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From the Vaults: 'Fallen Angels'

Wong Kar-Wai (Kino International)

It’s generally agreed upon that people are pretty lonely, by and large. It’s also generally agreed upon that people don’t like being lonely very much and are willing to go to some pretty silly and horrifying lengths to stop it. Wong Kar-Wai’s “Fallen Angels” is a movie about those lengths.

The film’s first storyline follows Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai), a hit-man managed by his alluring Agent (Michele Reis), whom he rarely meets in person: “Partners shouldn't get emotionally involved with each other,” he narrates. The Agent obsesses over him, cleaning his hotel rooms and tracking his movements, but always maintains a cold distance from him—”There are some people you can never get close to,” she says. “Get too close, and you'll find him boring.” This frustrated, self-defeating passion permeates the partners’ professional relationship: The Agent even communicates hits to him through newspaper personal ads.

The second storyline follows He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a mute, emotionally damaged young man whose main occupation is taking over shops that don’t belong to him and aggressively hawking wares to often resistant late-night passers-by—a dark metaphor for chronically unrequited love. He becomes attached to the deranged Charlie (Charlie Yeung), who is driven out of her mind when her lover leaves her for the prostitute Blondie (Karen Mok).

The two storylines intersect occasionally throughout the film—the Agent and He meet briefly in a motel, Wong becomes involved with the volatile Blondie—but they remain fundamentally separate through most of the film, reflecting the isolation at the movie’s heart. Much of the action is devoted to the pain of people leaving. In the first scene, the only meeting between Wong and the Agent we see, he terminates their business relationship. “Are we still partners?” the Agent half-sobs. When he leaves Blondie, she bites him hysterically. “I've left my mark, okay?” she screams. “You may forget my face, but you won't forget my bite.” Charlie abruptly abandons He; He’s father dies. The distraught Agent ultimately deals with her grief by sending Wong into a death trap for their last joint venture.

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In short, by the end of the movie, things are looking pretty grim on the alienation-and-isolation front—characters who almost never meet are killing one another to keep relationships, no matter how tenuous, from ending. The viewer might be justified in being pretty pessimistic going into the final scenes: The ragged, still-mourning Agent is sitting in a noodle house where He gets involved in a fist-fight. She keeps listlessly picking at her noodles while figures strike each other to the ground in the background; she shows no interest in the fallen bodies when the victorious parties walk out.

He happens to be one of the bodies on the ground. He drags himself up and lights a cigarette. “We rub shoulders with people every day. Some may become friends and confidants. That’s why I stay optimistic,” he narrates. Then He and the Agent notice each other.

The final scene shows the Agent riding on the back of He’s motorcycle. “I'm about to leave,” she says in voiceover. “I ask him to take me home. I haven't ridden pillion for a long time nor have I been this close to a man in ages. The road home isn't very long, and I know I'll be getting off soon. But at this moment, I'm feeling such lovely warmth.”

This is why “Fallen Angels” is important in the final analysis. People are lonely, and sometimes they do strange things as a result—go through their partners’ rubbish bins, make people buy things from them. The movie acknowledges that this fact is a dominant, perhaps the dominant, mode for human existence. But at the end, it shows that sometimes, for a moment or two, we don’t have to be so lonely, that we can be with another person no matter how briefly; and in those moments, we feel such lovely warmth.

—Jude D. Russo can be reached at jude.russo@thecrimson.com.

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