Fallen Angels

(Wong Kar-wai, HK, 1996)


Love Action

We all know that the cinema is obsessed with love, with romance, and most especially with the couple. Raymond Bellour captured the imagination of a generation of film students when he said: "Narrative cinema is a machine for creating the couple". And he meant that pretty literally: no matter what intriguing twists and turns there are in a movie plot, we end up, a million times over, with the final clinch, the final kiss or embrace, and the whole world of the film shrinks to that moment, that gesture, before the final fade-out.

It may have something to do with me as much as something to do with cinema, but I too have become obsessed with what it takes to get to that kind of final moment in a film. The idea of a ‘love connection’ in movies, that final, crowning, sublime kiss or whatever, is not a mystical or abstract or purely sentimental idea. It’s a very tangible, palpable, physical business. It’s a matter of getting two bodies into the same space; a mater of getting two pairs of eyes to lock together at exactly the right moment. Of course, we’re in some particularly rarefied realm of romantic movie fantasy here, where everything leads to this singular second of love connection, a connection that does not have to go under the scrutiny of any further reality test. But every fantasy – if it’s a good fantasy – has its charge, and also its truth.

So romantic movies are about getting two bodies together. Two bodies that are on separate courses, travelling on two separate paths. It’s a dance of sorts, lovely and sometimes agonising. The agony comes when those paths cross over, but still the lovers-to-be somehow do not recognise each other; their time has not yet come. I remember the plot of that strange Alan Rudolph film Made in Heaven (1987), where two people who fall in love in the after-life are reincarnated back on earth, and then spend the rest of the movie wandering around before their great sparking moment of destiny. I also think of the more down to earth romantic agony that you get in comedies. Here, the lovers might know each other already, they might even be married already, but things keep intervening that get in the way of their moment of physical union. Youngsters on their parents’ porch can’t get in their first kiss; newly-marrieds can’t consummate their first night.

The first teacher of film studies I ever had, long ago, once said to the class: look at how many times kisses are interrupted in old Hollywood films. And he was dead right: ever since then, I have been chilled and niggled and frustrated by literally hundreds of glancing, incomplete, furtive pashes in cinema. Sometimes, it’s all I take away from certain films: that damn kiss that didn’t happen until the final shot. Now, you can call that sexual tension if you like, and that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Rather, it’s a matter of full-blown romantic tension.

One of the things that most characterises the modern era in movies, as opposed to the Golden Days of Hollywood era, is the problem of how much harder it is these days to get to that final moment of kiss or union. I don’t only mean that the problems facing modern lovers seem infinitely more complex and neurotic. I mean that the films themselves, or their filmmakers, seem very tentative, wary, troubled by the prospect of ending a movie this way. They don’t want to seem too corny, and are leery of that impossible, hyped-up, love fantasy trip. And this question mark that hovers over the final romantic kiss creates a few different kinds of responses or solutions in modern cinema. There’s the response of flip irony, a certain sarcasm, or at the very least an extreme understatement, a droll detachment. I’m thinking for instance of the last shot of Aki Kaurismaki’s splendid comedy I Hired a Contract Killer (1990). In the last shot of this movie, the sad-eyed hero (played by the great Jean-Pierre Léaud) finally evades once and for all the death that he has commissioned for himself (by hiring a contract killer to bump him off). A car stops in front of Léaud, just short of running him down; the woman who he has shared some vague love experience with declares her love for him, and they embrace. But there is no cut to close-up for this, no rapturous swell of music. It is a downbeat embrace, the little bright rose in the vast, grey gutter.

And then there’s another kind of movie response to the difficulty of modern love. And that’s to stress the redemptive, magical, even miraculous aspect of a final kiss. It’s as if, after a film has shown so much contemporary-style confusion and despair and violence and emotional murkiness, suddenly there comes along this singular moment of grace which is the kiss. The famous ending of Woody Allen‘s overrated Manhattan (1978) mixes the ironic and the miraculous – using, as so many modern romantic comedies do, that desperate run or dash to catch up with a departing lover. A more extreme example is Edward Yang’s Mahjong (1996), where a lacerating scene of murder and death is abruptly followed by one of the sweetest snogs between young things in the street that I’ve ever seen.

And now we cut to a new movie, one of the truly great movies of its year: Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels. Wong is a wildly acclaimed filmmaker whose work I didn’t take to straight away, when I first saw Chungking Express (1994). The droll, lazy, meandering feel of that film – the dwelling on the rather groovy surface of everything in sight, whether hairdos or tableware or CD players – all alienated me rather than drew me in. But with Fallen Angels, I just fell headlong into the fragile and sensual world of Wong Kar-wai. It is truly a sad, sexy, hypnotic film. And the condition of modern love, the disputed passage towards unlikely or impossible moments of romantic union, that is the central, perhaps sole topic of this quietly obsessive masterpiece.

We know this from the first dazzling moments of Fallen Angels. In a striking black and white composition, a man and woman are sitting, silent, languid, smoking. Nobody films the body-language of tiredness and languor like Wong Kar-wai. Everyone in his films is at all times slumped and stretched out, the weight of the world is sending their emotional gravity straight down to the bottom of whatever space they are occupying, train-seat or bed-sheet or barstool. This man and woman in the opening shot of the film are also shot somewhat kookily with an exaggerated wide angle lens. This lens distorts and distends space, making these people look a mile away from each other when they are in fact quite close. Virtually the whole of the film is shot in this way, which gives the film an almost psychedelic feel. Anyhow, we have this man and woman, and finally some desultory words that encapsulates their cool, modern relationship: "Are we still partners?"

In truth, it is an odd partnership between these two, known as Agent (that’s her) and Killer (that’s him). It’s a professional partnership, of sorts: they share a living cum office space, a seedy little cul-de-sac, but inhabit it at separate times, different hours. She cruises local locations for him, which he then shows up at, in order to kill people. The narrative whys and wherefores of this bizarre assassination game remain completely abstract and obscure. There’s death – sudden, senseless, a beautifully choreographed slow-motion mayhem – and then there’s love, unspoken, unrequited, filling every lonely, sad crevice of this eternal Hong Kong night. That’s the universe of Wong Kar-wai, a universe of complete and utter disconnection, of ephemeral moments, of time forever wasting, and of a certain, voluptuous oblivion. All the characters here are fallen angels when we meet them, and they keep falling still further, unless a gesture of love can redeem them for a precious second.

But, for all the moroseness, there is an unusual lightness to Wong’s vision: he shows you disconnection without the usual dose of maudlin alienation, he gives you grunge without the usual component of revved-up angst. Instead, it’s just a great, floating world, with the characters floating through the most exquisitely realised and rendered spaces and places. Everything is corridors and stairways, squiggly, labyrinthine tunnels of passage in Fallen Angels, all cramped little corners and concentrated spaces. There’s a great gag, where a woman plonks herself next to a guy in a McDonalds, making as if the place is so crowded she has nowhere else to sit; the camera then swings around to show that it is cavernously empty. In another superb moment, the start of a one night stand is dramatised in a woman’s frenetic attempts to get her chosen man up the front steps of her apartment block; she cajoles him, she keeps running up and down the steps, she tries to physically drag him up.

Almost everybody gets very lost and confused watching Wong’s films, even his most feverish fans. And I’ve finally realised why: he plots the paths of a lot of different characters, but he films them all in very similar settings, often the same settings, in a kind of rondo or progressive circulation. The different characters in Fallen Angels, like in Chungking Express tend to bleed into each other; they all have a ghostly, two-dimensional, shifting quality. There is in fact a sublime part in the film where one guy says in voice-over on the soundtrack: "some women are like water – some men, too". That dreamy statement is accompanied by a shot that goes on forever of this man and woman, a liquid image that seem streaked or even deformed by rain, and the man’s head keeps approaching the woman’s shoulder and withdrawing from it. And so these various watery characters might represent different aspects of one very disconnected human being, one very divided soul. Every character embodies a different kind of extreme: whereas Agent, for instance, is withdrawn, solitary and solipsistic, another character named Ho is a mute, but he gets by through an excess of contact, forcing himself on everybody until they give him what he wants. The scenes involving Ho have an improvised, playful slapstick quality that is just hilarious.

Everyone in Fallen Angels is either too close, or too far apart. Lovers never meet, but strangers suddenly grasp each other in bars to rave, or wail and cry on a shoulder. They all search for a middle distance, a comfortable, shared ground, that they can never find. The pathos of Wong Kar-wai’s films is very terse and new and particular. On the one hand his films are elegies to loneliness – "Loneliness is ultimately the film’s centrifugal force", as Tony Rayns said of Fallen Angels. With reference to the extraordinarily compelling scenes of masturbation in this film, Larry Gross puts it even better: "Nothing is more typical of the world of Wong Kar-wai than a sex scene where one of the participants isn’t present". All his characters spend all their wasted, waking moments trying to mark the time, to mark their territory, as all lived meaning slips right through their fingers. And yet there is still some sort of longing for origins, for family, for the memory of some fragile community in this shattered world.

Like Wim Wenders in the 1970s, Wong returns to the difficult theme of family ties, of lost young things finding and resolving some bonds with their parents. Like romantic love, it’s not a very easy business and its conclusions are never especially solid. But the depiction of Ho’s odd, tangential, but finally rather touching relationship with his father, a relationship mediated mainly through a video camera, that’s one of the surprisingly moving aspects of this film.

Above all, Fallen Angels communicates its intense feelings of yearning and pathos through its extraordinary style. This is hardly a narrative film; it is like one great, sustained tone poem. Every one of its feelings depends on the sustained intensity of colours and faces and gestures, of spaces and places that blur and streak into one another through the rapid succession of images. It is like one long montage sequence, the rock video or MTV aesthetic raised to the highest form of cinema art. This is a film in which the rush of a train, the blur of shoes on pavement, the rain on a window or the stain on a tablecloth carry as much tender emotion as the sad eyes of a forlorn lover or the moon above the skyscrapers in the Hong Kong sky. Don’t miss your fleeting precious connection with this remarkable film.

MORE Wong: Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, 2046

© Adrian Martin June 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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