Fallen Angels / Happy Together

Hyped by its admirers as just about the greatest thing since, well, Godard, Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels is a little too haunted by the ghost of Chungking Express for me.

Now, I loved Chungking Express, two whacked-out, indescribable not-quite-romances that conveyed the uneasy thrill of a whacked-out, once-in-a-lifetime pas de deux with someone you have no business pining after. Together, they offer a glimpse of something akin to but other than everday life, a timeless Hong Kong fantasia. Photographed in painterly swashes of color and light, Chungking Express is the escapist’s perfect real world fantasy. It’s also an inspired visual tour de force, exhilarating proof that at one hundred years of age, the cinema still hasn’t given up all of its secrets.

So it’s entirely possible that Fallen Angels pisses me off a little by proving that Chungking Express wasn’t entirely the one-off masterpiece that I considered it. Christopher Doyle, D.P. extraordinaire, recreates the gorgeous, smeared-color photography that so distinguished Chungking Express and Wong’s epic Ashes of Time. Takeshi Kaneshiro is back, as a mute delinquent who breaks into shops after hours and intimidates customers into giving him money. Sobbing on Kaneshiro’s shoulder is Charlie Yeung, who has been jilted over a girl called “Blondie.” Leon Lai plays a supercool, sunglassed hit man, and Michele Reis his never-present partner, who obsesses over him from a distance. Karen Mong is Baby, a forcefully sexy moll in an orange wig who seduces the hired gun. Like Chungking Express, the film tells two separate stories that intersect only briefly over the course of the narrative.

There’s a lot of great, audacious stuff in Fallen Angels — like a bizarre gunfight set to a loping hip-hop tune, and what might be the most incisive masturbation scene in cinema history, played against Laurie Anderson’s “Speak My Language.” There’s a lovely meditation on our fascination with home video cameras and the cockeyed warmth of family. There’s also an echo of the Chungking Express scenario that had a clerk pining after the obscure object of her desire by investigating and rearranging his apartment during the workday. (Chungking Express reimagined voyeurism by flipping its conceptual axes — instead of watching his actions from a safe distance, Faye Wong admires Tony Leung by occupying the same space he does, but at a different point in time.) In all, though, I think Fallen Angels is a bit overwritten, and a little too concerned with knowing exactly where it’s going. A disappointment, but a fascinating, spiky, outrageously gorgeous one. Go figure.

Meanwhile, Wong’s 1997 Happy Together, which was shot after Fallen Angels but made it to U.S. theaters first, sneaks up on you. The storyline is awfully slight — two lovers who fled Hong Kong for a more ostensibly romantic South American locale wind up bickering their way around Buenos Aires and feeding their own loneliness and alienation. The difference is that Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung, two of Hong Kong’s biggest male stars, are the couple. Like a John Woo movie (and, some would say, more to the point) that uses balletic violence as a shorthand for intense emotional feeling, Happy Together uses gay sex to establish an intense emotional attachment in a refreshingly frank way. Once the big sex scene is out of the way, the story is free to develop on its own rambling trajectory.

There’s evidence that the film was shot with only the loosest notions of how it would turn out, and the first work print was reportedly three hours long. Once again, Doyle comes through with images of staggering beauty, including a breathtaking overhead shot of the Iguaca Falls. Throughout Happy Together, the Falls is a symbol of the serenity that eludes Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai — they figured that it would be the first of many landmarks to be visited in their new life together in this foreign land, but somehow they never found the time. Represented by a kitschy decorated lamp in Lai Yiu-Fai’s apartment, it mocks his failed effort to find happiness.

Happy Together extrapolates this miserable little relationship — which is debauched by harsh words and infidelity — to signify a dangerous propensity lurking inside all of us. Is this one at all unlike or more notable than any millions of miserable little relationships in other cities around the world? A secondary character ventures to Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of the Americas, and the camera spins around his perch at this lighthouse at the end of the world. Of course this story is the world’s story, and of course it must take us to the very end of the earth, on the assumption that being there, in the most solitary of places, somehow has meaning in itself. It’s a simple thing, but a demonstration of the power of shooting on location — dialogue and image combine to give a very real sense of place.

In the film’s very final moments, when the feelings of loss and longing are achingly complete, Wong Kar-Wai sticks it to us with a Chinese version of the old Turtles song “Happy Together,” which feels both ironic and, astonishingly, full of hope at the end of a hopeless story. This light touch — is he daring us to sing along? — is crucial to the final effect of a film that could otherwise be too dreary to bear. Happy Together discovers meaning almost by tripping over it, while the more carefully considered Fallen Angels seeks meaning out and pins it down like a butterfly on cork, where all its beautiful multiplicities can be admired. They’re both important films, but I prefer the one that’s the least structured and simplest.

Even in Hong Kong and especially in Hollywood, I don’t think there’s anyone else making movies that are anything like these (Wim Wenders probably comes closest, both stylistically and in terms of his dreamy disregard for conventional structure). They recall nothing so much as the French New Wave, but they’re unmistakably among the first products of a truly new sensibility. Once again negating pessimism and defying the lethargy that afflicts too much of international cinema, Wong Kar-Wai’s pre-millennial rhapsodies are giving this cinephile new hope that it’s not the end of the world, after all.

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by William Chang
Starring Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Yeung, and Karen Mok
Hong Kong, 1995

Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle
Edited by William Chang and Ming Lam Wong
Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, and Chang Chen
Hong Kong, 1997

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