Fallen Angels, by Wong Kar-Wai, is hard to NOT see as a love song to a Hong Kong that was, in 1995, on the verge of disappearing.
Love thunders throughout this film, changing, healing, destroying, torturing, amusing and frightening. Every character in the picture is profoundly altered by love. Kiwu's father smiles. Blondie gives up her own chance at happiness. Charlie goes on a rampage. And at the sweltering center of it all pants the killer's agent, desperate and longing and beautiful and in utter, exquisite agony.
Steph brought up the notion that Wong's films are about characters caught in a rut who are freed from that trap by love's power, and so that thought was in my head as I watched. I don't think you have to look very hard to see it, though. One by one, all his characters encounter love full-bore, and either embrace it or try to avoid it. Nobody is unchanged.
He blows apart the conventions he sets up so effortlessly you forget they even ARE conventions. The beautiful girl who keeps her emotions at a distance -- surely she will come to realise how she feels about him and thus find the courage to speak to him? The wild young man, stricken mute by a pineapple -- won't we see him recover the ability to speak once he's made his peace with his father? The ultra-cool killer must certainly learn to take responsibility for his own decisions, mustn't he?
Well, not exactly.
We never make the peace we think we need to. We never come to the realisations we expect to. Our lives are never like the stories we use to anticipate them -- if they were, we would never need new stories. And we do need stories, but not to predict the future. We need stories to understand our past. Like the old man watching the footage of himself, suddenly happy and full of love for his son, we come to understand (or invent) ourselves by reviewing our memories and turning them into stories. This is a dangerous practice, however. We can come to use our stories to justify self-destructive behaviour.
All Wong's characters begin the film in that exact trap. Kiwu breaks into businesses because he can't afford to start his own. The killer leaves decisions to others because he's lazy. His agent restricts herself to sifting his garbage because she can't get involved with her partner.
The killer refuses to adjust. He won't abandon his justifications, and he cannot move on. Kiwu finds real jobs. His life doesn't seem to get better, and just WHAT does he do to his long-suffering "client" at the end? He can get himself together socially, but romantically he's still stuck. Optimistic, but unable to take action to grow.
But the agent, though still apparently stuck in the same career and kind of work, has grown up. She can work with others or not. She can ask a boy to take her home. She can love, even though she knows there's no guarantees.
Wong Kar-Wai loved his Hong Kong. He loved it enough to believe that, even on the brink of an unknown transformation, it was worth staying with and giving love to. The final shot of the film is of the city's skyline at dawn as the camera comes shooting out of tunnel.
Like Black Orpheus, Fallen Angels shows us how bleak things can be, but it too refuses to give in to despair. Love can't hold back time, and it can't fix all our problems. The closing song says:
All I needed was the love you gave
All I needed for another day
All I ever knew
Is that true? Is that really all we need? Perched on the back of a stranger's motorbike, roaring through the dark streets without any control, without knowing where we're going or how long the trip will take, maybe it is. But then the song is in the past tense, isn't it? Maybe All I needed was the love you gave is just another story we use to understand what happened to us. All I needed for another day is another justification for not changing. All I ever knew is a memory of beautiful innocence.