Published January 1, 1998
Fallen Angels by Wong Kar-Wai may be the most perfect postmodern movie yet. Of course it comes from Hong Kong. Its characters are fragmented and monosyllabic, its stories multiple and incomprehensible, its dialogue minimalist, and its photography frenetic and out of focus; but boy is this hot new movie cool. Or hip if you prefer. And that, of course, is the point. I don’t know how he came to think that he could be a world authority on images of cool to rank with John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, but Wong is certainly right in thinking so. As my regular readers will know, however, I am resolutely uncool and conscientiously unhip. In fact, I would declare war on cool if I didn’t harbor the dark suspicion that that would be seen as a cool thing to do.
Cool is too powerful to take with a frontal assault anyway. Instead, we must try stealthily to undermine it. This means getting to know its tricky ways. One way to do that would be to go see Fallen Angels. Unfortunately, for reasons mentioned above, I can give little guidance about what you can expect to see. As near as I could tell, there are two stories which have little or possibly nothing to do with each other. The first involves a moody hit man called Ming (Leon Lai) whose main task is to walk calmly into rooms full of people with a gun in each hand and shoot the lot of them. What kind of employer needs to slaughter people wholesale like this we never learn. Thus the actions we associate with a madman are portrayed as being the product of calm and businesslike calculation. And that’s cool.
The hit man is required by his profession, or perhaps by temperament, to have no identity in the world. He is that perfect existential figure, a man completely without ties to his fellow creatures. At least there is only one tie, the beautiful young woman he describes as his “partner” in the business (Michele Reis). Even she does not see him face to face, but only leaves messages about his next assignment, finds him new places to live, and comes into the old places after he leaves in order to expunge every trace of his having been there. In picking up the detritus of his cool but very solitary life—soda cans, matchbooks etc—she develops a curiosity about him. Soon we see her masturbating on the bed that Ming has recently vacated. Masturbation is cool, as Beavis and Butthead would say.
The other story is the comic tale of He Quiw (Takeshi Kaneshiro) a young ex-convict who was rendered dumb by a can of outdated pineapple when he was five. The po mo joke accounts for his po mo silence, except on the soundtrack, where He does most of the narration. He [He] lives with his aged father and prowls the streets of Hong Kong at night, opening up businesses after their owners have gone home for the day and forcing customers to come in and buy goods and services they don’t want. His shampooing of a reluctant customer in a hair salon and later selling the same man, and his whole family, quantities of unwanted ice cream are quite funny episodes, though of course completely gratuitous. And both funny and gratuitous are cool.
His other favorite things to do are to make endless videotapes of his father cooking, his father pottering about the apartment, his father on the toilet, his father sleeping. When he gets tired of this, he accompanies a girl called Charlie or Cherry (Charlie Young) on her quest to get revenge on an ex-boyfriend, Johnny, who has taken up with a tart called Blondie (Karen Mok). Blondie taunts her with the news that Johnny is going to marry her. Charlie and He go looking for her with a Molotov cocktail, but keep walking into the wrong apartments, as Charlie doesn’t know where Blondie lives. Instead they beat up a life-sized blonde sex doll. Beating up is cool. So are sex dolls.
The one point of connection between the two stories comes as Blondie picks up the hit man, who is eating a lonely burger in an otherwise deserted McDonalds, and takes him back to her place. There she seduces him. She is a frisky and laughing girl, and she tells Ming that she has dyed her hair blonde so that people will remember her. It is another reminder of the assiduously-created social isolation in which all his characters live. “Everyone has a past, even a killer,” says Ming’s voiceover, but he has gone about as far as he can go to eliminate his own. He even carries a photo of himself with a fake wife and a fake child, not only as a cover but as a deliberate mockery of normal social connection. This is ultimately the coolest thing of all.
Yet all this chilly blast reduces, like most things considered cool, to adolescent posing. At the beginning and end of the film Ming tells us in voiceover that he likes his job because he is lazy and doesn’t like to make decisions or take responsibility. “Who’s to live and where has been decided by others.” A slacker hit man! Who’d have thought it? Likewise, when He’s father dies, he says: “I felt grown up for the first time. I didn’t want to feel grown up. I just wanted Dad with me.” Now he spends his time watching his videotapes of the old boy. You’ve almost got to think that Wong is being critical of his own material, in spite of all appearances, and making in the end the point that the allegedly cool are in fact pathetic losers, clinging to their adolescence. But, for some reason, I can’t quite bring myself to think it.