Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) is one of the quintessential cinematic visions
of turn of the century Hong Kong. A companion piece to his international
breakthrough Chungking Express (1994),
Fallen Angels is its more melancholic
and morose twin. With stunning cinematography by Christopher Doyle, Wong
Kar-Wai captures nocturnal Hong Kong as a zone of transience, illusion, and
desperate hunger for intimacy and connection.
The film illuminates Hong Kong’s peculiar
characteristics as a Global City, which relate to both its unique history as
well as its contemporary economic role. Wong Kar-Wai achieves through his
depictions of Hong Kong’s skyline and cityscape, its transit and economic
infrastructure, and the strange behavior of the city’s denizens.
A Brief Summary of the Narrative
Before moving into an an analysis of the
representations of the urban in Fallen
Angels, it will be instructive to give a quick summary of the film’s
narrative. Fallen Angels tells the
interlocking stories of three characters: a solitary hitman, his lonely
partner, and a mute fugitive who works as an unauthorized shopkeeper. The
hitman decides to retire from his violent profession, while his partner yearns
for romance. The partner lives in the same building as the the mute. The mute
survives on the fringes of society, clashing with his father and his wayward
The narrative hinges on the hitman’s relationship
with his partner as well as a woman named Blondie, while the mute falls in love
with a jealous, jilted madwoman. The hitman’s partner has him killed when she
discovers he is planning to retire. The mute’s father dies, and the madwoman
forgets him as she discovers a new love. The film concludes with the mute
giving the hitman’s partner a ride home on his motorcycle.
Visions of a Postmetropolis
Like other Wong Kar-Wai films, Fallen Angels’ narrative unfolds with a
logic that is more poetic than it is literal. This style imbues the film with a
dreamlike quality that can be disorienting to some audiences. But themes of
alienation, loneliness, confused memories and illusions, dislocation, and the
struggle for intimacy come through clearly in the actions of the characters and
the distinctly photographed images.
These themes have a context in Hong Kong’s
history. Historically, Hong Kong was settled by migrants and travelers from
other places. This has given the city a “floating identity” as the “refugees or
expatriates” who populated the city thought of their home as “temporary stop”
(Clemens and Pettman, 131). Therefore,
it is no surprise that Fallen Angels shows
Hong Kong as a fractured and discontinuous “liminal community” (Clemens and
The city’s and contemporary economic role is also
crucial to consider. A locus of commerce and finance capital and a exemplar of
rapid development in East Asia, Hong Kong has all the characteristics of a
globalized postmetropolis. Post-metopolis is a term used to describe “the
future-oriented urbanism of our late-capitalist age of globalization” (Lindner,
327). This makes Hong Kong the ideal setting for Wong Kar-Wai’s “mood study of
urban emptiness and disconnection” (Lindner, 329).
In the densely packed urban environment of Hong
Kong near the end of the 20th century, many residents of the city languish in
solitude, lacking the intimacy and community that normally comes from
traditional family and village ties. The hitman and his partner do not interact
in person, trading information and messages via “mail-drops, faxes, and other
forms of distanced and depersonalized communication” (Lindner, 330). When the
hitman runs into an old schoolmate, the schoolmate reminisces about the past
only to crudely switch to the language of economic transaction. Meanwhile, the
mute struggles to connect with his father except through the technological
medium of video. The mute’s object of affection by turns ignores and forgets
These are the denizens of an “unsettled society”
where “loneliness and a sense of dislocation” are endemic parts of life
(Clemens and Pettman, 132). Fallen Angels
functions as a “vivid depiction of the people who inhabit the spaces between
Hong Kong’s Shifting Identities” (Clemens and Pettman, 132). We see this in how
the film’s characters interact with one another and their environment.
Grasping for Intimacy
The cast of characters in Fallen Angels share in common a sense of
confusion, isolation, and alienation. They all seek or accept intimacy in a
stunted manner that is reflective of the highly fractured ‘postmetropolitan’
Hong Kong described in the previous section. Their actions reflect the struggle
to form a connection in an alienating environment. In these frequently absurd
and often violent attempts to find intimacy and connection, Fallen Angels keenly displays the “impact
of globalization on the urban imaginary” (Lindner, 327).
The hitman, his partner, and the mute all exhibit
behaviors that demonstrate their mutual struggle for intimacy in the atomized,
diasporic city in which they reside. Each character acts out this struggle in
The hitman acts out this struggle with hesitation
and reluctance. He does not seek out intimacy and even behaves in a way that
suggests he rejects it altogether. But the moments in which he accepts the
intimate entreaties of others reveal the loneliness and alienation he shares in
common with other characters.
In one scene, an old schoolmate recognizes the
hitman on the bus. While the schoolmate accosts him with excitable and
obnoxious blather, the hitman is cool but polite. Their interaction is shaped
by the schoolmate’s objective to make an economic transaction, as the
schoolmate attempts to strike up a business relationship and sell life
insurance to the hitman.
But the need for shared intimacy is clear,
especially in the scene’s final moments, as the schoolmate asks the hitman if
he remembers a girl they both once knew in school. The schoolmate says he is
soon marrying her, then proceeds to offer him a large wedding invitation
envelope. In the hitman’s hesitant pause before accepting the envelope, we can
feel the hitman’s strategy in the struggle for intimacy. Reluctance is his
strategy. By maintaining a detached and cool manner, the hitman draws those
seeking intimacy toward him.
This becomes even clearer in the hitman’s interactions
with Blondie. After meeting in a McDonald’s, Blondie and the hitman have an
interaction at the foot of the staircase to her apartment that serves as a
fitting sequel to the earlier scene on the bus. Blondie repeatedly pushes for
the hitman to follow her upstairs, but the hitman quietly demurs, choosing
instead to light a cigarette and lie in wait. Finally, Blondie grabs the
hitman’s jacket away from him. After another hesitant pause, he chases her
upstairs and into the apartment. Reluctance is the hitman’s social mode of
Blurred Lights and Big Buildings
The hitman’s partner’s sense of loneliness and
isolation is much sharper. It appears most starkly in the scenes in which she
masturbates. Her performance of the ultimate act of solitude is prominently
accompanied by music. The first scene of masturbation begins with her playing a
Laurie Anderson song off of a jukebox. The film cuts away from the hitman’s
partner at the jukebox to a blurry, vertiginous shot of the Hong Kong skyline.
The smeared lights of buildings in the Hong Kong
night serves as a key moment that connects the loneliness and isolation of the
characters to their urban environment. As the camera unsteadily pans across
Hong Kong night, we see what she sees as she listens to Laurie Anderson and
begins to masturbate. This is a moment of an intimacy with the self and city.
The lights and the buildings of Hong Kong fill the vision of a woman as she
attempts to reach sensual climax.
The buildings and the lights of the Hong Kong
cityscape often enter the frame just before or after a moment of intimacy
occurs on screen. At the very end of the film, when the hitman’s partner gets a
ride home from the mute, the camera pans up from the pair on the motorcycle to
the imposing buildings above them. In the first masturbation scene, the skyline
is juxtaposed with the hitman’s partner clutching herself. In the final scene,
the skyline is juxtaposed with the hitman’s partner clutching the mute on his
The second scene of masturbation also includes a
view of the Hong Kong cityscape. The hitman’s partner once again pleasures
herself in bed, but this time she breaks down crying. As she does, the camera
moves out the window to the city lights, and a train racing into frame on the
subway tracks. It is telling that both masturbation scenes either begin or end with
shots of Hong Kong’s cityscape.
Subway Stops and Subverted Shops
Hong Kong’s transit infrastructure serves
as an important location in the world of Fallen
Angels. In addition to the shot of the subway train that concludes the
second masturbation scene, the first scene following the opening titles of the
film shows the hitman’s partner hurrying through a subway stop. This scene is
later repeated, with the hitman walking the same path as his partner.
Moments in subway stops, streets, shops,
bars, restaurants, and other public places frequently feature the characters
moving alone in the night. Sometimes, others are present, but in these cases
the encounters are fleeting and elliptical, or marked by horrifying and/or
The hitman’s partner passes Blondie and
recognizes the scent of her partner (Siegel, 290). The hitman enters a bar or
restaurant and kills everyone in sight. In a sense, these are moments of
intimacy, just as when the mute’s “affection for his father is expressed
through his incessant production of video images” (Siegel, 290). But this
intimacy is warped by technology and postmetropolitan alienation.
The mute’s struggle for intimacy emerges along
the most absurd contours of any of the characters. In addition to his
video-mediated relationship with his father, the mute subverts the shops and
restaurants of Hong Kong late at night and opens them to earn the business of
other night owls. In many cases, the mute actually uses violence and
intimidation to force people to accept the products and services he vends.
This is a much more bizarre form of violence than
that practiced by the hitman, but it is also a very real form of intimacy. When
the mute forces a haircut and beard trim on a man, he is demonstrating how “the
lived experience of the global city can lead to a state of radical detachment
that is far more extreme, alienating, and destructive” (Lindner, 329).
Fin de siècle Hong Kong is given romantic and
mysterious life in Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen
Angels. The film’s urban setting is central to its characters, stories and
themes. The peculiar alienation and thirst for scarce intimacy animates the
characters and action and moods, which bleed into the blurred imagery of Hong
Kong’s nocturnal cityscape. In this way, Fallen
Angels makes real the phenomena associated with the postmetropolitan Global
City, of which Hong Kong is an example par excellence.
and Dominic Pettman. “The Floating Life of Fallen
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Christoph. “The Postmetropolis and Mental Life: Wong Kar-Wai’s Cinematic Hong
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the City, ed. G. Bridge and S. Watson. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011. pp. 327-336.
“The Intimate Spaces of Wong Kar-Wai.” In At Full Speed: Hong Kong Cinema in a
Borderless World, ed. C. M. Yau. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.