director: Wong Kar-Wai
screenplay: Wong Kar-Wai
cinematography: Christopher Doyle
editor: William Chang, Wong Ming Lam
design: William Chang
music: Frankie Chan, Roel A. Garcia
producer: Jacky Pang Yee-Wa, Chen Yi-Cheng ; Wong Kar-Wai (exec.)
production co.: Jet Tone Productions
90 minutes


Leon Lai Ming ....The Killer
Takeshi Kaneshiro ....He Qiwu
Michelle Reis / Lee Ka-Yan ....The Agent
Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei ...."Charlie Young"
Karen Mok Man-Wai ....Jin Mao Ling

Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival

First and second impressions:

Well, this may be the Wong Kar-Wai movie for people who don't especially like WKW movies. For those like me who do, it's a disappointment. If you are anticipating another leap forward, like Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, or Chungking Express, then you're not going to find it, I suspect.

To be fair, Fallen Angels is dazzling: a virtuostic display of movie making that would stake out WKW's claim to being one of the most innovative, assured, technically brilliant directors now working. But he doesn't need to do this: we know that he has mastered the medium. In the past, his technique has always been in the service of a fascinating vision: something original, deeply felt, passionately argued. I'm afraid that that's what is missing this time around.

The movie is full of wonderful things, drawn from among the usual set of WKW virtues: cinematography, performances, music. There is an unforgettably disturbing opening shot, extracted from late in the film's narrative, of Michelle Lee (Agent) strung out, shaking, smoking, dominating the foreground, Leon Lai (Killer) behind: all in black and white, the whole image warped by the movie's trademark fish-eye lens. This works; the emotional punch of this scene haunts the rest of the movie.

WKW's jump-and-blur action photography is back, even more elaborately contrived, for several gunplay-mayhem scenes (WKW doing John Woo?). At its best, it provides a deliriously exciting kick to a scene like Takeshi Kanashiro and Charlie Yeung fighting their way out of a restaurant under attack.

And there is the wet lens scene. We see Charlie and TK, together at a table, facing the camera; Charlie looks off to the side, oblivious, while TK moves gently, hesitantly back and forth, touching her; his voice narrates falling in love for the first time; over a honky-tonk bluesy vocal. WKW films this in black and white, ultra-slow motion, through a shimmering distortion, as if water were flowing across the camera lens. Movie magic. Christopher Doyle wins another cinematography award.

The performances: Wong Kar-Wai is a casting wizard:

  • More than anything, Takeshi Kaneshiro's performance gives movie its heart. He starts out buffoonish, playing hilariously against type, but deepens into the movie's most fascinating character, and the one we end up feeling for. He has a mesmerising, charismatic physicality that dominates his scenes (the one described above, and the hilarious/sweet/pathetic dance of ketchup-death at the Midnight Express lunch counter). Awards material.
  • Leon Lai: looks perfect in his role, but doesn't really have a lot to do.
  • Charlie Yeung: a very funny, manic, hammy performance in territory that's no longer the exclusive property of Anita Yuen.
  • Karen Mok Man-Wai: pulls off with aplomb a virtually impossible role: kind of a crazed, pushed-to-neurosis version of Faye Wong in Chungking Express
  • Michelle Lee: darkly, desperately glamourous & sexy. WKW uses her in a way opposite to how he uses Leon, pushing against her star persona. It works: Lee gives a bravely gritty performance that should win her serious respect.

  • It's hard to get a handle on precisely what's gone wrong with Fallen Angels. It has the strenghts of a WKW film, but they are skewed, out of balance. Sometimes its screenplay is upstaged by the score: more often it is overshadowed by the cinematography. The effects, the virtuostic filmmaking call attention to themselves, instead of drawing us to feel more deeply into the story. Part of the problem might be this film's genesis, as the third, unused story from Chungking Express. You could think of Fallen Angels as CE distorted, pulled to extremes: the humour of CE's second part is broadened, and the violence of its first part is made more explicit. But it doesn't really break new ground.

    I've enjoyed repeated viewings of WKW's other movies: they are so full of meaning, and yet elusive, that they reveal different facets each time you see them. But Fallen Angels doesn't give much more the second time around. Which is telling, I fear. It still could be the best HK movie of the year. And it has scenes that will likely be talked about and techniques that will be imitated in less interesting movies. But we'll have to wait for Wong Kar-Wai's next project to see him create something really new. 

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    Shelly Kraicer
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