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)

Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗, AKA The Legend of the Swordsman, Tony Ching Siu-tung, 1992)

Swordsman II still 1In a world filled with chaos, is the answer to all life’s problems retreat or attack? After the unexpected success of Swordsman which survived the withdrawal of legendary director King Hu to go on to be a box office hit, a sequel was quickly set in motion to be directed by action choreographer Tony Ching Siu-tung. Swordsman II (笑傲江湖之東方不敗) would be the second in a trilogy inspired by Louis Cha’s novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer and largely dispenses with the cast of the original film for a virtual reboot led by action star Jet Li and actress Brigitte Lin as an extraordinarily sympathetic villain.

Picking up soon after the end of the first film, Ling (Jet Li) and his female comrade nicknamed “Kiddo” (Michelle Reis) are on the run with the intention of retiring from the world of martial arts to live simply among honest people. However, they are about to ride straight into the heart of conflict. At this particular point in history, the “Highlanders” feel themselves oppressed by the ruling “Mainlanders” and would be set on rebellion if they weren’t so busy fighting amongst themselves. Meanwhile, a number of Japanese troops are also holing up in China to wait out political strife in Japan. “Invincible” Dawn (Brigitte Lin), a Highlander, appears to have gotten a hand on the first film’s MacGuffin – the “Sacred Volume” which holds the key to untold martial arts power. Teaming up with the displaced Japanese, Dawn plans to use the powers of the Sacred Volume to dominate the Highlanders and then eventually take over the entire nation.

Dawn happens to be the uncle of a woman, Ying (Rosamund Kwan), with whom Ling began something like a romance back in the first film. Ying’s father, Wu (Lau Shun), the chief of Highlander tribe Sun Moon Sect, has gone missing – presumed taken prisoner by Dawn as a prelude to seizing power. Despite his desire to escape the duplicitous world of martial arts, Ling finds himself on a quest to save Ying’s father and with it the Sun Moon Sect if not the entire nation from the tyrant that Dawn seems primed to become.

Ling, as heroes go, is very much of the wine, women, and song, school. Indeed, he’s not much for anything without a good cup of booze – something that provokes an instant connection with the unusual figure of Dawn when he spots her bathing in a local pool and she offers him some of her upscale alcohol in a pretty bottle. The powers of the Sacred Volume come with a price – in order to embrace them, Dawn must transform herself into a woman (or in the less poetic rendering of the text, simply cut off her penis). Dawn’s transformation is a gradual process and she continues to play her male role as the head her clan, even parading her mistress in front of her captives in a noticeably salacious manner. However, Dawn is also caught off guard by an unexpected attraction to the cheerfully tipsy Ling and the transformation seems to accelerate – she begins wearing makeup, her voice changes into a more feminine register, and her sexual relationship with her mistress appears to be definitively over.

Meanwhile, Ling is fighting a romantic war on three fronts – he’s captivated by the mysterious woman who avoided speaking to him never knowing she is really his enemy, but is still half in love with Ying, and the subject of Kiddo’s unrequited crush. While Dawn wrestles with a deeper transformation, Kiddo is also trying to process her place as a woman among men in attempting to shed her tomboyish image by styling her hair in more classically female fashions and wearing makeup – something which can’t help but arouse mild hilarity among her comrades who collectively think of her as a tough little sister. Trying to explain her new persona to her mistress, Dawn insists that she will never forget her and that essentially nothing has changed, while the guys partially mock Kiddo’s new desire to embrace her femininity by avowing that male/female/non-binary gender is an irrelevance. Even so, on realising Dawn is the person he’d been looking for and was once Ying’s uncle, Ling’s parting questions are all about whether he might have accidentally slept with a man which he seems to find embarrassing. Nevertheless, it’s “femininity” which finally does for Dawn as she finds herself weakened by love and eventually pushed towards a “heroic” act of romantic sacrifice.

Having defeated one tyrant, Ling finds himself threatened by another as Wu’s maniacal need for revenge provokes a wide scale purge of those who had “betrayed” him. Ling’s desire to remove himself from this world of betrayals, violence, and complex moralities seems ever more understandable but cannot be his answer even as he finds himself unwillingly exiled. If you turn your back on trouble, it will eventually engulf you and everything you love – as will a failure to resist a trusted ally’s descent into darkness. Strangely affecting in its hero/villain symmetries and air of tragic romance, Swordsman II’s beautifully choreographed action sequences are only surpassed by its fierce commitment to fantasy.


Swordsman II was screened as part of An Evening with Tony Ching Siu-tung presented by the Chinese Visual Festival.