In 2018, the chef, writer, and beloved television personality Anthony Bourdain had a once-in-a lifetime experience. Bourdain, a known cinephile and passionate long-time fan of the director Wong Kar-wai’s films, was in Hong Kong to shoot an episode of his popular international food and travel show Parts Unknown and had secured Christopher Doyle, Wong’s long-time cinematographer and one of Bourdain’s cinematic heroes, as a guest.
“For me, [Doyle] was always the Big Kahuna,” Bourdain wrote in his June 2018 column for The Hollywood Reporter. “For years now, every time I visit Hong Kong, I can’t look at it without thinking of his incredible work on such films as Fallen Angels, Chungking Express and his masterpiece, In the Mood for Love.”
Then, something amazing happened. When a chance illness befell the show’s director, Doyle picked up the camera and shot the episode himself. “In the end,” wrote Bourdain, “Christopher motherf-ing Doyle, one of the greatest living cinematographers, became the director of photography for my crappy little television show.”
Fallen Angels is a tragi-comic Hong Kong noir about criminals who break their own hearts trying to find themselves and connect to others. I saw it when it first came out in 1995; I was an 18-year-old college freshman, and my high school boyfriend and I were still trying to keep the magic alive while he attended Harvard and I moped about at my college in the grubby Boston suburb of Waltham. I spent a lot of time going to the movies alone while waiting for him to get out of class. I remember how it felt to duck into the Brattle Theater and be transported out of dull, gloomy Boston to the glittering sleaze of ‘90s-era Hong Kong.
Fallen Angels spoke to me like no other film had before. I, too, liked to smoke and dine alone. I was also lonely but wanted to find glamour in solitude. I wanted to be in a world of red lipstick, cigarettes, lingerie, smoky bars, grime, desperate passion, and desire. The film is dark, moody, and violent, and at the same time, hopeful. It spoke to all the different parts of my young and yearning heart.
Over the course of the next two decades, I’d watch Fallen Angels many times. But after Bourdain’s death, I wanted to take a second look. Why had this movie meant so much to him?
Fallen Angels opens like a traditional film noir. An emotionless contract killer (Leon Lai) has a change of heart and decides it’s time to get out of the game. His glamorous agent and fixer (Michelle Reis), who arranges his hits and cleans up his trail while loving and lusting for him from afar, appears shaken. Reis and Lai sit closely at a bar, drinks in hand, cigarette smoke swirling around them like an ominous cloud.
Then the movie explodes into full color gaga, drawing us into Doyle’s lens. It’s all neon signs, glowing jukeboxes, red lipstick undercut with the grayish grime of warehouses, domino parlors, and seedy flophouse hotels. Doyle’s wide-angle lens skews more than our perspective of what Hong Kong at night should look like; it also tells us that despite its traditional opening scene, what we’re about to see is no ordinary film noir.
We soon meet a mute thief (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who breaks into shops after dark and sells their wares to mostly unwilling customers. Kaneshiro’s storyline cuts through the dark, delicious sleaze like a ribbon of salty caramel. He doesn’t just steal for the money; he wants to connect with people, though his sales methods can be overzealous. In a memorable scene, he steals an ice-cream truck and forces a hapless customer to eat vanilla soft-serve under the threat of gentle violence. The overstuffed and browbeaten customer calls his wife to tell her that he’s been abducted. When she and the entire family show up, the kidnapping becomes an impromptu family outing. Kaneshiro drives them around the city in the stolen ice cream truck, happy because he’s made others happy.
Fallen Angels makes many nods to film noirs of the past. Characters listen to sad songs on jukeboxes and receive cryptic messages on matchbooks. Killers sit in their lonely flop house hotel rooms sewing up their own bullet wounds. There are beautiful women who want to be loved too much, who fall for men who cannot give. The film is bookended by Reis sending Lai out on One Last Job. Any fan of the film noir genre knows how that will go.
The mute Kaneshiro and his father share a home in the dingy Chungking Mansions. Kaneshiro purchases a cheap video camera and follows his dad around the hotel, trying to capture images of his father doing everyday things like sleeping, tending to grousing customers, and using the bathroom. Later, when his father passes away, Kaneshiro sits alone in the empty hotel, watching the same footage over and over of his father cooking a steak over a flame in his kitchen. He mourns how he will never taste his steaks again. It’s not the meat—it’s the meaning and the memory.
In his episode of Parts Unknown, Doyle’s lens swirls around the feet of pedestrians in crowded streets; the silver high-rise skyscrapers and the open markets where people hawk fruits, vegetables, and steaming bowls of food from metal carts; a young and beautiful punk band playing in a dark club; and groups of young and old friends huddled over plates of steaming noodles and dumplings. Doyle is a master of finding the beauty in flickering trash. No one else can make the ugly glare of fluorescent bulbs look like the light of heaven.
The food takes a backseat to Bourdain’s interviews with the people who are being pushed to the margins—a woman who carefully sculpts and paints mah-jong dice, a street vendor who sells umbrellas to lovers, and restaurant owners who see their ways of life disappearing. Bourdain takes us to Chungking Mansions, and introduces refugees from Iran and Somalia who find cheap food, lodgings, and connections to home. It’s loneliness, but different than the kind in Wong’s movies.
Christopher Doyle is an upbeat and joyful presence, both in front and behind the camera. In 2018, so much of Hong Kong was changing due to increasing interference from mainland China, wealth inequality, and a loss of family-owned businesses. Doyle, who has lived in Hong Kong for decades, seems to accept these changes as a matter of course. His films capture a time that no longer exists. These films can never be re-shot, and that’s okay, he says.
Fallen Angels is both sweet and bitter, an appealing combination to viewers who understand that meaningful human connections are both. It begins with film noir and folds in comedy, action, and romance, creating a dish that evokes a different feeling for everyone who tastes it. It’s a film for anyone who’s been in a lonely place and wept silently into a steaming bowl of comforting, hangover-soothing seolleongtang at 4 a.m., eaten junk food after masturbating in a hotel room, or eaten a bag of potato chips instead of confronting sad feelings. When the sun comes up, as it does at the end of Fallen Angels (and when we leave the darkened theater), we’re all forced to face ourselves and our futures in the terrible light.
Bourdain, never afraid to confront his struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism, was no stranger to darkness. You only had to look at his list of favorite films to know that he was acquainted with the night. He opens the Hong Kong episode of Parts Unknown by attempting to explain how important Wong Kar-wai’s films are to him, and the intensity of their spell: “It shaped forever the way I’d see Hong Kong,” he says in narration that sets up the moody, downbeat atmosphere of the episode.
Bourdain was unlike any other food writer and television host. He wasn’t searching for the next great dish or the hottest new restaurant; he was searching for connections to the present and the past. And he saw so much through the lens of his own love of dark cinema. Films like Suspiria, Friends of Eddie Coyle, Thief, and To Live and Die in LA explored the lives of desperate people set against changing worlds. People search for things and when they find them, then the trouble begins.
“All of us, when we travel, look at the places we go, the things we see, through different eyes,” Bourdain says in the Hong Kong episode’s opening narration. “And how we see them is shaped by our previous lives. the books we’ve read, the films we’ve seen, the baggage we carry.” By 2018, Bourdain had probably had enough of dining at Michelin-starred restaurants and all the phoniness that came along with being a celebrity chef. Per his own writing, the more ordinary the surrounding and the more extraordinary the food and company the better. Bourdain had always found a gleeful pleasure at the low-life.
“We spent hours eating and drinking and talking about a shared affection for a ‘dirtier,’ more natural, more reactive shooting style, all while sitting in Hong Kong’s dai pai dongs,” he wrote. “These casual, open-air food stalls represent the way the city used to eat. At dai pai dongs like Keung Kee Dai Pai Dong in Sham Shui Po—a traditional, less affluent, dense section of the city—cheap, delicious food is served. Pull up a plastic stool, crack a beer and fire up the wok.” Is there a more film noir meal than a plate of cheap food, a bottle of beer, and a pack of cigarettes?
There’s a scene on a boat gliding through a dingy harbor. Doyle turns the camera to an overwhelmed, bashful Bourdain. It’s a big moment for him, to be seen through Doyle’s precious lens. Doyle kisses Bourdain on the cheek and you can feel him thinking, “Holy shit, I’m on this boat with Christopher mother-fucking Doyle. This is my dream.” So why does he look so sad?
In Fallen Angels, Kaneshiro’s character declares that “the night is full of weirdos.” In his writing and television work, Bourdain often mourned the fact that the world was becoming a less-weird place. That feeling he was dying to experience, that energy from the films he loved, he doesn’t seem to find it.
I have long been a fan of Bourdain’s writing but I always found him uncomfortable to watch on-screen. Watching episodes of Parts Unknown, especially in the later seasons, Bourdain looks exhausted and weighed down. There’s a slowness, a dullness, the joyless dragging effort that comes with having to be “yourself.” So much better to lose yourself in the movies. So much easier to live in another creator’s fantasy than have to live up to the world’s expectations and be lauded for a “a crappy little television show.”
“To fall in love with Asia is one thing. To fall in love in Asia is another,” Bourdain tells the audience at the very beginning of the episode. “Both have happened to me. The star ferry to Kowloon at night, the lights of Hong Kong behind me. It’s a gift, a dream, a curse. The best thing, the happiest thing—yet also, the loneliest thing in the world.”
In Fallen Angels, food isn’t exactly love. Rather, it’s a meditation on loneliness. The run-down ramen joints, smoky bars, greasy dumpling houses, and yakitori stalls are places to eat alone or where people make connections that reveal their deepest longing. Food fills characters’ bellies but it can’t fill the empty spaces in their hearts. It’s just temporary solace to stanch the desire to be known, to be understood, and to matter to someone else. Is there anything lonelier than loving a film so much and struggling to get the world to see it exactly how you did? Is there anything lonelier than being alive?
On June 2, 2018, Bourdain published his column for The Hollywood Reporter detailing how thrilled and honored he was to have finally met Doyle, to work with him, to share his vision with the man who seemed to understand what his own heart saw, felt and needed: “There was no fiddling around with lights or gels or excessive blocking,” he wrote. “Natural or minimal light whenever possible. The cameras would move. The framing felt like you were sitting in the room with the characters or moving with them through space.” The episode had style, but for fans of Bourdain and devotees of Wong Kar-wai’s films, it was all about the substance. Three weeks after it aired, Bourdain would be gone.