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Fallen Angels
(Duoluo Tianshi)
China - 1995
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997


An incredibly intoxicating, multi-faceted love story, Fallen Angels succeeds on levels both technical and emotional. Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) is the archetypal hired killer, content to have everything arranged around him so that all he has to do is pull the trigger. In a small room, perched high within some sort of warehouse, there is a bed, TV, fridge and fax machine - all Chi-Ming needs when he's on the job. His only contact with his employers is his fax, which occasionally spits out missions, and a safety deposit box. All of this is organised by the Agent (Michele Reis). They've met but once in their 3-year partnership, a lucrative and convenient arrangement for both.

However, the Agent has become fixated with Chi-Ming, lusting after him but unable to make a move. When she cleans his room, the garbage goes home too - then she can sort through the strands of his life at her leisure. Sometimes, when Chi-Ming's away, she'll lie on his bed and masturbate ferociously, focusing all of her desire and frustration into a brief fragment of release. The parallels between their lives become further pronounced when the Agent is shown casing a joint (sketching a detailed map for Chi-Ming), with rapid cuts jumping to Chi-Ming as he actually arrives and delivers his fatal message.

Elsewhere in Hong Kong, He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) is forcing entrance into shops closed for the night, then forcing passers-by to become his customers. Mute since the age of 5 (when he ate a can of out-of-date pineapple), Zhiwu communicates his intentions through sign language and bodily coercion. In this way a truly unlucky individual (Chan Fai-Hung) is forced to eat mounds of flaming ice-cream while Zhiwu drives his stolen van around the city. This episode has deeper resonance because Zhiwu's mother was killed by an ice-cream van, leaving Zhiwu to live with his father (Chen Wanei). They still share the same run-down apartment, even when Zhiwu meets and falls in love with spaced-out Charlie (Charlie Young).

From the very first frames, watching Fallen Angels is much like having your fingers plugged into an electric socket. The sheer rush of kinetic camera- work, over-saturated neon colours and pounding (but appropriate) soundtrack blazes from the screen. Unrestrained by anything as prosaic as a linear narrative, scenes leap about wildly, pulled together by the incredible feel of the entire enterprise. Supported by minimal dialogue, characters are seen to meet, carry out actions and wade through an orgiastic, blurred haze of violence. Using voice-over to anchor the action, the relationship of Chi-Ming and his Agent begins to take shape. Suddenly, their whole story snaps into focus, the unfulfilled tragedy of the situation becoming apparent.

While the Killer's side of Fallen Angels is played very cool and stylish, the flip-side of Zhiwu plumbs a heady mixture of farce and deep-seated love. Ill-suited to normal work, the moments when Zhiwu plays shopkeeper and traps reluctant customers are magical and extremely well-played. With a look of pure innocence, Zhiwu is more playful than threatening (even if the shop owners are less than charitable). This is a finely balanced piece of acting, fantastically charming and surprisingly moving (in relation to those he loves). Leon Lai is far more taciturn and inward, which makes his performance difficult to judge - his character is played correctly but he doesn't have a heart.

A stunning aspect of Fallen Angels is its completeness - an intense riot of colour, sound, perspective and texture. Everything hangs together, resonating with other sides of the film and forming a dense mesh of meaning. The way in which Wong Kar-wai makes frequent use of mirrors to reflect the two (or more) views of every situation both stands alone and carries through into the film as a whole. Powerful editing manages to suggest that the Killer and his Agent are in the same place at the same time, even though temporal displacement keeps them firmly apart. Combined with Chris Doyle's cinematography, which manipulates lenses and visual tones with hypnotic ease, and superb use of montage, Fallen Angels just throbs with vitality. It's an electrifying experience which needs to be seen several times for full comprehension, and even then it won't be appreciated by all. Nevertheless, if you feel adventurous, catch Fallen Angels while you can.

Runtime: 90 minutes

Note:  Fallen Angels was nominated for several Hong Kong Film Awards and won in the categories of Best Cinematography, Best Original Film Score and Best Supporting Actress (Karen Mok) (1996).  The film also won the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award for Film of Merit (1996).

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