd, and indeed, the Killer spends the whole encounter with what appears to be a sly smile on his face. Tellingly, he doesn’t utter a word – he just listens. Then, the narration twists back to tell us that the woman in the photo was paid $30 to pose as his wife, and that he bought the kid an ice cream cone. Even though the Killer has no desire for a family, he sees the need to provide a façade as a concession to a societal norm.
The Agent is another curious character. She takes great pains to project an image of sexuality, with her stilettos and fishnet stockings, but she seems indifferent to conventional sexuality. The film’s opening scene shows her with the Killer, in apparently the only instance where they have actually met face-to-face, and she is clearly uncomfortable. She trembles and faces away from him as she talks. She is certainly obsessed with him, but it seems more a case that she loves the idea of him more than the reality. She masturbates in his room after cleaning it, and goes to the same bar that he frequents and sits in his chair. That’s why she makes the point in an early narration that she knows how to make herself happy. She is a sexual being, but seemingly only with herself.
The Mute spends quite a bit of time with his widowed father, who he admits doesn’t talk much either. That there is a great deal of affection between these two is apparent, but in this movie, it naturally takes a different form. Throughout the film, the mute videotapes his father, and it is comical in its own maladjusted way, as the old man is interrupted when he is sleeping, cooking, and sitting on the toilet. Later in the film, after the father has died, these videos take on an added poignancy as the son re-watches them. Again, someone makes a connection with another person without exactly connecting.
It’s impossible to talk about FA without mentioning the look and feel of the movie. The film’s themes are solitude and self-imposed detachment, and the film is shot in a style that augments the numb, alienated vibe that the characters give off. Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle create a world that is devoid of soft edges and warmth. The whole film takes place at night, and Doyle often uses wide-angle lenses to create a “cushion” around his characters. The film also makes use of the plentiful urban lighting of neon signs. The film often has a greenish, sickly hue that dovetails perfectly with its characters, who stand slightly outside of normalcy.
If the three central characters of FA blend into the background in a big, busy city, then the two additional ones that the film introduces partway through stand in the forefront. Blondie (Karen Mok) makes a bold advance on the Killer as he eats in an otherwise empty McDonalds, sitting herself down next to him, and then following him out. She is plainly a wild free spirit, unafraid to make a spectacle of herself. Their meeting leads to a sexual encounter, although the Killer states that he just wanted company for one night. She, on the other hand, simply can’t stand being alone.
Cherry (Charlie Yeung) is one of those people who are so commonplace in cities now. When the Mute meets her, she is having a very loud public phone conversation with a woman who has stolen her boyfriend. She borrows a dime from the mute to make her call, and then asks to cry on his shoulder. The narration then tells us that the Mute has met this girl before, and it is always the same – he happens to be there when she is angry or upset. Is this realistic? No, of course not. Is the “Blondie” girl on the other end of the line the same Blondie as the Killers girl? Perhaps, but it’s not really important. I think this is more the films way of connecting characters who otherwise have no connection.
The turning point of the film is when the Killer decides that he is done with his lifestyle, and has to let the Agent know that he won’t need her anymore. His method of doing this is consistent with what we have already seen from these characters. He tells someone in his bar to have the Agent play a certain song on the juke-box, and in hearing it, she will know it is over. He will sever the relationship indirectly, through a song.
These people are so peculiar and so entrenched that it’s unimaginable that they might be shoe-horned into any kind of clichéd movie convention. Thus, when Fallen Angels draws its plot points together, it is in an offbeat way. In a scene that mirrors an earlier one, the agent sits on a restaurant quietly eating noodles. A noisy dispute breaks out behind her, but she is oblivious to it. Only after the carnage, when one bloodied individual (The Mute) rises, does she take notice, and the film’s final shot is of the two of them riding away on his motorcycle. Even this wonky “meet-cute” is tempered by the personalities of the two. As the soundtrack fills up with “Only You” – (A song about desperate loneliness), He narrates that “I knew we wouldn’t become friends or confidantes” and she says “The road is short. I knew I’d be getting off soon, but I hadn’t felt such warmth in a long time”. No doubt.