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Redeeming Feature

Forget how the angel fell at Cannes by revisiting Wong Kar Wai at his best

Wong Kar-Wai without subtitles (at least for Anglophones), My Blueberry Nights landed with a splat last May in Cannes, leaving a purplish stain—permanent?—on the director's considerable reputation. But if the mighty Wong has fallen (or at least slipped), we'll always have his 1995 Fallen Angels, playing for a week at the BAMcinématek.

The acme of neo-new-wavism, the ultimate in MTV alienation, the most visually voluptuous flick of the fin de siécle, a pyrotechnical wonder about mystery, solitude, and the irrational love of movies that pushes Wong's style to the brink of self-parody, Fallen Angels was the last installment of his long goodbye to the lost paradise of colonial Hong Kong.

Fallen Angels circles around the unconsummated love affair between a baby-faced hit man (pop star Leon Lai) and his ravishing female agent (the former Miss Hong Kong, Michele Reis). Her eyes hidden by long bangs, his masked behind impenetrable shades, these youthful fashion plates are more icons than stars—Wong underscores their glamorous entrances with wailing Canto rap or mega close-ups of the neon lights reflected on Reis's vinyl minidress. Existing mainly in each other's imaginations, these business associates meet only twice. Hong Kong is itself a character through which the principles search for something not there.

Wong's favorite shot places a pair of dreamily disconnected actors in the foreground, oblivious to the mad tumult behind them. When not booking Lai's professional bloodbaths or setting up his hideouts, the insolently slouching Reis spends her time in a sort of simulated heroin trance, lost in fantasy, occasionally making love to a glowing Wurlitzer. Lai himself is scarcely less solipsistic. In between jobs (which are blatantly staged as outrageous, John Woo–style shoot-outs), he's eternally bemused, whether recognized by an old classmate or picked up by an orange-coiffed hysteric (Karen Mok), who claims to be a figure from his now-forgotten past.

Half of Fallen Angels takes place in a monsoon; the rest is set in a pungent series of lovingly selected locations (deserted subway stations, an empty McDonald's, 24-hour noodle joints, impossibly narrow apartments, entropic dives where the jukebox plays Laurie Anderson). The director's throwaway style has its equivalent in the movie's world of fast-food parlors and one-night stands. The more disposable the experience, the more crucial the memory. Shot entirely at night and mainly in wide-angle—Christopher Doyle's camera racing down rain-slicked Nathan Road or positioning itself an inch from a performer's face— Fallen Angels is suffused with nostalgia for the present.

Would understanding the spoken Chinese make a difference? As insistent as its soundtrack is, Fallen Angels is a movie with almost no dialogue. The speech is mainly voice-over soliloquizing, which—too subjective to ever exert much authority over the plot—has the effect of casting events into the realm of dreamy regret even as they happen. August 8 through 14, BAM.

 
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