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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Wong Kar-Wai: Fallen Angels (1995)

It's kind of exhausting and kind of exhilarating. It will appeal to the kinds of people you see in the Japanese animation section of the video store, with their sleeves cut off so you can see their tattoos. And to those who subscribe to more than three film magazines. And to members of garage bands. And to art students. It's not for your average moviegoers—unless of course, they want to see something new.

Almost manga-like in camera style and story telling (I mean manga as in Akira and Ghost in The Shell). Very colorful yet dark, explicit yet tender, soft and violent. You're sucked in by the nostrils, visually shaken about and taken for a very exciting trip into hyper-sub-reality. The daylight at the end has the same effect as the dish cleaning and lights on after a very good party. Very sobering. The movie leaves you with the feeling of having had a vigorous massage and wanting more. More Wong Kar-Wai.

And there is the real star, the traum-city itself. Corridors, subways, neon, time lapse, travelators and low flying jets, trains, shopping arcades, Chung King Mansions stuffed to the gullets with sullen, sweating people cooled by antique electric fans, the scheming tattooed triads, outbursts of random violence, warehouses, chopping knives, video cameras, motorbikes speeding through tunnels, the multiracial hand in hand with the super-commercial... Hong Kong insinuates itself into our imaginations as the Űbertraumstadt, the place of ultimate nightmare and ultimate romance, where beauty is all the more poignant for its dark, cheap, pitiless setting and dreams are all the more necessary.

Bringing a manga to the screen leads to a movie that's structured like a manga, which is far different from the structure of a novel. Manga means cartoons with a few explanatory text. Such a structure is by its nature extremely elliptic, leaving the details unexplained and assuming the active participation of the reader (viewer) who should fill the gaps and make the links. More than that, actually a manga offers only the essential elements, you are to imagine the story behind.

Fallen Angels (墮落天使 - Duo luo tian shi): like the companion movie (Chungking Express), it's a pure cinematographic gem born unexpectedly. Wong Kar-Wai and Chris Doyle were working on Ashes of Time, and the project was exhausting. They decided suddenly to put Ashes of Time on hold and to produce quickly something light, unpretentious, just to warm their spirits. There was no script, just a loose idea: some slices of life in today's Hong Kong, kind of romantic comedies with young heroes hanging around Chungking Mansions and Midnight Express. Two vignettes were made this way, with young cops falling in love, drug dealers wearing sun glasses and blond wigs, barmaids becoming flight attendants and flight attendants returning from San Francisco: this was Chungking Express, released in 1994.

As the third vignette was unfolding, it became clear for the director that the mood of the story was different, and it deserved a separate movie: that was Fallen Angels, released in 1995. Two completely distinct plots evolving in parallel, and intertwining only in brief moments and only by hazard. A young hitman getting his assignments through a fax machine and a sympathetic and totally immature mute (played with irresistible charm by Takeshi Kaneshiro, who was also an irresistible cop-in-love in Chungking Express).

Well, a mute cannot talk, everybody knows it, but what happens in Fallen Angels is that actually nobody seems able to communicate through human speech. The agent (Michelle Reis - I saw her also in Flowers of Shanghai) who gives the assignments to the hitman (and even visits his narrow apartment when he is out) is a gorgeous girl, unconditionally in love for his subordinate. However she never meets him and prefers to masturbate instead. It is a terrifying impression of loneliness in a frenetic city, everybody is alone there, on her or his own, deepened in her or his own thoughts and dreams, and everybody's dreams seem crazy while only dreams keep you there to not get crazy.

I remember the cabs in a region I used to live for many years: the driver had a small computer on board and all communication with the dispatcher was through the screen, no room for bargaining of any kind, no space for any human feeling, of joy or sorrow, of sympathy or sarcasm. Here in Fallen Angels it's the fax machine, the same sensation of alienation, of loss of humanity. Humans transformed in robots, keeping their human condition for themselves only, through masturbating dreams of impossible love.

And it remains the city itself. Mark Rothko (Jacob Baal-Teshuva: Mark Rothko, 1903-1970, Pictures as Drama, Taschen, 2003, p.27) has a great observation about the relation between foreground and background in an art work: sometimes the personages (or the objects) have only the function to glorify the background (... may limit space arbitrarily and thus heroify his objects. Or he makes infinite space, dwarfing the importance of objects, causing them to merge and become part of the space world). The same observation is somehow made by Malevich when analyzing the way Monet had rendered the Cathedral of Rouen: ...when the artist paints, and he plants the paint, and the object is his flower-bed, he must sow the paint in such a way that the object disappears, because it is merely a ground for the visible paint with which it is painted (Gilles Néret: Kazimir Malevich, 1878-1935, and Suprematism, Taschen, 2003, p.13).

Is this movie about people alienated by Hong Kong, or is it here a meditative poem about the city itself? One of the personages in the movie has an unexpected sentence, Buddha said, If I don't descend into hell, who will? The sentence passes quickly and seems at first sight without any meaning in the logic of the story. Maybe it offers the clue: Hong Kong, this space of hyper-sub-reality (as one of the reviewers puts it), this Űbertraumstadt of ultimate nightmare (apud another reviewer), actually offers the image of hell, and the heroes of the story descend there, why? To follow the archetype?

And if we go again to the observation made by Malevich on Monet and Rouen Cathedral, here in Fallen Angels subject and city disappear in the gorgeous cinematic language: a great movie pushing the cinematic language to its ultimate expression. A couple of great creators: Wong Kar-Wai and Chris Doyle. Let me add here that another great contemporary cinematographer was also part in the team: Mark Lee Ping-Bin.

And if I were to choose an image from Fallen Angels, this one would be: the city in the night with its endless traffic and movement and changing lights, near the narrow apartment where the hitman inspects quietly the fax machine.

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 1/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 2/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 3/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 4/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 5/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 6/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 7/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 8/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 9/10
(video by tooomat)

墮落天使 (Fallen Angels): Part 10/10
(video by tooomat)


Some useful links:

(Wong Kar-Way and Chris Doyle)

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