In his first three works set in Hong Kong, it felt as if Wong Kar-wai was moving towards a profoundly ambitious project: to craft a film about people who share experiences but who also remain strangers – to each other, to themselves, and to the audience. With Fallen Angels, Wong finally achieved this, making a film that both exists in a dialogue with his earlier works, but also remains a stranger from them. Appropriately, Fallen Angels was planned as a third episode in Chungking Express, only to take on a life of its own as the discarded fragment of a film that was itself already radically decentred. The Midnight Express food stand, which formed the hinge between the two stories in the previous film, also appears here, and yet its significance is displaced and dispersed. At one point, the protagonist of the first Chungking story seems to have taken it over in the manner of the protagonist from the second Chungking story. At another point, the Express seems to have transformed into an ice cream van that doubles as an informal hangout. Across the dreamy and distended spaces that ensue, Wong crafts his most delirious vision of diaspora – barely any narrative, barely any character, and a protagonist, played by Leon Lai, who is almost entirely displaced from the centre of it all. It’s not hard here to see why Wong, unlike John Woo, never really crossed over into Hollywood.
Even more so than Chungking Express, Wong’s camera is a free floating consciousness, embodied and disembodied at once, one node in an enormous networked Hong Kong hive mind. Wong opts for extreme close-ups and anamorphic perspectives, evoking a world where people are close and distant at the same time, flung together and torn apart in a vortex of intense proximity and detachment. This is the moment when his diaspora starts to bleed into the cosmos, and his cinema starts to require the language of science fiction – especially in and around the train system, which feels like an intergalactic portal, a gateway to an unimaginably globalised present. The Central-Mid Levels Escalator of Chungking Express is now replaced by the different layers of space outside one of the character’s apartment – sunken underpasses, roads, elevated highways, and above them all the railway line running like a rocket launcher.
As if this weren’t disorienting enough, Wong’s camera is nearly always dramatically canted, precluding any clear sense of up and down, left and right. Instead, we are presented with endlessly proliferating planes of space that leave the camera and characters in continuous motion, flitting in and out of labyrinthine media interfaces, suspended at a series of thresholds that could give way to anything. There is virtually no dialogue – just a dreamy voiceover that keeps coming back to the chanted refrain “we rub shoulders with strangers every day.” All pleasure here is both promiscuous and oneiric, producing the first really explicit sex scene in Wong’s oeuvre, which involves a woman clad in latex gear writhing to an obscure personal pleasure of her own that nevertheless seems jacked in to the exuberantly disorienting montages with which Wong intercuts the images of her multi-interfaced room.
In other words, Fallen Angels presents us with an associative, metonymic, rhizomatic world that subsumes narrative into incidental connections, tactile tangents and moments of surprising serendipity that quickly approximate the language of music video. Wong had always been a fan of including western songs, transcribed into Cantonese, in their entirety – from the cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” in the Lantau Island sequence of As Tears Go By, to the cover of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” in the second half of Chungking Express. That music video aesthetic reaches its apotheosis here, not least because the anamorphic lens was one of the medium’s defining features at this point in time. Like a music video, Fallen Angels yearns to short-circuit the distance between viewer and image, to mediate us directly into the world of the film. At one point, our main character sings along to music while filming himself and watching his own image as it relays to a television in the extreme foreground of the shot. Having become an avatar for music video, he starts obsessively filming everything, which fractures the film even further into a subsidiary camcorder sequence, itself regularly absorbed into static or bright light, as when the camera is almost consumed by a flaming pot.
All of which is to say that Wong has here discovered a visual and sonic apprehension of diaspora that transcends language, discourse and the regular apparatus of film criticism. He does so at the expense of anything resembling real character, narrative or even tonality, which is perhaps why Fallen Angels feels as much a dead end as a climax of his work. From here, he would tentatively move back towards narrative, or at least fuse it with this artistic vision, although this fusion is not all that successful in the back half of Fallen Angels, which becomes less compelling as it makes half-hearted and grudging concessions towards a more conventional kind of cinema. For that reason, I liked the first half hour best – when it is pure fever dream, mood piece, affect experiment, not unlike the first section of Chungking Express, and together, these were two of the most effervescent sequences in Wong’s work to date.