Hong Kong writer-director Wong Kar-Wai has perfected an approach to film making which combines wild style visuals with moody wisps of story, character studies in big city loneliness served up in languid monotone colors, varying camera speeds and a restless eye for the striking composition. The kernel of intention buried beneath his glittering surfaces can be soufflé-light ('94's Chungking Express), more essentially serious ('96's Happy Together) or somewhere in-between as in '95's Fallen Angels.

Angels, like Chungking, follows the wanderings of various characters through contemporary Hong Kong, natural loners given to faintly poetic, noir-ish voice-overs, people who meet but never connect. One is a baby-faced hit man named Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) who likes his work, he tells us, because "there's no need to make decisions. Who, when where --it's all been planned by others." Still, he's vaguely discontented with his boss (or triad connection), a stylized Mysterious Woman simply referred to as The Agent (Michele Reis).

On the more manic side is Baby (Karen Mok), a twitchy hysteric who picks up Wong in a fast food joint for a brief dead-end relationship, and He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), an antic mute who likes to break into closed business places late at night and then force unsuspecting customers to partake of his services --which becomes amusing, especially when the same unlucky man (Chan Fai-Hung) keeps walking into his clownish clutches. Zhiwu, like Chi-Ming and The Agent, supplies us with an ongoing interior monologue, revealing himself to be another solitary soul, which perhaps explains why he suddenly decides to fall in love with Cherry (Charlie Young), a screaming virago whose mah-jongg set is definitely short a few tiles.

Angels is a good introduction to Kar-Wai's work because it highlights both his strengths and weaknesses. One of the latter is his inability to devise a female character with any depth --while his male characters, even the cracked ones, are sensitive and perceptive (and get all the good lines), the women in his films tend to be one-dimensional vamps or loons or some combination of both. But his visual approach is eye candy of a very sophisticated stripe --urban alienation has looked cool and seductive before but Kar-Wai knows how to add some heat to the mix, making it hard to resist. And if it feels like empty calories, then that's sort of the point --it may not add up to much, but then what does?

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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