Fallen Angels (墮落天使, Wong Kar Wai, 1995)

4K

Wong Kar Wai may be associated with a melancholy existentialism but Chunking Express, filmed on the fly in an effort to shake off frustration during the famously difficult shoot on Ashes of Time, had been a breath of fresh air which characterised pre-Handover Hong Kong as a place of anxiety mired in nostalgia but also with tremendous energy and a fervent hope for the future. Its quasi-sequel, however, is the other side of the coin. If Chungking Express’ Hong Kong were heaven Fallen Angels (墮落天使) is its hell. 

As if to signal the connection between the two visions of Hong Kong, the twin protagonists of Fallen Angels each repeat the words of He Qiwu, cop 223, that daily one rubs elbows with a thousand strangers some of whom may later become friends or confidants, but this time around the words spell less of possibility than of a fatalistic inevitability. Indeed, the central drama occurs because melancholy hitman Ming (Leon Lai-ming), tired of his life, yearns for control after years of “lazily” allowing all of his decisions to be made for him. “The best thing about my job is there’s no need to make decisions” he explains, “who’s to die, when, where..it’s all decided by others.” “I don’t know whether it’s a good decision or not” he adds after vowing to make a change, “but at least it’s mine”. 

Good or bad it hardly matters, it is all decided. The protagonists of Fallen Angels live in a kind of purgatory of perpetual longing, looking for a connection which seems to elude them. Ming has been in a non-relationship with his “partner” (Michelle Reis), more of a handler, for 155 weeks, a “dating” method which seems to spell out his preoccupation with time. Despite their long association, however, the pair rarely meet in person, believing that “partners should never get emotionally involved with one another”. That’s something the unnamed partner later comes to accept, explaining that after moving on from Ming she’ll be careful to avoid becoming attached. Mirroring Chungking’s Faye, we find her in Ming’s apartment, sharing his space, tidying up for him, changing his sheets, and repairing his ansaphone but slipping past him at the train station careful that the streams do not cross. Yet she also tells us that sometimes she sits in his favourite seat at their favourite bar because it makes her feel close to him, avowing that sometimes it’s better not to get too close, find out too much about someone and you lose interest. “I know how to make myself happy” she adds, ironically resorting to just that, alone on Ming’s bed while he drifts into another non-relationship with a woman who dyed her hair blonde (Karen Mok) in the hope that it would make her memorable. 

The obsession with blondes recalls Brigitte Lin’s wigged assassin from Chungking Express, another “Blondie” bringing together mute ex-con Ho Chi Moo (Takeshi Kaneshiro), prisoner no. 223 neatly mirroring He Qiwu’s badge number in addition to sharing his nickname and having apparently lost his voice as a child after eating expired tinned pineapple, with his “first love” Charlie Young (Charlie Yeung Choi-Nei) who enlists his help to track down the treacherous young woman about to marry her ex. He later rubs elbows with a changed Charlie, dressed in a stewardess’ uniform ironically mirroring the romantic ending of Chungking Express seconds after Chi Moo’s clumsy mimicking of Faye’s iconic dancing, though she does not remember him. Like Ming, Chi Moo wants control over his life, deciding to be his own boss, but does even this partly out of resignation that his muteness makes it much more difficult to make the kinds of connections he longs to make. He lives parasitically making an illicit living “borrowing” other people’s businesses after hours and intimidating customers into buying his services, eventually losing two father figures in quick succession, thrusting him into an unsought adulthood in which he returns to his former life but tries to pick stronger businesses that won’t “get hurt easily”.

Despite its sense of defeat and melancholy, perhaps even a touch of nihilism, Fallen Angels does however end with a sense of peace and positivity even in that which may or may not be a transitory connection for the gentle warmth it imparts. Collaborating once again with Christopher Doyle, Wong’s underground Hong Kong is a purgatorial dreamland of infinite longing filled with the fatalism of a gangster noir in which there is no future and no freedom only loneliness and death punctuated with brief moments of warmth, but in those brief moments is perhaps a reason for living at least until one’s “expiration date” arrives. 


Transfer: The most radical of the 4K restorations, Fallen Angels is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, cropped from the 1.79:1 of the original release with the effect that the images appear further constrained while additional distortion occurs at the edges of the frame. In his introduction to the series, Wong offered the following comment on the aspect ratio change:

With Fallen Angels, I have changed the format to CinemaScope, because it was originally what I had intended to release the film in. When we were cutting the film, we accidentally turned the Steenbeck on anamorphic instead of standard. I felt that the film looked much more interesting because the setting[ck] enhanced the distance of the characters on top of the extreme wide angle that we shot with. Back then, it was impossible to shoot a film in standard and release it in anamorphic. With this restoration, we have successfully fulfilled this wish.

Additionally, while the film maintains the distinctive green tint in keeping with the house style of the new restorations, several scenes originally in colour have been regraded to monochrome while others originally in monochrome have been retouched with elements of colour.



Fallen Angels is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Restoration trailer (English subtitles)

The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Law Chi-leung, 2012)

20128291720405212Review of Law Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Xiāo Shī Dè Zǐ Dàn) – first published on UK Anime Network in June 2013.


In 1930’s Shanghai there’s a bullet factory where a young girl has been accused of pilfering. The punishment, it seems, is a cruel and very public trial by Russian roulette where fate, the gods or whoever will judge her innocent or guilty with a simple click or a loud bang. Crying out her innocence to the end, the girl pulls the trigger and presumably never actually hears the outcome as her co-workers look on in horror – she must have been guilty though, right? Or she would have been spared by the immortal powers at be.

Following this horrific incident, other deaths start to occur in the factory – the strange thing is, on examining the bodies, no trace of a bullet can be found (nor any casings at the scene). Some of the munitions workers start to believe the ghost of the poor girl who died must have returned to take revenge – perhaps she was innocent after all. To solve this intriguing mystery, the police turn to two unorthodox detectives – recently transferred former prison warden Song (Lau Ching-Wan) and maverick cop “fastest gun in town” Guo (Nicholas Tse). Neither of these two are buying the “supernatural” explanation and both are determined to get to the truth even if they work in very different ways. The solution is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone could have thought, and will, ultimately, be painful to hear.

Let’s get this out of this way first – yes, the film owes a significant debt to the recent “westernisation”, if you want to put it that way, of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and other Victorian set crime dramas (e.g. Ripper Street) which seek to present themselves as taking place in a totally lawless world denizened by a criminal population that is somehow both repellent and glamourous. Although The Bullet Vanishes is set in 1930s, it still has a noticeably “Victorian” sensibility presenting a world in which rapid industrialisation has brought about mass corruption and a decline in morality. Once again, setting a film in China’s past proves to be a surefire way of getting subtextual criticisms of modern China past the country’s strict censorship regulations.

The murder mystery itself is certainly very intriguing with a series of unpredictable twists and turns. The idea of disappearing bullets might not be a new one, but The Bullet Vanishes manages to find an original solution that is perfectly plausible within its own time setting. Also, the “supernatural” element exists only as an idea and is never seriously entertained as an explanation by any of the investigators – something of a break from the genre norm.

The two detectives seem much more like rivals than partners for much of the film though an awkward sort of camaraderie does eventually grow up between them. Lau and Tse both give excellent performances but Tse in particular who’s often criticised for being a pretty boy trading on family connections, really proves himself with his surprisingly complex Guo. There is, however, the familiar criticism that the female characters are severely underdeveloped and seem almost like a rushed afterthought. Yang Mi gives a lot to the barely two dimensional Little Lark but can’t disguise the fact that the character only exists as a love interest for Guo and that in turn a love interest for Guo only exists so that we can have the “obligatory” love scene. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the love scene itself didn’t feel quite so “obligatory” – it could easily have been excised and the film would have remained pretty much unchanged as the scene feels as if it exists purely to satisfy a perceived audience need for romance.

There really isn’t much to fault with The Bullet Vanishes. As a slightly cerebral mainstream period thriller it’s certainly very successful. It has an engaging mystery element, strong characters played excellently by the cast and extremely slick, modern direction. In Song they’ve created a very interesting character who’d be very welcome in a sequel or two. His relationship with female prison inmate, a sort of Irene Adler figure to Song’s cerebral detective, who he’d previously investigated before being transferred was quite an usual idea that would really benefit from further exploration. All in all The Bullet Vanishes is a very impressive and enjoyable period procedural that is truly a cut above its genre origins.