Happy Together

[chinese characters] 

Chun guang zha xie 

Hong Kong, 1997 

 directed, written and produced by Wong Kar-wai
cinematography: Christopher Doyle
editor: William Chang Suk-ping ; Wong Ming-lam
design: William Chang Suk-ping
score: Danny Chung Ding-yat
music by Tomas Mendes (sung by Caetano Veloso), Astor Piazzolla, Frank Zappa
sound: Leung Chi-tat, Tu Du-che
executive producer:  Chan Ye-cheng
production company: Jet Tone ; Block 2 Pictures
running time: 98 minutes


Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing ... Ho Po-wing
Tony Leung Chiu-wai ... Lai Yiu-fai
Zhang Zhen ... Chang

Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer, at the Toronto International Film Festival, 1997 

Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Po-wing (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) have "started over" their relationship, for the umpteenth time, but this time they've gone all the way from Hong Kong to "the end of the world", Buenos Aires, to do it. Po-wing is the flightier one; who flits in and out of Yiu-Fai's life whenever he needs Yiu-fai's care. Yiu-fai is the quiet, loyal nurturer, the sufferer, the brooder with an undercurrent of violence. He's a landing pad for Po-wing, his cook, his shopper, his dance partner, whatever Po-wing needs. But they're headed for another inevitable breakup. There are complications: Yiu-fai meets a co-worker, a displaced Taiwanese teenager named Chang (played by Chang Chen), with whom he begins to spend time. The film begins and ends with a voyage: to the Iguazu Falls, whose mystery draws Yiu-fai, and to Taiwan, to Chang, family and home. 

We watch how two men fall in and out of love, but (as Wong repeatedly insists on in his interviews) "Happy Together" isn't essentially a "gay" film: just a story of how two very different men love each other and can't tolerate each other. 

Maybe this story is one we are already a bit too familiar with; Wong Kar-wai's greatest gift, up to now, has been to tell us stories whose shapes and contents we've never even begun to think of, before. 

But, he has never made anything quite like Happy Together's kaleidoscope of of beauty. Wong's virtuosity (and that of his long-time collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and editor/production designer William Chang) in finding, creating, and altering images seems absolutely unconstrained. Images so suffused with emotion that they take your breath away: 

  • stuttering slow motion effects isolating the briefest moments of emotional connection: as Yiu-fai and Po-wing eye each other, as Yiu-fai and Chang shake hands 
  • fractured, prismatic montage, as Po-wing and Yiu-fai confront each other through a blizzard of quick cuts, coming from every available angle and distance, yet whose perfectly assured rhythm makes them all hang together as a sense of one (irreducibly fractured) moment 
  • a long take (40 seconds, which is long for this film), the camera holding relentlessly on Yiu-fai who, unable to articulate his sadness, weeps into the tape recorder that Chang gives him  

Wong knows how to make us feel time's flow in every possible way: fracturing and speeding it up by jump cutting with abandon; playing with extreme fast-motion to film Buenos Aires and Taipei traffic so we feel the compressed, giddily accelerated pace of urban time; slowing a tender lovers' dance to the moment-lasting-an-eternity that it will persist in memory. 

The filmmakers' technical wizardry extends to a control of colour that encompasses harsh high contrast black and whites of the road-movie opening, blue- and sepia-tinted monochromatic transitional scenes, highly-saturated colours of its urban settings, and the uncanny naturalism of the most arresting image of the film: Iguazu Falls. The film is built around this scene: it is shown near the beginning and again near its end, just before the coda. We see the Falls -- locus or fetish-object of the characters' yearnings -- from high overhead, in an image that slowly rotates through 180 degrees, taking all the time in the world. The first time, as a place that can't be reached; and at the end, as an arrival point, however temporary, for Yiu-Fai (in between, Wong inserts a series of obsessively repeated shots of a rotating Iguazu Falls souvenir lamp in Yiu-fai's room). The two framing shots connect directly with a similar pair of shots in Days of Being Wild -- the full screen of slowly swaying, rich green tropical trees -- similarly deployed near the beginning and end of that film. And both pairs of scenes are suffused with a particular kind of rhapsodic music that Wong uses to signify a kind of perfect world -- real or imaginary, close at hand or impossibly far off -- that his characters need to believe in in order to survive. In Happy Together, an ecstatically tender Caetano Veloso song, and an excerpt from Astor Piazzolla's Tango Apasionado, suffused with desire. 

If you are looking for embedded echoes of Wong's other films, you'll find them: 

  • playful ones, when Yiu-fai accuses Chang of looking like the Blind Swordsman, who was Tony Leung Chiu-wai's character in Ashes of Time. 
  • narrative echoes, like the date stamped on Po-wing's and Yiu-fai's passport, May 1, 1995, which marks not only the beginning of Happy Together, but the date from Chungking Express when Faye's boarding slip to Tony Leung (Cop 663) expires (and the birthday of Takeshi Kaneshiro's Cop 223). 
  • formal echoes, like the fast-motion shot of Buenos Aires traffic from dusk to night, a clock-billboard askew on the right side of the screen. This parallels the architecture of the opening shot of As Tears Go By, where a screen of TVs recedes from the right of the screen, beside a high-angle shot of an urban night street scene. An image that perfectly captures one of Wong's favourite tropes,Ê a visibly fractured space, inhabited by two different kinds of time, each unfolding at its own pace 
  • and structural echoes, like the above-mentioned waterfall and forest scenes. 

As Wong himself has admitted, "... all my films are not stories. I think they are more about characters. The story line is not strong" (interview in the New York Times, Sunday October 12, 1997). Faced with this kind of carefully conceived visual bounty, though, it seems churlish to complain about what seems like an uncharacteristically impoverished narrative. 

Even more so, when you consider just how fine the performances are that Wong has again elicited from a gifted cast. Taiwanese pop-idol Chang Chen has a sweet, easy presence that plays well as the third member of the lovers' triangle. Leslie Cheung is a joy to watch, not, this time, because of his preternatural onscreen beauty, which is pretty much a given, but somehow despite this, in the way he becomes the impishly childlike, exasperatingly selfish, irritating and yet oddly magnetic character that somehow has a claim on Yiu-Fai's love and on our attention. A fine stroke, to dissolve the burden of Cheung's own aura of narcissism by casting him as a character whose self-love is gently mocked. 

And Tony Leung Chiu-wai must be the most prodigiously gifted actor in contemporary Chinese cinema, along with Maggie Cheung. What a courageous, risky, completely unguarded performance, that reaches deeper into the source of his craft than a "star" might be expected to offer. Leung has steadily built up a substantial body of work, from Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness (1989, Taiwan), through a series of widely varied, richly characterized roles in films like Hard Boiled (1992), He Ain't Heavy He's My Father (1993), Mack the Knife (1995), Cyclo (1995, Vietnam), and Wong Kar-wai's two 1994 releases, Chungking Express and Ashes of Time. In Happy Together, Leung reaches the top. He draws, fearlessly, on what looks like a limitless reservoir of sensitivity and power, and creates a character who burns himself into your memory. 

I'm left thinking that Wong's new film needs time to sink in, time for its various aesthetic strategies even to be noticed, let alone accounted for.Ê If at first it seems as if the film's story is overwhelmed by its technical invention, if its substance is destabilized by its form, then even this impulse has significance. The constant theme of Wong Kar-wai's cinema is that the formal conditions of our experience have changed so radically that they compel us to live an entirely new kind of experience to fill them, to fulfil all of their promise and potential. That's just what is at the crux of Happy Together: a productive tension, a pressure on its content by its structure, that hints at an expansion of possibility without any of the old limits. 

In the preceding remarks, I've been preoccupied with drawing out one thread of Wong Kar-wai's art: his proposal for a new "technology" of time, one which offers to render re-intelligible a radically changed world. Wong is just as ambitious in regards to space, the other defining vector of our experience. For a very preliminary indication of where his equally radical technology of space may be headed, we could look closely at Happy Together's epilogue. Does this most problematic section of the film even begin to address the question of "why in Argentina?": why have Wong and company wandered so far away from home? I'm going to suggest that issues of place for Wong are impossible to disentangle from their ideological implications, their relationships to power. Issues which are more prudently addressed through indirection, from a certain distanced, displaced setting: hence, Buenos Aires. Wong even jokes about this gambit, in the film, with upside-down shots of Hong Kong traffic illustrating how that city might look to Yiu-fai from his geographically inverted perspective. But contrary to Yiu-fai's expectation, home has a way of appearing more rather than less immediate when you are as far away as possible, on the opposite side of the world. 

After Yiu-fai reaches Iguazu, the film seems to arrive at a place of repose; it feels finished, fading to black for several seconds. Cut to airborne camera sweeps of Chang at the southern tip of Argentina, then to the epilogue, as Yiu-fai, now in Taipei, watches news of Deng Xiaoping's death on TV, then goes out to a night market and finds Chang's parents. The final image seems to be right out of a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan's pre-eminent filmmaker. Yiu-fai watches out the front of a speeding train (on Taipei's new urban transit system), as it zooms along elevated tracks, pulling into a station . But, on top of this sequence that is quintessentially Hou, Wong inscribes an urban nighttime location (against Hou's more typically rural settings), and another fast-motion time twist. The emotional weight of the scene, though -- its sensation of freedom, a euphoria in simply being-in-motion (which contrasts with the various traps of stasis that Yiu-fai and Po-wing were mired in, in the rest of the film) -- seems very close to the central scene of Goodbye South Goodbye (1996): the long ecstatic motorcycles-in-motion shot, of Jack Gao and company sailing along a country road. 

This scene is one of the very few points of connection that I am aware of between the contemporary cinemas of Taiwan and Hong Kong. And it is telling that it should closely follow an abruptly inserted on-screen image of Deng Xiaoping's televised funeral. In the parallel new futures of both post-colonial Hong Kong and its post-1997 cinema, old political and cultural entanglements have ruptured, and new options become possible, along with new dangers. Yiu-fai, freed from his own emotional entanglements (one might even say that he has undergone a moment of de-colonization in his personal life), barely takes notice of the momentous events on the mainland, unfolding on his TV set. In this briefest of glances towards and then immediately away from Deng on TV, the film registers, then peremptorily dismisses a mainland connection. This is not where the "story about a reunion", promised in the film's original subtitle, is headed. 

Yiu-fai's new world heads back to Hong Kong through Taipei. It finds its momentum in the energy and sense of possibility that comes from both of these cities' spaces, together. Perhaps this is what really is at the heart of the "happy together" that the film's ecstatic conclusion celebrates: a synthesis, full of possibility, of two cultural spaces, or two cinematic spaces, or two ways of life. An embrace which is also a rejection, after a long struggle, of seductive alternatives with no future. 

But there is more to the story: one more city. For Wong Kar-wai's take on Beijing, though, we will have to see what he does with his next feature, Summer in Beijing

October 17, 1997 

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Shelly Kraicer 
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