Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. This March, we revisit the sumptuous, romantic, deeply humanistic works of Hong Kong’s favored son, Wong Kar-Wai. Read the rest of our coverage here.
In Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, we follow two parallel narratives. One tells the story of a contract killer (Leon Lai) trying to get out of the game and his agent (Michelle Reis) who is infatuated with him. The other follows a chaotic and mute man, He Zhwiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who falls in love with a woman called Charlie (Charlie Yeung) whom he keeps running into. There’s a lot to like here, from the moodiness of Hong Kong to the music, to Wong Kar-wai’s signature stunning lighting. One specific thing which is really fascinating here is how few moments of dialogue are present here, and how that makes this film so effective.
Predominantly, it makes cool moments even slicker. The Killer and his agent have no need for dialogue when they know each other better than they know themselves. Instead of focusing on words, we get everything we need to know from their actions. You can see her infatuation in the way she cleans his bed. You can see his weariness in the way he cleans his wounds.
There’s also just something undeniably cool about the way that these assassinations are portrayed. Christopher Doyle disorients you with his cinematography while chill music plays in the background. All of this is compounded by the accompanying aesthetics. Pretty much everything we see is shot at night. Lai wears a black jacket, a black waistcoat and a vest underneath. Reis wears a series of sleek and beautiful dresses. There’s no time to question the morality when it’s all flair, action and no conversation.
The absence of dialogue also allows the oddball comedy elements to express themselves. Since He Zhwiu can’t speak, and (without any in-text explanation) isn’t using sign language, he is forced to express himself through physicality. Kaneshiro plays this up in some hilarious ways, like when he’s massaging a pig carcass at a butcher’s shop he’s broken into, or when he dramatically pretends to be shot, dripping ketchup down his apron. It’s the lack of dialogue which forces a creativity in physical comedy, and really makes it sing.
There’s no time to question the morality when it’s all flair, action and no conversation.
There’s also humor elicited from the wild contrast between Kaneshiro and Yeung, who rambles on and on about the elusive ‘Blondie,’ who apparently stole her boyfriend. What also works here is that the jokes are largely centered around miscommunication and false perceptions, rather than his muteness in and of itself (though it’s important to note that Kaneshiro himself is not mute, and the role would likely be served even better by someone who was). The same dynamic is mirrored when The Killer’s friend from high school rambles at him on the bus, reminiscing about the past and trying to get him on the insurance that he now sells. It’s also reflected in his one-night stand with the infamous Blondie (Karen Mok).
As time progresses, you realize that a lot of the coolness and comedy held in the wordlessness of these characters is actually a façade to cover up just how desperately lonely everyone is. The people around The Killer hear the pop of his gun more than they hear his voice. The Killer’s Agent barely interacts with anyone, mostly arriving in the aftermath to tie up loose ends. The pair who supposedly know each other better than they know themselves are avoiding dialogue because they know that a single conversation about their wants and needs will open a rift they can’t fix. Outside of his father, most of He Zhiwu’s interactions are less about conversation and more about forcing his will onto people. The only way you know about their dreams, their aspirations, their full personhood is the disembodied thoughts they express through the narration.
The characters who do speak aloud aren’t in real dialogue either — they’re talking at people rather than with them. Yeung and Mok’s incredible endless speech isn’t just hilarious, it’s desperate. Maybe they believe that if they talk enough then they can speak the love they are missing into existence. That the words will start to mean something eventually and that anything’s better than silence.
No one is open enough for a real dialogue and connection, so instead they find other ways to force people to stay. Maybe it’s sex, or violence, or a sales pitch. Sometimes it works for an hour, for a night, or even a week, but it can’t last. Even in the end, where The Killer’s Agent and He Zhiwu find each other in silence and ride off into the sunset on a motorbike, the connection doesn’t feel permanent or guaranteed. A spark can only go so far.
Without real and open dialogue, the vice-grip will loosen and someone will leave. Then we’re back in the beautifully lit dive bar, leaned against the jukebox as a mournful song plays, thinking of what could have been.