Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995) ends with a meet-cute, a motorcycle ride and a pop song. The Flying Pickets’ a capella cover of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ had been 1983’s Christmas Number One, a hit that suggests more about the peculiar and patchy nature of the charts that year than the song itself. (The band had their origins in the British left-wing theatre of the 1970s and the name, referring back to the successful miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, had a ring that would be merely nostalgic until the cataclysm of the NUM strike the following year.) The opening treated vocal syllables mimic clipped synthesiser chords in an uncanny way, both homemade and inorganic, in a manner that breaks with the low-rent neon and the light-smearing fast- and slow-cranked filming of Wong’s Hong Kong. The lyrics announce a new story at the very end of the film, one that falls into it unexpectedly—“looking from a window above / it’s like a story of love”—in a way that nothing in Wong’s characters’ lives, following their private obsessions or objective entrapment in routines, ever usually does. (When it does, in the torrid extramarital romance of In The Mood For Love, it arrives as entry into a personal hell.) The song floats at a curious distance over an image that itself embodies suspension, the speed of the motorbike propelling his characters into a future that the film will never be party to and slowing their gestures to a lingering set of symbols (the cigarette between the lips, the pillion’s arms around the rider’s waist), a moment, destined to end as all moments are, in which “I’m feeling such lovely warmth”. The choice of climactic song is peculiar, incongruent with the sentimental Mandarin pop, stark avant-garde song and oppressive, then-trendy trip-hop of the rest of the soundtrack. But this incoherence, combined with the close attention Wong pays to the weight and effect of the music he selects, demonstrates really the affinity and perceptive touch his romanticism has for the inner life of pop music.
The elements of Wong’s style have become so over-familiar now in their social media incarnations that it can be hard to discern how strange it is in its own context, particularly how elaborately belated it is. After the end of history, romance could only legitimately under the sign of postmodern cynicism (Natural Born Killers), self-conscious wish-fulfilment (Pretty Woman, Notting Hill, Lovers on the Bridge) or extreme self-abnegation (The Piano Teacher, Wild at Heart). The earnest lightness of ‘Only You’, in its contrast with the interior of Christopher Doyle’s massive range of exhausted and sumptuous, overlit and underlit colours, speaks to something in pop music that few directors since the 1990s have grasped. The songs selected for Wong’s films—unlike, say, the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction—aren’t supposed to be good or even necessarily interesting; Faye Wong’s version of The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’ in Chungking Express is a tender, perfectly handled version of a fundamentally mediocre, sentimental song. Pop music remains unelevated and unredeemed in his films, left at the level of an everyday life that they illuminate by a dialectical opposition, and are illuminated in turn. His films’ romanticism, seizing on clichéd elements of pop culture’s structures of feeling and gestus, expresses, as philosopher Agnès Gayraud puts it in Dialectic of Pop, not pop’s history but its “historicity… the ways in which subjectivities produce narratives of this history”, creating, in the form of illustrious trash, a use for the useless.
just rewatched fallen angels recently, great post! always found the use of that song at the end especially perfect and fascinating