Break my heart in two

A forumgoer’s oblique reference to going mute after eating expired pineapple prompted me to hunt down a copy of Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels and watch it again. I love this movie. I don’t think I’d call it a classic or a masterpiece, but it exudes an air of effortless cool that so few works manage to capture. I’m not sure if that’s because Wong Kar-Wai is simply that good, or if perhaps he really wasn’t making an effort to be cool. Maybe the secret is that the movie is so understated. Or maybe that it’s so effective at setting mood and evoking emotions.

Watching the movie again for the first time in a decade or so made me wonder why people are so concerned about seeing “the Citizen Kane of video games” when I’d be much more interested in “the Fallen Angel of video games.” Citizen Kane was a powerful film to be sure sure, and it tells a grand tale. But Fallen Angels is almost abstract with its disjointed structure, a patchwork of vignettes that range across the emotional spectrum. The movie could best be described as “cryptic,” moving through the diffidence of a hit man’s life; the surreality of a voiceless man who lives with his aging father and makes a “career” out of breaking into storefronts after hours and forcing people to suffer his aggressive customer service; the longing of the hit man’s unseen partner who moves through the empty spaces in his life consumed with unrequited lust for him; the ridiculousness of the mute’s obsession with an equally obsessive woman; and, ultimately, the emptiness of each of these lives. Fallen Angels can be downright goofy at times, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny, and even at its most preposterous (e.g. the Blondie brawl) it’s tinged with an air of sadness. No one in this movie lives a life of fulfillment, and your heart aches for them.

Fallen Angels makes me wonder what it would take for a game to be equally evocative. Or if in fact a game can be evocative on this level. Fallen Angels looks a lot like a modern video game, with its rain-sodden nocturnal cityscapes filmed in desaturated color. The hit man’s contact dresses constantly in black leather or red vinyl, while the camera adopts strange angles and jittery time-lapse effects that make the rare action sequences feel almost disconnected and unreal. Yet unlike a game, much of what makes Fallen Angels work is that the viewer feels so helpless throughout the story; it’s a tale of bleak lives spinning out of control, and in all but the rarest of situations (such as BioShock‘s climactic confrontation with Andrew Ryan) a game strips the player of control to its own detriment.

Hmmm. Mute characters, abstract emotional connections, desaturated color, sputtery camera work… I just described the work of Team Ico, didn’t I?

OK, but seriously, I’ve yet to encounter a game that manages to be genuinely cool in the way Fallen Angels does. Directors like Goichi Suda and Hideo Kojima — talented as they may be — seem to try a little too hard, stumbling right past Wong Kar-Wai’s seemingly unaffected air of indifference to a state of conspicuous effort. Games like No More Heroes and Metal Gear Solid cry out, “Look how awesome I am! This character is badass, and he is you! You are badass!” Fallen Angels, like Chungking Express before it, doesn’t linger on its characters’ posturing, because they don’t posture to begin with. They’re awkward, lonely, imperfect, doomed. They’re deeply flawed and can only hope for a moment’s happiness, and even the one “cool” character — the hit man, Leon — isn’t particularly good at what he does. He’s a self-admittedly lazy man. The longest shot in the film is of the mute childishly drinking in the proximity of the woman he’s in love with as she gazes into the distance, unaware and uninterested in his presence. When they meet again, a few months later after he’s lost his father, she doesn’t remember him at all. It’s a movie that hurts more the more you think about it.

Maybe it’s foolish for me to even want something like this. What I’ve just described is essentially the opposite of what games exist to do — they are meant to empower players, to make them feel skillful, to cast them as heroes or otherwise put them in control. Movies are good at certain things; games are good at others. Will the twain ever meet? Can it? Should it? It sounds good on paper, but I wonder.

21 thoughts on “Break my heart in two

  1. Honestly, I’m waiting for the “Survive Style 5” of video games. Oh, and great article Mr. Parish. I’ll definately be checking this one out.

    • Like I said, Suda’s work always feels like it’s trying a little too hard. Or, at the very least, it’s too self-conscious and ironic to tap into the sincerity of this movies imperfect characters.

      • Sorry, I kinda came off as not having even read your post. I shouldn’t have responded without a proper explanation… but I can’t really offer one since I haven’t even finished the game! Whoops, I retract my statement!

  2. I haven’t watched this movie yet (and now I’ll seek it out) but I was pondering something similar a couple months down the line.

    Compelling stories, ones that touch on the human experience, are ones we can relate to, which is why it’s much easier to accept flawed characters in passive media like film. From standard Joseph Campbell archetypes like Harry Potter or Aragorn to deranged psychopaths like Travis Bickle or D-Fens from Falling Down, we can identify with their journey and compare it to our own.

    You’ve already touched on the difficulty of creating such a character in a video game, so I won’t repeat it. I feel some games have scratched the surface (Older survival horror/adventure games, Team ICO titles, possibly EarthBound if you’re lenient on the whole group of psychic geniuses thing) but still hasn’t quite gotten to that same emotional core with its characters.

  3. I would argue that No More Heroes also cries out “Oh god I’m such a loser what’s wrong with me”.

    It’s kind of a weird game.

  4. I always thought that Suda was like the Seijun Suzuki of video games, well back when he was making Killer 7 and the first No More Heroes.

  5. Something like Heavy Rain comes to mind, but it was so deeply and terribly flawed that I think we’re a very long way from this really happening in video games.

    Personally, I don’t want something like this. Because I would rather play.. well, just about anything else than play Heavy Rain, or something similar, or what you’re describing.

    Bioshock is a great game, but the way it effs with you is a little cruel. That’s just not really why I play games. Or: Can games be art? Yes, but why would anyone want that?

  6. Tom Bissell’s awesome “Extra Lives” book covers ideas like this extensively. Videogames have trouble recreating the narrative genius of movies and books — the content is too often pale imitation, and there are constant jarring reminders that you are playing a game. (Not that I find anything wrong with that latter idea some of the time, unlike Bissell.) Anyway, Jeremy, you make a good point — if games can’t match movies’ narrative structure, why aren’t they trying to emulate the movies that consciously try to break that traditional structure?

    • This is something I found excruciating when reading through Extra Lives. The guy sure spends a whole lot of time playing videogames for someone who’s so god damned embarrassed by them. “Oh, I sold my Xbox again, I’m over it this time. No more videogames ever. Oh, what’s that? Another videogame I want to play? Guess I’ll buy a new Xbox, but seriously, I’m still too cool for videogames guys.” I remember one execrable paragraph early on where he complained that he couldn’t play certain games in front of his girlfriend for fear of his “vaginal privileges” being revoked. What an incredibly lame thing to say. What an incredibly lame way to live your life. Enjoy your seemingly permanent awkward adolescence.

      The whole book had this ‘too cool for school’ overtone and read like the gaming equivalent of being trapped in the closet. The points he raises about the maturity of games are not wrong, but they’re couched in this douchey language that makes it almost impossible to take seriously.

  7. I think you put your finger on it when you said “They try too hard”. It’s too forced, this idea that you can manufacture a moment that will evoke such powerful, and real emotion. I think creative types need to almost, let the medium flow. Try to create something natural and stop trying to build an ‘epic moment’.
    It’s difficult to visualise a videogame that adopts the same kind of resonance that this film has, or other movie works of a similar calibre.
    Hypothetically, I can visualise the build up of a character’s loneliness by imagining a part of a game where you could aimlessly walk that character through a city at night, passing people by. First person perspective, slowed down for a lingering effect, so you as a player soak up the environment and the atmosphere. Provide a good soundtrack that can build the ambience for sadness and loneliness. Splice in very quick cutscenes or flashes if you will, of close-ups of people faces/expressions as they briefly acknowledge you as you walk past them, allowing you a very short glimpse into their lives, and as a result, disconnecting you from your own. Each cutscene is triggered as you come in contact with them, before fleetingly passing, and switching back to your view as you carry on walking. Another flash gets triggered as you pass the next person.
    I think music, or the removal of it completely could play a huge role. Disconnect works well because it’s not what you expect.
    Something like that could signify what movies do with their camera-work, yet you as a player would still be in control. That control could be taken away from you at times, so you become the passive viewer that you are in filmography.
    I’m sure it’s manageable to do something with the videogame medium in the way that films like this work, but it would take a huge amount of skill and clever techniques to pull it off. All the resources are there, I think it’s just a matter of time before some clever clogs takes advantage of the medium and really re-evaluate what it takes to make a videogame experience.

  8. Hmm, I might have to check this one out. I was lucky enough to catch “In the Mood for Love” in a theater during a short stint in Sydney back in the day. Still need to dig it up on DVD.

  9. Suda’s games make absolutely no sense. I’m convinced that 90% of Japanese cinema/games are just incoherent psychobabble. I’ve seen enough of them. But I like them anyway, because the concepts are cool. It’s like with Devil May Cry–the game isn’t really “cool”, but the concept is great. I remember it fondly when I look back at it, embarrassing as some of it may actually be.

    Demon’s Souls is pretty great, though. I put it up there with the Team Ico games. No pretension there, just effortless awesomeness.

  10. Most of that director’s movies are/were available on Netflix instant watch, if you have that. I’d say “In the Mood for Love” is far and away his best movie — also his least cool.

    • I wanted to make sure someone came on and said this. Many of his movies are available! And many of them are very, very good! In the Mood for Love definitely ranks as one of my favorite movies he’s directed, but Chungking Express is among my favorite movies of all time (admittedly, I saw it before In the Mood for Love, so that might’ve affected things).

  11. Oh dear God, you need to play Nier, today. I haven’t seen Fallen Angels, and Nier is already the Citizen Kane of video games, so it likely won’t be the Fallen Angels of video games. However, it does do a lot of what you longing to experience in a game.

  12. I teach film studies to 16-18 year olds, and I use Chungking Express for one of the topics. It always leaves one student in the room crying, and the rest scratching their heads. That crying student is then my favourite member of the group that year. Great movies, great director. Great shout out on here!

  13. While many argue the active/passive difference between movies and games when discussing whether games are art or a “higher art form” of some kind, very few bring them up when discussing their ability to evoke emotion.

    The fact is, no movie has ever given me that feeling of terror at losing progress due to being on your last life, or that special feeling of elation when everything comes together and you achieve something that you didn’t think you could do.

    Why can’t movies recreate that feeling? Because they’re passive forms of entertainment, where you watch an unpredictable, yet scripted and deterministic plot unfold. Nothing is at stake for the viewer.

    While the movie gives us an insight into a series of flawed characters, games can give us a much more realistic and personal experience. While I’d like to believe every tragedy in my life would amount to an outpouring of emotion, most of them amounted to little more than gritting my teeth and getting on with it. Which is what videogames recreate regularly with such wonderful disregard. “Oh, you died again? Well, no point stressing about it, that won’t help! Just get on with it or give up!”

    If anything, it’s the artificial emotion of movies that could be argued to be unrealistic. Who wants to be a brooding, lazy Frenchman when you can be experiencing real fear in a non-dangerous situation.

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