Hong Kong

How Wong Kar-wai’s ‘Restoration’ of “Fallen Angels” Spoils Pre-1997 Hong Kong

A recent update to Wong Kar-wai’s classic film “Fallen Angels” painfully evokes Hong Kong’s sociocultural erosion under Beijing’s rule.

By , 23 Jan 21 21:18 GMT
Courtesy of Block 2 Distribution.

Along with most films by superstar art house director Wong Kar-wai, Fallen Angels (1995) received a 4K restoration in 2020—and is currently touring theaters worldwide. Envisioned as the third story to the two that form Wong’s international breakout Chungking Express (1994), Fallen Angels tells additional tales of hitmen and delinquents in mid-’90s Hong Kong. It is Wong’s last film made solely in his hometown, before he diversified his productions worldwide.

Restorations and a forthcoming home video release of Wong’s filmography should be welcome news to global cinephiles. Unfortunately, Wong has made drastic changes to Fallen Angels, along with many of his other films, with no sign of making their pre-existing versions available in the future.

By tinkering with Fallen Angels and retiring its original version, Wong is spoiling Hong Kong’s cultural history. That’s because Fallen Angels is one of the most gorgeous cinematic documents of Hong Kong’s sights, which now call for more protection than ever given increasing Chinese dominance after the city’s handover in 1997.

What Does the Fallen Angels Restoration Change?

Courtesy of Jet Tone Productions. Click image to expand.

Wong Kar-wai has retouched every single shot of Fallen Angels. A change in aspect ratio from 1.85:1 to 2.39:1 means every frame of the film has undergone cropping, squishing, and distortion. Some shots in color have been re-timed to black-and-white, but parts of some black-and-white shots have also been colorizedan infamous practice that many filmmakers have shunned.

The entire film has been color-graded again, with shots now color-inaccurate or drenched in previously absent tints (this is also the case for Wong’s In the Mood for Love, one of the most notably colorful films of all time). Furthermore, all of Wong’s “restored” films now have new, standardized credit sequences.

That amount of work is far more than what a restoration usually entails. It’s instead akin to a new, alternate version of the film. This “restoration” is false advertising. In an open letter, Wong defended his alterations by claiming that he wanted Fallen Angels to have an anamorphic aspect ratio from the start—and considers this revisitation an opportunity to achieve his original intention through digital means. However, that argument rings hollow: anamorphic ratios are achieved by widening the frame, not shortening it as Wong did with this “restoration.” More distressingly, Wong doesn’t seem to care that generations of people have enjoyed Fallen Angels in its untouched, 1995 glory. Rather than embrace this cultural impact, Wong has decided to extinguish it.

A History of Erasure

Courtesy of Jet Tone Productions. Click image to expand.

This wouldn’t be a problem if both versions of Fallen Angels become available side-by-side. It would even be artistically interesting for Wong to provide a new perspective, and for audiences to compare the two. But Wong Kar-wai–heads aren’t getting their hopes up, because history suggests otherwise.

Wong once made similarly dramatic changes to Ashes of Time (1994)—its original version, you guessed it, now unavailable for public viewing. The original Fallen Angels has been released on Blu-ray before and, admittedly, nothing truly vanishes in the digital age. But with those previous releases now out of print, and the new release easily accessible, future generations of audiences are likely to default to the new version, consider it normal, and even be oblivious to the existence of an original.

On pure scholarly and conservationist terms, the replacement of the original version is damaging enough. For example, in one of Fallen Angels’ most memorable shots, the new crop cuts away a clock, which is one of the most prominent motifs throughout Wong’s filmography.

An Erasure of History

Courtesy of Block 2 Distribution.

Beyond the audiovisual text though, it’s the cultural significance of Fallen Angels that twists the knife. Featuring bedazzling shots of world-renowned yet fading or bygone Hong Kong sights like neon-lit billboards and Kai Tak Airport, Fallen Angels is a city film through and through. As Wong himself once said, the movie’s main character is “the city itself.” Though Fallen Angels is no documentary, it’s a modern-day equivalent to the early documentaries known as “city symphonies”—films that exist to record not just a city, but also its milieu, people, and spirit.

The cultural documentation of pre-1997 Hong Kong is especially precious, if not rare, as surviving traces of the city’s pre-handover history are constantly under threats of destruction.

Some of these threats, like the discontinuation of neon lights, are due to the passage of time. Others stem from pro-China voices and authorities. Signage in Simplified Chinese has increasingly replaced that in Hong Kong’s customary Traditional; the government has demolished colonial landmarks like post boxes and the Queen’s Pier, despite vociferous protests. That’s not to mention Hong Kong’s democratic principles, which government officials now pretend never existed. Presciently, Wong himself said that he wanted Fallen Angels to record sights that would disappear in time. He certainly got what he envisioned: the film’s main set was torn down in Hong Kong’s largest redevelopment project to date.

A Painful Reminder

In a city where people are upset by those continued attempts at censorship and erasure, every nostalgic reminder of the past calls for protection and preservation. Pop culture, including films like Fallen Angels, uniquely penetrates public consciousness—and thus provides some of the most beloved and evocative reminders. Wong Kar-wai himself, who has mostly abandoned Hong Kong cinema to make state-approved films in China, might not realize the gravity of his actions. But this update to Fallen Angels, which the public has no control over, is an all-too-familiar heartbreak. It’s yet another blow to what remains of a beloved Hong Kong, untouched—or, in the opinion of many, untainted—by Chinese rule.

What really hurts aren’t one or two micro changes. Audiences can certainly find such new changes tolerable or even likable. It is the act of updating Fallen Angels that is antithetical to the film’s essence—a grainy pre-handover time capsule. To see Wong’s 2020 fingerprints in a 1995 Hong Kong film is a painful reminder of both Wong’s desertion, and Hong Kong’s erosion in the 25 years since.

The People Will Not Forget

Courtesy of Block 2 Distribution.

Though some viewers might not know the details of Fallen Angels’ cultural background, they might’ve heard of something called Star Wars.

The Wong Kar-wai situation is most easily explained by comparing him to another controversial name in cinema: George Lucas. Wong Kar-wai’s retouching and removal of his films is much like Lucas’ mission to seal off the original Star Wars movies from public access.

Yet, despite Lucas’ wealth and power, fans have found ways to broadcast and even recreate the Star Wars originals. Let this article, as futile as its efforts might be, rally audiences towards a similar purpose. Fallen Angels, in its original state, is a crown jewel of Hong Kong pop culture, and very much worth preserving—precisely because it’s a product of its time. Long may it survive in its historical glory.

•  •  •

Fallen Angels (Chinese: 墮落天使)—Hong Kong. Dialog in Cantonese, Mandarin Chinese, and Taiwanese. Directed by Wong Kar-wai. First released September 6, 1995. Running time 1hr 36min. Starring Leon Lai, Michelle Reis, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Charlie Yeung, Karen Mok.

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