When I was in high school, Hong Kong art-film superstar Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 classic Chunking Express was one of those weird movies that became a cornerstone of my whole idea that I was a Smart Person Who Appreciated Smart Things. I watched it over and over and over, and started telling people it was my favorite movie. So nearly two decades later, when I found out Kar-Wai had made a kung-fu movie, I was amped. There’s a lot of great stuff in 2013’s The Grandmaster: doomed love, longing glances, ridiculously pretty cinematography. Critics loved it. But I didn’t. The big problem, as I saw it: This guy had to be the only director in Hong Kong who doesn’t know how to put together a goddamn motherfucking martial-arts fight. They’re all swishes and blurs, and you can never tell what’s going on. Shit drove me nuts.
For a better, weirder example of what happens when Kar-Wai takes on action-movie tropes, I instead suggest 1995’s deeply disorienting Fallen Angels. It doesn’t share any characters with Chunking Express, but it’s basically a sequel, or maybe a companion piece: made at the same time, in the same locations, with the same filming style. This one is messier and more fragmented, and it doesn’t star anyone quite as charismatic as Faye Wong in Chungking Express. (It also didn’t have a VHS release with Quentin Tarantino getting all excited to introduce it, which was what convinced me to watch that movie in the first place.) But the thing that sets Fallen Angels apart is this: It’s a woozy, giddy, visually drunk art film that occasionally turns into a John Woo spectacle. That’s enough to make it special. I saw it in the theater when it came out, and the only scenes that stuck in my mind were the ones where Leon Lai walks into a room and starts two-gun blazing.
Based on The Grandmaster, Kar-wai might not know how to shoot a hand-to-hand fight scene, but it turns out he’d already learned how to film the fuck out of a Woo-style shootout. Lai, the star of one of Fallen Angels’ two main story lines, was a pop singer first and an actor second. (Wikipedia tells me that he’s one of the “Cantopop Four Heavenly Kings,” which is awesome. Every musical genre should have Four Heavenly Kings. Blackened doom metal should have Four Heavenly Kings.) He’s great here, since all he really has to do is brood prettily, and then walk into a room and shoot everyone in it. We never learn why he’s killing the people he’s killing; he doesn’t seem especially concerned. On the voiceover, at one point, he complains, “I hate digging bullets out of my own body. It’s exhausting.” He talks about self-surgery like it’s a long commute. And when he decides he wants to get out of the hitman life, it’s not because he has a moral reckoning or he’s worried about being killed. He just eventually figures that maybe he wants to do something else with his life, like open a bar or something.
Lai’s “partner”—the woman who sets up all his hits and apparently acts as his agent—is played by the ridiculously stunning model and beauty queen Michelle Reis, who seems to spend most of her days hanging out in empty bars and grinding on jukeboxes while experimental music plays. (Shout-out to Laurie Anderson on the soundtrack.) She’s in love with Lai, but she never tells him; she just goes into his apartments and spends long movie-minutes frolicking on his bed. You want these two insanely pretty people to get together and fall in love (or at least have sex), but that’s not the way things work in Wong Kar-Wai movies. Instead, they make things difficult for themselves, sending each other coded messages and refusing to ever discuss their feelings for whatever reason. They could do that, but that give them less time to smoke cigarettes in stylishly stoic ways. (Don’t watch this movie if you’re trying to quit smoking.)
As a filmmaker, Wong seems completely disinterested in the idea of this guy working as a hitman. The mechanics of his job make no sense, he has no compelling explanation for why he does it, and the scenes of brutal violence seem beamed in for completely no reason. (There are a couple of Mean Streets-style diner brawls that only barely involve any of the main characters at all. They practically happen in the background. It’s nuts.) I have a theory that Kar-wai only made one of his heroes a hitman because it was way easier to get financing for a movie in mid-’90s Hong Kong if you made a movie about a hitman. But even if they don’t make a whole lot of sense in the context of the movie, the gunfights still linger in your brain (or mine, anyway), because they’re shot and staged so stylishly.
And anyway, nothing in the movie makes any sense in any context at all, so it’s not like the gunfights seem egregious. Things just happen in this guy’s movies, and eventually you learn not to question them. The other main story line here involves a mute lunatic who breaks into stores at night and forces people to pay him for goods and services. He’ll grab someone off the street, hold him down, give him a haircut, and somehow get paid for it. He eventually falls in love with an equally insane woman, and we watch them run around doing insane shit together. And all that works, too, because Wong makes everything look so iconic, and because the lunatic is played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, who would go on to become a big star in Hong Kong: He brings such a manic, loopy charisma to the proceedings that you almost maybe sort of believe that he wouldn’t get stabbed the first time he tried pulling any of this shit on a random stranger.
You have to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy a movie like this. (It helps to be stoned, for one thing.) Kar-wai’s plots might be impenetrable, but his eye is unrivaled. He makes Hong Kong look like this incredible, head-spinning fantasia of neon lights and dark alleyways, and it’s just intoxicating to look at. Roger Ebert (who liked the movie) wrote that Fallen Angels seemed to be mostly for people who have “their sleeves cut off so you can see their tattoos,” which I love. If he was trying to call the movie pretentious, he’s right. But if you’re willing to meet this on its own terms, it’s the right kind of pretentious. Lots of movies have lovingly shot gunfights. This is the only one I can think of that makes them all look like a beautiful dream.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
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