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The Boston Phoenix Chungking II

Wong Kar-Wai's "Fallen Angels."

By Gary Susman

FEBRUARY 23, 1998: 

FALLEN ANGELS, Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai. With Leon Lai, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Young, Michele Reis, and Karen Mok. A Kino International release. At the Brattle, February 20 through 26.

Hong Kong's Wong Kar-Wai is in danger of becoming one of the most imitated cinema stylists in the world. Cinephiles the world over praise his chaotic urban-symphony style as an apt and exciting way to depict the headlong and random rhythms of life in whatever city, be it Hong Kong or Beijing or Buenos Aires. It's a difficult style to master, however, and few of Wong's imitators (notably acolyte Quentin Tarantino) can manage more than a pale imitation. Even Wong himself can't always bring it off, which is why this 1995 effort looks like someone else trying to copy Wong.

Fallen Angels is to Chungking Express, Wong's 1994 international breakthrough film, what Wayne Wang's Blue in the Face was to his Smoke. In putting together Chungking Express, Wong decided he had too much material, in the form of an additional subplot, so he reserved the surplus for his next movie. The result is not a sequel but a variation on the themes and characters of Chungking Express. It's loosely plotted and largely improvised -- but then, so is every Wong movie.

Like Chungking Express, Fallen Angels tells two separate and essentially unrelated stories -- though here, the stories are intercut rather than presented sequentially. As in Chungking Express, one story is about a glamorous and aloof assassin and the other is about a lovestruck and surreptitiously industrious young person who spends a lot of time at an all-night fast-food counter. The sexes of the protagonists have been switched, but otherwise much is the same, from the neon streets and narrow alleyways through which cinematographer Christopher Doyle's limpid camerawork races to the casting of Takeshi Kaneshiro to the parade of missed romantic connections -- right down to a joke involving the expiration date on a can of pineapple. Fans of Chungking Express are less likely to be amused by the self-referentiality than bored by the sense of déj´ vu.

The assassin, whose name is Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai), gets his assignments from an agent (Michele Reis) he seldom sees but who expresses her secret affection for him by managing his life, cleaning up after his hits, and even straightening out his apartment (like Faye Wang in Chungking Express). Chi-Ming is wearying of the life, however, and he tries to quit, leaving a message for the agent in the form of a song on a jukebox, "Forget Him."

The agent lives in a rooming house owned by the father of the movie's other protagonist, an ex-convict named He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro). Zhiwu, who doesn't speak (his thoughts are heard in voiceover), is an aimless young man who makes his living in a weird, whimsical way, by breaking and entering businesses that are closed for the night and intimidating passers-by into being his customers. (The film's credits include such roles as Man Forced To Eat Ice Cream, Woman Pressed To Buy Vegetables, and Man Forced To Have His Clothes Washed.)

The two stories begin to parallel as Chi-Ming and Zhiwu stumble into their respective romances. Chi-Ming picks up an emotionally needy punkette named Baby (Karen Mok) whose possessive jealousy brings about a confrontation between Chi-Ming and the agent, who tries to hang on by begging him to carry out one last contract. Zhiwu falls for a woman named Cherry (Charlie Young) who complains bitterly about a backstabbing boyfriend. He helps her pursue the elusive ex, only to lose her himself. Meanwhile, Zhiwu and his father's boarder, the agent, keep barely missing each other and a possible chance for romance with each other.

Fallen Angels is a lot funnier than Chungking Express, but it's also sillier and in the end much slighter. The director's musings about fate and romantic obsession carry even less weight here than in Chungking Express. Not that Wong doesn't have something to say on these topics -- but for that you'd have to see 1996's Happy Together, which is a great leap forward in maturity and style from Fallen Angels. If you're just discovering Wong with this film, you'll be visually dazzled, but you may wonder what the big deal is.

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