In Zen Buddhism there is a word, satori, which translates roughly to "a brief moment of enlightenment or awareness." This concept is universal amongst Buddhist religions and when looked at in a religious context, a series of satori can one day culminate in Enlightenment. When translated into artistic terms, it is the moment of insight or reflection that emerges in a Haiku poem around the pivotal word. The only way one can attain satori is through personal experience and its source often lies in irrationality, in defying intellectual reason. Described as a flash of complete release or rest (particularly from individuality), it’s something that cannot be defined, but by its very power cannot be denied, either. Afterwards, life goes on in the same manner; the reflection is fleeting. Basically, it’s that profound feeling you may get very rarely that everything’s just right for a moment, that suddenly you understand something you can’t quite explain or put a finger on. And then, just as quickly, the understanding is gone.

Cinema, like all good art, can give its audience such moments. They
may not have any lasting “spiritual” value, in terms of traditional
Enlightenment, but they can certainly carry us with them into a
moment of real human understanding. In the case of Michaelangelo
Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels
(1995) we experience this satori through identification with the
protagonists, whose experiences culminate in a transitory moment of
transformation. Both films are structured to lead to this final moment,
and both leave on its single, resonant note. But for there to be a
positive change there has to be a negative beginning; to arrive at a
brief moment of understanding we inevitably go through long periods
of misunderstanding. These two films are set nearly thirty years apart,
on different sides of the world, and yet they both concern the
disconnection that their protagonists feel with the society around
them. In their final culminations, these characters break through their
detachment into real feeling.

Blow-Up opens with alternating moments of silence and noise. A group of mimes screams around the corners of lacklustre London in a beat up roadster. They are in London but are in no way a part of it; no matter how loudly they scream, no one pays attention. The film’s protagonist Thomas, a high-end fashion photographer, finds himself in a similar situation - he roars through his surroundings but is unable to connect with them. Instead, he uses his camera as a medium through which to feel. Any thing of any worth to him emotionally, in fact anything real at all, is only made accessible to him through the lense, which keeps him at a constant physical distance. When we first see him, not yet aware of his profession, he is emerging from a doss house, a rumpled picture of grit and discomfort. This dirty, tangible connection to the real world cannot last. He drives straight to the studio and tells his assistant to have his clothes burned and, later, when he looks at the photos he has taken of the homeless, it is with an artist’s complete detachment. Later, when he captures a couple kissing in the park in what turns out to be a pivotal scene, he is hiding behind his camera. He observes their emotion without feeling, thinking only of how it will play in the resultant photographs. When, after processing the negatives, he discovers that he has in fact unwittingly captured a murder, he has only been able see it from a temporal and physical distance. If he had been able to connect with the scene at the time, he might have been able to prevent the crime. Instead, the more he blows up the photos and the closer he tries to get to the truth, the harder it is to see.

This detachment extends to the people around him. He uses models only to get what he wants, and is perfectly happy to use sex unfeelingly as a tool. When Jane, the woman from the park, shows up at his studio to ask for the negatives he has shot, all of their interactions are about trade - her for the roll of film. He objectifies her, telling her how to stand, how to smoke, what to do, thus keeping his distance. The only woman with whom he really craves connection is Sara, who is sleeping with his best friend. He can accidently stumble across them having sex and stay watching, transfixed, but he cannot express his feelings to her. All of the physical contact he has with women is superficial, revolving around sex or trade (usually both - in his world they are always connected). His inability to engage with both the society and the people around him makes action impossible.

The characters in Fallen Angels suffer from the same kind of detachment. Wong Chi-ming, a hired killer, and his agent MR, keep their distance. They occupy the same spaces, but almost never at the same time -- a future crime scene, a bar, an apartment, are all spaces they share. MR communicates with the hit man through faxes and messages. After each job she removes all physical traces of him from his safe house and takes them home with her. She loves him, yet the closest she can get to him is by masturbating in the bed where she knows he will soon sleep or in amongst the discarded minutae of his life. Unlike Blondie, his lover, she never shares physical contact with him.

Their very occupation is one of detachment, “My job is simple. I visit friends now and again. I don't know these people. They don't interest me either. Soon, they'll be history.” In their world, partners must keep their distance. When Wong Chi-Ming finally decides to leave the profession, and by association leaves MR too, instead of talking to her he has the bartender play a certain song when she comes into their bar. Instead of letting him go though, she sets him up, even killing him from a distance. Another character in the film, He Zhiuru, takes uncommunicativeness to the ultimate level; he has been mute since age five. Yet somehow we feel that even with this barrier he is more capable of connection than either the killer or his agent, who are arguably the protagonists of the film.

Blondie and He Zhiuru are the most physical characters in Fallen Angels, acting in counterpoint to the killer and his agent. Blondie begins by sitting at the killer's table in an empty McDonalds, invading his space. She runs out and screams in the rain, she dies her hair yellow, all in an effort to be memorable, physical and alive. He Zhiuru shares the same kind of physicality. He illegally opens other people's stores in the middle of the night (the ultimate invasion of space) and forces people to let him shave them, wash their hair and feed them ice cream, all physical activities (when you eat that much ice cream it suddenly becomes physical). He films his father on the toilet. Yet neither of these characters are remembered by others. Blondie has been the killer's lover before, only to be forgotten. Charlie, after spending much of the film with He Zhiuru, forgets him. No one connects.

Like Thomas in Blow Up, Wong Chi-Ming is decidedly “cool” (the opening makes this obvious as the song “I'm Cool” accompanies his bloody cafe hit). But being cool in the eyes of those around them, and in those of the audience, is not enough to guarantee these characters any kind of happiness. At the beginning of Fallen Angels the killer makes an introductory speech telling us about his inability to act. In his final moments it is reprised, but with an addition, “One's profession is very often determined by one's personality. I love my job - no decision making. Like who's to die, where and when, it's all planned by others. I'm a lazy person. I like others to arrange things for me,” and the addition, “But I've been doing some thinking lately. I feel the need for change. Whether it's right or wrong, I must make the decision for myself.” This realization comes too late for the killer. Like Thomas, his detachment has rendered him unable to take action until it is too late.


There is an obsession with the material in the world of Blowup, with momentary ownership. This is a cult of superficiality. Thomas wants a propeller at an antique shop for his studio and, once he leaves, completely forgets about it. Later this material desire and detachment is expressed as a symptom of the generation, or time, when he goes to a club where the Yardbirds are performing. While the band plays with aggression, the audience just sits mute, staring. It is only when something material is offered up (the guitar player throws his smashed guitar into the crowd) that they become a frenzied mass, fighting for the object. Thomas joins in, grabs the prize and runs out on to the street. Once there he drops the guitar. Its use has gone. His is the fleeting desire to grab, not use. The temporary joy of taking objects extends to people, particularly the women in his life.


The importance of trade is also a strong theme in Fallen Angels. To sate the curiosity of acquaitances, the killer as a photo of a fictional family. He has paid a woman to pose with him as his wife and bribed a child with an ice cream. This all comes out over a conversation about life insurance with an old high school chum he bumps into on a bus, the irony being of course that both characters put a price on human life. Indeed, the killer and his agent deal in the most important trade of all - human mortality.

In the ultimate moment of both films the protagonists break through their barriers of detachment, entering into a brief moment of connection with the people around them. It is both a physical and an emotional meeting. Wong Kar Wai has described the last fifteen minutes of Fallen Angels as being one of his most beautiful endings. MR, the killer's agent, doesn't flinch when a virtual stranger, He Zhiuru, is beaten up in the restaurant where she's dining, displaying her usual hair-blocked stare. He approaches her, his face bruised and bloody. There is a moment between them and she asks for a ride home. Her final speech as she rides, arms wrapped around him on the back of his motorcycle, just about as close, physically, as you can get, is a touching description of satori, and of her own momentary change, “I haven't ridden pillion for a long time, nor have I been this close to a man in ages. The road home isn't very long and I know I'll be getting off soon. But at this moment I'm feeling such warmth.” As if to emphasize its fleetingness, a waft of smoke drifts up from the cycle and slowly disappears. It is the last shot of the film.

In Blowup we are revisited by the mimes as they play a game of tennis. Thomas watches them in the park as they rally with an invisible ball. The “ball” flies over the fence where Thomas stands and the mimes look at him expectantly. He puts his camera on the grass, picks up the invisible ball and throws it over the fence to them. For Thomas, who does not charitably connect with others and has chosen to distance himself through his camera, this is an important gesture. He is connecting with the mimes. As he continues watching the game we begin to hear the sound of the ball bouncing in the court. We have taken the leap. Also implied here is that we are watching a metaphorical representation of our own willingness to participate in the illusion of cinema. Like Fallen Angels, Blowup ends with a disappearance. Just like smoke, Thomas dissolves, leaving an empty field of grass, as if his purpose has been fulfilled. Antonioni, the director, would say that he had moved into a different reality.

The final scenes of both films express a moment of what is, for the protagonists, uncommon human generosity. The give and take of the rest of the films is abandoned. No one gains anything out of those exchanges, except for the brief relief of living solely in the moment, of calmness, connection and openness; of satori.