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August 7, 2007

Fallen Angels Get A Second Wind

BAM's new print of vintage Wong Kar-wai an apt reminder of his evolution in style

On and ennui go: Leon Lai Ming and Michelle Rais in Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels, revived this week at BAM
(Photo: Kino International)

"It would be so great if it could rain forever," sighs an orange-haired woman (Karen Mok) close to the end of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels. She needn't worry -- in Wong-land, such things are possible because their creator wills it so, and the last half of the film will unfold in a monsoon.

Like a vengeful angel from the peak of Hollywood’s most stylized era, Wong shows us a world in which glamour and aesthetics trump the possible every time. After all, Wong’s protagonists are the ones who chain-smoke against all odds and never die of cancer. They may be masturbating in full evening dress -- one hand between thighs, the other clutching a still-smoking cig -- or doing the laundry, or maybe even hiding from the police in a closet and forced to open the door periodically to let out the smoke. But they’re there, defiantly puffing away. And remember, this is from the man who’s never been seen without his sunglasses.

But Wong is the antithesis of classical Hollywood style for many reasons. The main one is the lack of a moralistic censorship board -- his films fetishize solipsism, loneliness and obsession, and his heroes are never punished for transgressive morality. The woman masturbating alone may be alone, but she’s dressed to the nines, and that’s what counts. Where other filmmakers go all Bukowski in their obsession with sleazy surroundings -- think any boxing movie ever -- Wong is the Bret Easton Ellis of the art house, insisting that despair and style go hand in hand, maybe even exclusively.

The censorship office looking down his back isn’t concerned with morals and happy endings, only politics: In The Mood For Love was originally to be shot in Mainland China, but Wong’s deathly obsessive and romantic scenario was somehow deemed politically objectionable. As a result, Wong’s films always feel political, even if they’re not. There’s always subtext that the uninformed Western viewer seems to be missing. Characters are routinely noted as coming from Taiwan, or mainland China, or Hong Kong -- and what function the specificity of those references have, I’ll never know; for all I know, Wong is plotting the overthrow of the Chinese government. At one point in Fallen Angels, deaf-mute He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) -- a mute who bullies people into his illicit late-night sales (don't ask) -- fails to entice some Brits into his business. "A-ha," I thought, "he represents the failure of Hong Kong to get the British to stay." Then some natives threatened to kill him, and I had to scratch that and start over.

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In the end, the politics may not matter so much (even if, with 2046, Wong’s invocations of political matters seem to be getting slightly less opaque). BAM’s week-long revival of Fallen Angels serves as a timely reminder that Wong’s style has been radically altered in under a decade -- and with Wong, style is eighty percent of the picture. The first half of Fallen Angels is a blast of disconnected plot threads -- assassin vs. his manager vs. deaf-mute vs. god knows who else -- marked by a cut-happy, hand-held, on-the-ground shooting style that’s also studiously non-naturalistic. Most of the movie is shot with a wide-angle lens, for no other reason, it often seems, than to amp up the otherworldly feel. Fallen Angels eventually settles down into connecting the dots -- and, non-coincidentally, gets less interesting -- but it never even comes close to Wong’s current style.

Fallen Angels is a movie about the present c. 1995. What Wong has offered us from In The Mood For Love (in 2000) onwards is a studious disengagement from our times. His characters are haunted wraiths who seem to come with their own smoke and invariably exist in the ‘50s and ‘60s. No longer are they shadowed by adrenalized cameras; instead, elegant tracking shots and a penchant for slow-motion eulogize every image, which operate in service as much of the narrative as of Wong’s own childhood, the terrain his movies almost inevitably explore. His post-2000 characters are also often tormented by the same song over and over – in 2046, it was endless iterations of “The Christmas Song”; for In The Mood, relentless tango music.

Fallen Angels, by contrast, is a relentless, schizophrenic mix-tape of Canto-pop and bad techno, with enough shots of jukeboxes to power a Tarantino film double the length. "Daddy daddy it was just like you said/now that the living outnumber the dead," goes one song. After this and 1997’s Happy Together, that would no longer be true: in Wong’s films the dead would come to outnumber the living. As it happens, that may be for the best -- even when he’s filming the present, Wong’s most persistent motif is the torments of memory -- but it’s nice to know that he seemed young, if only for a bit.



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