There is a moment in Paul Mazursky's fitfully remarkable An Unmarried Woman wherein the protagonist, Erica, speaks to a friend who suffers from bipolarity and now takes lithium to stabilize her mood. "Since I started taking Lithium," she says, "I feel more sensible than this month's Good Housekeeping." Then, with a combination of gallant flippancy and deep regret, she adds, "No more black, moody lows. But I sure as hell miss my highs."
Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels almost seems like its director made it to illustrate this point. It lacks the consistency of his previous breakthroughs, the so-ephemeral-it's-practically-spectral Days of Being Wild and the masterful Chungking Express, but for every moment that sags, another is filled with such power, such beauty and such impact that it challenges those daunting achievements for supremacy. Ostensibly a continuation of Chungking Express, what was intended as the third storyline for that film blossoms into a surreal stew of colliding plots, moods and colors to make the kaleidoscopic feel of Chungking seem positively straightforward in comparison.
One can spot the connections to Wong's previous masterpiece, some overt, others more sly. Still rooted in the Chungking Mansions section of Hong Kong, Fallen Angels features characters who work at the Midnight Express hole-in-the-wall, a character who remains mute throughout the film because he ate too many expired pineapples after having his heartbroken (the same actor, Takeshi Kaneshiro, played the character who ate the pineapple in the last film, and they share the same character name), and a female cleans up the apartment where her love goes, albeit in a much darker sense.
Yet Wong turns Chungking on its head, creating a movie where people do not find themselves through relationships but lose their identities through various types of relationships. Rather than forge their personality and move forward, they stagnate, conforming to what they think the other person wants. Exploring this idea curiously instead of cynically, the director digs into the ways that we sometimes try too hard to please people without truly getting to know them, and how romance cannot be built on a lie. He also cares deeply about the changing nature of relationships in the modern age.
After all, every relationship in Fallen Angels recalls a business transaction of some sort. A listless hitman played by Leon Lai relies on his partner, played by Michelle Reis, to set up his engagements so he never has to make any decisions, and he rejects her affection for him with the corporate mentality of not sleeping with co-workers. He even fakes a romance through business measures, having paid a woman $30 to pose for a photo so he could pass her off as his wife to inquisitive people, and he got a child an ice cream cone to be his "son." He Zhiwu, the mute (who speaks in voiceovers), breaks into businesses in the middle of the night in order to serve customers to make money but also perhaps a friend or two. When he meets a woman (Charlie Yeung), the first thing she does is demand change so she can call a former friend and cuss her out for stealing her boyfriend. When she hangs up, Charlie then drags the uncomfortable man back as he attempts to slip away and hilariously commands him, "Let me cry on your shoulder!" When he starts to develop feelings for Charlie, He Zhiwu refers to himself as a store and her a customer, and that he hopes she will shop there for a while.
This perception of love and friendship suggests modern alienation in big cities filled with giant billboards and a hodgepodge of corporate franchises (Leon meets the woman he takes as his lover at a McDonald's), which Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle emphasize through the mise-en-scène. Characters are grounded in focus in the foreground, while people in the background pass out of focus, either captured by a shallow lends or sped up into blurs. Even when a fight breaks out behind Michelle, Doyle does not switch focus and roots on her eating with a bored look on her face while fuzzy images of a fistfight crash in the background. People in small towns always seem to know each other, but cities are so populous and so busy that fewer connections are made. Faced with infinite possibilities of an urban jungle, people instead retreat into isolation, sticking to familiar haunts, tuning out the bustle with portable music players. Wong and Doyle make Hong Kong into a swirling cascade of colors and sights, but their frenzied rush through all the stalls and apartments overload the sensual enticement of the images and turn them into something intimidating and off-putting.
Therefore, love becomes another aspect of life that becomes isolated and one-sided. As free-spirited and joyous as Wong makes the sequence of Faye cleaning Cop 663's apartment in Chungking Express, he's also showing this woman imagining herself being the man's domestic partner without actually telling him about her feelings and maybe crafting a real relationship. Likewise, Leon reveals a mutual attraction with Michelle -- it would be hard not to find the former Miss Hong Kong sexy -- but he sticks to his silly code and finds a surrogate for his lust in the form of Blondie. Meanwhile, Michelle stays home and morosely masturbates to the fantasy of Leon, and in the film's most heartbreaking sequence, Wong cuts between Leon fulfilling his desire with Blondie as Michelle writhes on her bed masturbating and sobbing as if she can see her love bed another woman even as she still tries desperately to get off on the thought that he's thinking of her while sleeping with Blondie.
Doyle captures this sexual frustration through a series of amusing and wrenching visual metaphors. He Zhiwu breaks into an abattoir and toys with a whole pig carcass as if a lover, massaging it like he's engaging in foreplay and jumping up and down on it in an overtly sexual manner, and later he and Charlie vent their pent-up sexual aggression by kicking the hell out of a blow-up sex doll without simply acknowledging each other. As Michelle lies on her bed in agony and ecstasy, she wears a plastic sheath over her silk dress, clashing a modern, Westernized accessory with classical Chinese clothing but also conveying how she has encased her sensuality. Doyle would bring an eroticism to the silk clothes that could top pornography in In the Mood for Love, and for him to obscure it here shows how much Michelle is wasting by not moving on.
Yet, for all the somber, mangled looks at crumbling interpersonal connection in the world, Fallen Angels contains more comic moments than any of Wong's other features. Leon shows off his fake family photo to an old classmate he meets on a bus while escaping from his first filmed hit (the murders themselves are amusingly choreographed like classic John Woo shootouts but shot in Wong's artier style), and the man enters into a one-sided conversation as he excitedly tries to catch up. The forgotten friend offers to get Leon a good insurance rate, and the killer tunes the guy out by musing whether a hitman could get insured. Later, the director literalizes the idea of the characters changing themselves to fit their partners' tastes when He Zhiwu, who has to console Charlie constantly over her hatred for Blondie, actually starts turning blond himself. Much of the visuals are non-sequiturs anyway, and Wong never attempts to stifle their absurdity with his weighty, insightful themes. Who else would insert a scene of Michelle warning a hidden Leon to stay out of sight because cops are searching the apartment complex for him, only for him to clearly give away his position in a cramped cupboard by continuing to smoke inside it. Only Godard at his earliest would put in such a loopy goof on a criminal.
One of the all-time great cinematic romantics, Wong has a particular interest in the transience of love. When he breaks off his relationship with Blondie, Leon does not feel too guilty for breaking her heart. "For her, I'm just a stopover on the journey of her life," he says. "I hope she reaches her destination soon." What he doesn't realize is that we are all stopovers, that the transience these people force themselves into is not a contrast to the supposed permanence of normalcy when it is really just a self-absorbed perversion of the wayward nature of life that we all experience. Cramped in their withdrawn lives, they retreat from contact and seem to look for answers in false copies of life (i.e. the typical depiction of romance in the movies). One of the biggest breakthroughs in the film is delivered so plainly that you might miss it: as He Zhiwu lets Charlie cry on his shoulder for the umpteenth time, he notes in his narration that she will never sort out her issues on the phone, and that she won't feel better until she has a real conversation face-to-face. When he sees Charlie later, she's a flight attendant and doesn't recognize him, but he accepts that her path has taken her elsewhere and has now built enough of his own identity to take it in stride. Leon doesn't have this epiphany, and he realizes too late that he should have been more open and made his own decisions. As for Michelle, she ends up cleaning up an apartment after her partner just as Faye did for her love, but Michelle's wash has a much darker context. Where Faye cleaned to cheer up her crush and set him up to accept her, Michelle scrubs away the memory of Leon, somewhat literally. Hideous as the act is within context, it too frees her, and when she accepts a motorcycle ride home from He Zhiwu, Wong sets up the two characters who have learned to accept the ephemeral nature of life for a possible romance. "I haven't ridden a motorcycle for a long time," Michelle tells us, practically confiding in the audience. "Actually, I haven't been so close to a man for a while. The road isn't that long, and I know I'm getting off soon. But at this moment, I'm feeling such lovely warmth."
After watching and loving all of the director's output, I only just now pin down what I adore about his cinema: Wong Kar-wai is the William Faulkner of filmmakers. His stories occur out of order but typically without flashback. Snatches of stirred passion and denied love, Wong's movies cross several perspectives that can stand entirely outside each other even as they add greater dimension to the overall narrative. The first shots of Fallen Angels convey the different points of view of Leon and Michelle: the camera weaves around Michelle as she walks through the subway as if flirting with her and taking on her unfulfilled passion. When Wong shoots the same location for Leon moving through the area, he does so in a series of quick edits of static shots. This is a man of purpose and denial, and he will not even acknowledge his romantic side. It is when the director crushes these styles together, along with the different approaches of the other characters, that Fallen Angels crafts a more wholesome vision of love, lust, repression and regret.
In Wong's films, as in Faulkner's novels, time and place are as vital to unraveling the meaning of the story as they are irrelevant to the telling of it, and the looming shadow of Hong Kong's handover is as key here as it is in his next film, Happy Together. The focus on transiency and adaptation speaks as much to the director's concerns over Hong Kong as it does humanity: the perfect blend of Eastern and Western aesthetic and customs, Hong Kong may well swing toward Chinese tradition when it's absorbed into the mainland. The final shot, of He Zhiwu exhaling a puff of cigarette smoke that Wong tilts up to follow, visualizes how everything in life drifts and dissipates, yet he also lingers on a skyscraper in the frame as if contemplating its future as well.
With its dark, sickly surreality, Wong's Hong Kong becomes the traumstadt, a dream city that can fit all emotions and moods because it does not really exist. Yet by not existing, it can break all the boundaries that prevent us from seeing things as they are, and Wong can shoot in a stream-of-consciousness style, such as cutting to a man shivering in fear with a tray of food as Leon blazes past cutting down his marks. Fallen Angels may be the sloppiest of Wong's films, but its messiness is part of its beauty and its intelligence. If the point of the film is that life itself is convoluted and discombobulated, then is there any other way to capture it than an insane mash-up of melodrama, comedy, humanism and the choked eroticism that marks Wong's cinema? Whether it's his best film is irrelevant; Fallen Angels is but one of the director's several examples of pure, atmospheric meditations on the distances, physical, emotional and completely artificial, we place between each other. Perhaps when someone else approaches him, we can fuss over ranking his oeuvre.