Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

Visual Style and Audacious Approach

Released in 1995 and directed by Wong Kar-wai, Fallen Angels distinguishes itself with its remarkable visual aesthetics and bold approach, even though it often finds itself in the shadow of his later, more celebrated creations. Initially presenting itself as a bold exercise in style, the movie delves into themes of yearning and the aspiration to break free from an unsatisfying life. It incorporates interconnected narratives, excessive slow-motion sequences, neon lighting, and voice-over narration to convey the characters’ emotions.

The film’s significance lies in its departure from Wong’s previous fascination with free-spirited characters and forbidden love. Instead, it explores the desire for stability and emotional connections within the boundaries of societal norms. While the outcomes for its characters remain uncertain, the film provides a sense of emotional and thematic fulfillment.

Fallen Angels is a deceptive creation that may appear shallow at first glance but plays an essential role in Wong’s cinematic evolution. It elevates his visual and emotional style to its zenith, mirroring his yearning for freedom while acknowledging the associated sacrifices. Ultimately, it is a significant milestone in Wong’s journey as a filmmaker.

Emotional Detachment and Sensory Defense

Georg Simmel, a German sociologist of the early 20th century, introduced the notion of the blase attitude among city dwellers. This demeanor, born as a response to the demanding and intense nature of urban life, is characterized by emotional detachment and functions as a protective mechanism against the sensory overload of city living. Simmel considered those who adopted this attitude to be contemporary intellectuals capable of abstractly analyzing their surroundings while remaining deeply engaged in the urban spectacle, particularly in major capitalist cities like Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and London.

This perspective left its mark on the cultural depictions of modern cities, evident in works such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Man in the Crowd, Jacob Riis’s photographs of New York’s slums in the 1880s, and classic film noirs like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, which featured stereotypical detective characters. However, within today’s late-capitalist urban environments, the pertinence of Simmel’s ideas is called into question, especially in the context of contemporary global cities.

One response to this inquiry, explored in Wong’s films set in Hong Kong, suggests that the experience of the global city can lead to more extreme forms of alienation, referred to as the post-metropolitan blase attitude. This concept builds upon Edward Soja’s notion of the post-metropolis, which describes a forward-looking urbanism shaped by late capitalism and globalization. The postmetropolis embodies the circulation of transnational capital and labor, representing the space of flows in our interconnected society, as theorized by sociologist Manuel Castells. Philosopher Paul Virilio criticizes these cities as panic cities.

In contemporary urban life, where cities are perceived as arenas of movement and anxiety, Wong’s Fallen Angels presents a fictional yet extreme portrayal of the post-metropolitan blase attitude. In contrast to Simmel’s concept, this attitude is linked to transnational networks of global cities and gives rise to more unsettling manifestations of nihilism and violence.

Collaborating from Afar

In a particular scene where two central characters, a contract killer and his female agent, establish their professional partnership without ever meeting in person, they collaborate through distant and impersonal communication methods such as mailing letters and sending faxes. Their connection is solely rooted in their involvement in criminal activities.

The scene commences with a close-up of the female agent navigating a bustling restaurant in Hong Kong. Her expression conveys a mixture of boredom, frustration, and disgust as she discreetly plans the hitman’s mission route. This brief image encapsulates the interplay between the postmetropolis and the characters’ mental states. Subsequently, the film transitions to an interior shot of the agent in her cluttered bedroom, where she formulates instructions for the hitman while watching television. A fax machine serves as a visual link between them. In the subsequent shot, the hitman is introduced on a separate screen, showcasing his striking home office on the left and the cityscape on the right, underscoring his symbolic association with the city and his inhuman nature.

The scene concludes with the hitman executing a shooting action in slow motion within a gambling den, displaying emotionless movements. This portrayal of violence is aesthetically stylized and accompanied by an indie-rock song repeating the chorus “because I’m cool,” indicating an emotional release and a stylized form of aggression. This escalation of violence involves the hitman appearing as an ordinary bus passenger, suggesting that his antisocial demeanor might serve as a prototype for urban residents.

Notably, the hitman’s face briefly appears in the bus’s side mirror, emphasizing his detachment from the vibrant urban landscape. The film underscores the relationship between globalization and violence, portraying the hitman as a product of the late capitalist city, heavily reliant on the hyper-real urban environment. The female agent is also linked to this cityscape through communication networks and mobility.

Both characters exhibit a blase attitude, characterized by socio-psychological disconnection, as a response to the inhospitable urban environment, particularly the neon-lit streets of the city. Wong’s artistic portrayal of Hong Kong in the film plays a pivotal role in conveying this urban commentary, with the city depicted as a place of confinement, alienation, and perplexing neon lights, contributing to the isolation experienced by postmetropolitan inhabitants.

Echoes of Chungking Express in the Scene

Right from the start of the scene, we can observe elements borrowed from Chungking Express. Although the extreme close-up of the girl’s face represents a genuinely innovative choice in Wong’s cinematic approach, we hear a voice-over from the male character describing his relationship with the female character. It is a classic touch. It evokes memories of Chungking Express, where we begin with a police voice-over narrating a pivotal encounter where he meets and falls in love with a woman who is clearly in disguise.

Like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels is structured into two distinct narratives. They are not directly connected except thematically; the characters only overlap a little, except for Blondie and the woman who profoundly admires Wong Chi-ming, a hitman. However, he does not reciprocate her affection. They are criminals, living in isolation and rejected by society, yet their obsessions also drive them. The second narrative follows Ho Chi-mo, a man who intrudes into other people’s homes to make a living. He later falls in love with a girl named Charlie, setting off a series of events.

Leaving a Wong film with clear-cut answers should not be expected. That is the essence of his work – it scratches the surface of individual stories but delves deep into philosophical and poignant themes. It explores how we hold onto someone in our lives or the painful process of letting go and forging new memories. Fallen Angels exemplifies this, especially considering its parallel with Chungking Express. It takes two narratives with tenuous connections and weaves them into a montage.

The characters and their interactions with each other and the backdrop are a true testament to this concept. It is not merely about crime or unfulfilled love stories. Life and emotions form a complex labyrinth that can swiftly lead one’s soul into darkness. It is about how individuals can self-destruct if they delve too deeply into a particular abyss.

Unveiling Global Themes in Fallen Angels

Fallen Angels delves into the overarching theme of Hong Kong on a global scale, mainly focusing on the unstable mental state of a female agent in a restaurant. The scene commences with an extreme close-up of her face, reminiscent of a patient undergoing intense psychiatric treatment. Subsequently, the scene shifts to an outdoor shot featuring the agent silently riding a motorcycle alongside a mute companion, symbolizing the voicelessness and invisibility of the unemployed population in Hong Kong. This instance underscores the disposable nature of human existence in a society that squanders time and succumbs to the influence of global consumerism.

The film then proceeds to track the motorcycle’s journey through tranquil streets, entering an underground tunnel beneath the city and emerging as dawn breaks. The final image can be interpreted as a multifaceted statement about the global city, with a voice-over commentary from the female agent characterizing this physical and psychological encounter as brief and devoid of significance. Notably, the depiction of skyscrapers is particularly captivating, as it highlights open spaces and natural light, sharply contrasting with the enclosed environments and prevalent neon lights seen throughout the rest of the film.

Wong’s cinematic work can be situated within a broader context of contemporary transnational filmmaking that explores and critiques global urbanism’s paranoid and carceral aspects. Films such as La Haine, Trainspotting, Fight Club, City of God, and Lost in Translation share similar themes in portraying the modern city as a realm characterized by profound isolation, rampant consumerism, and spatial estrangement. Collectively, these films mirror a genuine trend toward heightened violence in global cities and the phenomenon of globalization, surpassing notable incidents such as the 9/11 attacks, the London bombings, the Mumbai hotel siege, and the banlieue riots in Paris.

Although not all cities conform to Soja’s definition of the post-metropolis, the escalating process of globalization and the emergence of extreme social and psychological disconnection forms suggest that these cities are gravitating in that direction. Fallen Angels should be regarded not solely as a dystopian urban fantasy but also as an imaginative and profound commentary on the intrinsic violence embedded within contemporary urban conditions.

Unconventional Cinematic Techniques

The film provides a unique opportunity for the audience to explore the technical aspects that shape a movie. It features numerous unconventional camera angles and shots, creating moments of instability where it is evident that we are following the characters closely, akin to navigating through corridors. Right from the outset, we are presented with extreme close-ups of Wong Chi-ming’s couple as he smokes, and as the film unfolds, we encounter more such shots.

Our proximity to the characters contributes to a prevailing sense of estrangement throughout the film. It serves as a reminder that we are the observers of this narrative, yet it also fosters a deeper intimacy in how we perceive the characters. We can genuinely discern their facial details as they move through the confined streets of Hong Kong, particularly when the storyline reveals elements of criminality.

The role of music becomes a highly captivating aspect of the film, significantly elevating the overall atmosphere. The visual backdrop is notably gritty, featuring many impoverished settings, an abundance of shadows, and darkness permeating the screen while showcasing Hong Kong’s neon lights at their most striking.

Atmosphere and Aesthetics

The film’s deliberate dialogue scarcity intensifies its impact, elevating already intriguing moments. The hitman and his agent demonstrate that verbal communication is not essential, as their mutual understanding transcends language, effectively conveying all necessary information. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography and the subtle musical score provide a fitting backdrop, while the film’s aesthetics, including the somber ambiance of Hong Kong and the minimalistic dialogue, prompt thought-provoking questions about morality.

The absence of spoken words also paves the way for eccentric comedic elements, driven by the mute character He Zhwiu’s reliance on physical communication instead of speech or sign language. Kaneshiro masterfully incorporates physical comedy into his performance, whether it is his comical encounter with a pig carcass in a butcher shop or his dramatic faux gunshot, complete with humorously dripping tomato sauce on his apron.

As the film unfolds, it becomes more evident that the characters’ lack of verbal communication, which initially appears calm and humorous, masks their deep-seated loneliness. Those around the killer often hear the discharge of his firearm more frequently than his spoken words. He Zhiwu’s interactions predominantly involve asserting his will over others rather than engaging in meaningful conversation.

The characters who engage in dialogue fail to partake in genuine, sincere exchanges; instead, they tend to talk at others rather than with them. While comical, the persistent, verbose speeches of Yeung and Mok also reflect a sense of desperation, as they hope that their words will eventually convey genuine meaning. With authentic and open dialogue, connections stay strong, and individuals stay together.


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