"The weirdos come out at night."
BY EMILY EAGLIN
Hey fellow film fairies! Welcome to my new series Free Film Fridays where I will be introing & linking y'all to alternative, new wave, & avant garde flicks available to stream for free. First up we have the 1995 Chinese New Wave feature film, Fallen Angels (墮落天使) Directed by Wong Kar-Wai.
WATCH FALLEN ANGELS HERE, Spoilers to follow!
Fallen Angels leaves me meditating on globally chill 90's aesthetics, the manifestation of blondness, & the disposability of bodies other than one a director may identify with. We are brought into the realm of an (almost) never-ending Hong Kong night where violence & sexuality is of a pre-GTA video game quality. While the content & image effortlessly flow together, what speaks most is how it's shot. The plot, characters, & content are incrementally revealed to us as non sequitur, with us being able to only jigsaw bits & pieces together, until the very end.
Someone once said a great film will teach you how to watch it within the first five minutes. By the ten minute mark of Fallen Angels we get the whole picture & much more. After a bloody scene that will leave you exclaiming "not the fish too!", our protagonist Wong Chi-ming (Leon Lai) leaves a hit scene, only to be ambushed on a bus by an old junior high classmate who recognizes him. The scene is hilarious as a mundane extreme; when we think about it, this could absolutely happen to any hitman, killer, or thief--it's just never the part we see in a film (or have time to include). We are confronted with Wong's ability to escape a crime scene & get away with mass murder, but inability to escape his past, average upbringing, & shared reality. This was a scene so relatable, it verged on irksome, in a way that was like desperately needing to run to the bathroom & getting stalled by an old neighbor you vaguely remember... like YO I literally got sh*t ta do!
"Even an Assassin once had classmates in Junior High"
Won Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels stands out to me as a movie that's supposed to look "cool", and totally does. The cinematography, however, does not ooze that chic, superficial "cool" that we are stylistically familiar with (and often overly bombarded with) in the US film industry. Instead, we are met with an intentional cool, a misleading cool, a nostalgic cool. The color grading is straight out of a Smashing Pumpkins music video, which is bonus points in my book, and this looks only ultimately serves the surreal nature of the story.
Moving to minus points, let's talk women! I feel like the only point I might even need to make here is the Killer's agent (played by Michele Reis) & her inability to put down a cigarette in a certain scene, you will know when you are there. If you're bechdel scoring I'll save you some time, she's 2nd in casting order yet given no name. I had hope! A hope that I quickly lost due to all characters, regardless of gender, being portrayed intimately through extreme close-ups, this is often time a good sign, until you hit your first scene where it's not. I went into this scene looking for something to redeem the gaze, portrayal, etc. (that I could have readily predicted)--but was left with pursed lips. I watched it with a close friend (Zoe) who originally pointed out the agent's commitment to NOT dropping this cigarette & they had this to say:
"Is she seriously not gonna ash that thing!?" ~Zoe's points
No we found, no she will not.
This intimate scene was almost comedic in nature, like, a satire of how the dudest of dudes would direct an woman's intimate solo scene, but I don't wanna spoil too much of the fun of it for you so...moving on!
Fallen Angels is a film of two 'main course' protagonists & they're female 'sides'. Usually in this case the male characters, being so central, are the best written, but we'll get to Charlie later. Through its cast and background actors, identity is also central to this film. Kar-Wai presents Chinese identity as existing between the unforgettableness of whiteness and the disposability of any others (we mainly view this through the lens of Black bodies, but also a Japanese character named Sato-san (Toru Saito). Our secondary protagonist, (He Zhiwu played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) is self-described as half-Asian, half-European & his hair magically turns blond at the end of the film and it's, like, a good thing?
"Guess why I became a blonde?...So nobody will forget me"
Going along with things getting weirding & folks getting wackier, we meet an impulsively manic babe that the film refers to as blondie, punky, & baby (Karen Mok), this quote above is what she has to say on her specific impulse to bleach her hair. How the film relates to a bright sense of whiteness & a dark, shrouded sense of Blackness really intrigued me. I was astounded by the film's ability to drop a solid "N" bomb within its first fifteen, (but can we ever be truly surprised by this?). At the same time I also tried to gage the heaviness of that term being used in 1990's Hong Kong (as I am unfamiliar with what its Mandarin equivalent would be) and derive a neutrality out of that. Anti-blackness is anti-blackness wherever you go, I just wonder how hip the writer/director was to this fact in using it as a tertiary character-building tactic, but I'm just thinking out loud here... I digress.
This bomb was brought up in relation to Wong's "wife", who he tells us was actually just a Black woman he paid $30 for a picture with to show to folks for misdirection. Sweet? Disposable? Racist in its context? I'll let you watch, let you decide, I don't know where your bar is with these things. The only other time we see melanated folks is in the form of irate African customers caught on VHS. It's all very stereotypical, unsurprising, & I don't feel the need to go deeply into it except to acknowledge it is there and a plot non-necessity & a major point deduction for the film as a whole. A disposable damn shame.
And while female sexuality was portrayed shamelessly, all I could help thinking was Dude director, Dude director, Dude director. All the tell-tale signs are there, you will see them clear as the day that was not present in this film. Voyeuristic angles, unrealistic direction, & cringey acting.
But speaking of acting this acting was top tier. It followed a realist tradition of aloofness & I found it mad genuine. There was, however, no performance I enjoyed more than that of Charlie Yeung as "Charlie". Just as the film almost begins to lose you, my girl Charlie is on a phone, going full-on Love & Hip Hop on an engaged side chick. It's not a total left field for the film, as we have already been beaten over the heads with the male equivalent of this (including multiple scenes of ice-cream force feeding & coerced hair cuts).
But, truth be told, I immediately was in love like "Yes, who is she? Give me more of her now!". Now why was this? The bitter girlfriend, manic "alt" girl, trope rarely speaks truth to power! But watching Charlie we see that girl we saw last week across the street in West Baltimore, and at a look closer that girl was our girl. A friend you don't recognize at first because their behavior creates a greater distance than that street, but you know that her 'last straw' pop-off behavior is justified. And it's like GIRL, what is the story here!? Fallen Angels takes you across the street to that friend who is Charlie & totally along for the ride. I truly do not want to spoil that ride so, Imma leave this parked here.
All in all this film acts as a portal into another space & time, a reminder that we all got a little Charlie in all of us, & a force that says nah to daytime scenes. I really dug the experience of watching it & hope you take the time to view it! It's beautifully shot and free to watch. As a movie in Mandarin, with English subs, it demanded my attention by default, but it ended up demanding my attention in many other ways (none of which I'm mad at). Yeung's performance is what makes this film mad memorable, because my girl acts her braids out & balances over-the-topness with realness, all at once...ASHE!
By the end, I found I was debating myself internally on the ethics & morals this world lies within, but externally I was sutured into the setting, I couldn't look away or hang up. This film ruined peace & massaged my mind like a pig.
BIGGEST LINE: The night is full of weirdos
BIGGEST QUESTION I'M LEFT WITH: How does one lose their voice by eating canned pineapple?
BIGGEST REASON TO WATCH THIS FLICK: *It's a tie* Cinematography & Charlie,
BIGGEST GUEST FOR DIRECTOR: A dude. ✔