“Happy Together” - Wong Kar Wai (1997)


The seemingly aimless melancholic meanderings of Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jia-wèi) were extended into the world of gay romance with his Happy Together (Chun Guang Zha Xie, 1997). Whether this was a step forward of backward for Wong remains to be seen. Like his earlier efforts along these general lines, this film didn’t have much of a goal or clear-cut narrative movement other than to follow for awhile the sufferings of people in the throes of romantic heartbreak. Except, of course, this time we are dealing with a gay couple, which to me changes the tune somewhat.

As I have commented on Wong’s earlier films in this vein, As Tears Go By (1988), Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express (1993), and Fallen Angels (1995), his films generally take the viewer into a mental space that is entirely different from mainstream cinematic narratives.  Rather than telling a story about people on a narrative journey that seeks out some goal(s) and usually comes to some conclusion, Wong’s films are dreamy mood pieces that seem to wander about in a lonely place.  Watching one of his films is like listening to an extended flamenco guitar piece – there is movement, to be sure, but one doesn’t know where one is headed and one never seems to arrive anywhere.  We do get inside some of Wong’s characters and share their romantic longing and their sense of resignation to loss.  But at the same time the viewer is also aware of things from a perspective outside the scope of the protagonists – the missed opportunities, lost connections, and the utter hopelessness of the depicted romantic longings.  When the film is finished, we remember not so much the events, but the mood.  And it this quality of Wong’s films that make them comparable to music. 

The uniqueness of Wong’s cinematic style is a reflection of his production methods.  Although Wong started his film career as a screenwriter, he is notorious for working without a script on his own films and making things up as he goes along.  In other words the aimlessness of his films reflect the apparent aimlessness of Wong’s filmmaking style. 

Nevertheless, Wong Kar Wai has a devoted following, including that of serious film theorists and critics. There are roughly two lines that people take with respect to Wong’s narrative style. 
  • On the one hand, one could say that Wong is exploring new pathways in the area of cinematic expression.  The idea is that rather than simply translate some narrative text into the film medium, Wong is actually showing us that cinema has a vastly greater space and opportunities for dynamic visual expressiveness and tone.  According to this line of thinking, the narrative is always exclusively embodied in the medium (film/text).  Wong Kar Wai is then seen as pushing the boundaries of narrative and is exposing conventional filmmaking as restricted and old-fashioned. 
  • Another point of view concerning Wong would not attribute an entirely new form of visual narrative to his work.  Instead, one would say, following along the lines I believe of David Bordwell, that Wong is simply taking advantage of the audience’s by-now rather sophisticated capabilities of mentally constructing a narrative.  According to this line of thinking, the viewer is always the co-constructor of any narrative.  He or she inevitably must fill in the missing information and gaps of what is told and imagine the activities and events based on his or her own past experiences that flesh out the story.  Thus narrative is not just embodied by the “text”, but in fact encompasses three items: the teller (creator/sender/narrator), the narrative message (film/text), and the listener (viewer/receiver).  So Wong Kar Wai, from this perspective, is not doing anything really radically new, but is instead just providing only (narrative-message) bits and pieces and is thereby leaving more narrative gaps to be filed in by the spectator from his or her own romantic recollections.  This forces the viewer to take a more active narrative construction role.

I subscribe to the second, call it “Bordwellian”, view of narrative and Wong Kar Wai, but that perspective doesn’t diminish my appreciation of Wong’s films.  Despite the apparent aimlessness of his filmmaking style, there is certainly some method to his madness that enables him to keep producing interesting cinematic experiences.  Nevertheless, Happy Together, despite earning for Wong Kar Wai the Best Director award at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and receiving high praise from some respected quarters [1], wasn’t for me one of those satisfying experiences.  Perhaps contemplating some of its shortcoming can reveal a bit about what makes Wong’s other films work so well and why this one didn't.

The story concerns two gay men from Hong Kong who have traveled to the “other end of the earth”, in this case to Buenos Aires [2], in hopes of rekindling their on-again/off-again relationship. As usual, Wong has cast top Cantopop music and cinema performers in the leading roles, in this case Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as the two gay lovers. And as usual with Wong Kar Wai’s films, nothing much seems to happen. 

The first twenty or so minutes of the film are in black-and-white and outline the dysfunctional romantic relationship between the two main characters.  Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) is the extrovert – a spoiled, self-absorbed narcissist who continually avoids responsibility and seeks to charm his way through all circumstances.  His lover, Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), is the introvert and is more responsible, sensitive, and caring.  For most of the film, the focalization is on Lai, and the viewer is privy to Lai’s inner monologue describing his emotional responses and reflections.  The film’s story, reflected by voiceover narration, seems to be that of a memoire – a recollection of the meaningful moments that have taken place sometime in the past.  And like all recollections, seemingly random moments and images are  magnified and elongated in time. 

The two men have a stated goal of eventually making a trip to the famous Iguazu Falls about a thousand kilometers north of the city. And this goal has metaphorical overtones for the story.  For the two men, this goal is almost an unrealizable fantasy, and the closest they seem to be able to get to is to stare at a rotating frosted souvenir lamp depicting the falls in Lai’s apartment.

But neither of them has much money.  We later learn that for them even to get to Argentina, Lai stole money from his father. Now he lands a job as a greeter at a Buenos Aires tango bar to provide some support. Ho just lives off Lai whenever he needs money, but he also continually drifts away into other male liaisons and appears to be more or less a male prostitute.  The relationship of the two men is persistently rocky.  Ho is habitually petulant and demanding, so naturally Lai constantly gets fed up with Ho’s selfish behaviour.  But at the same time Lai can’t resist Ho’s coquettish charm, and he continually melts and gives in to whatever demands Ho makes.

After one of their separations, Ho shows up at Lai’s apartment beaten up after some unexplained nocturnal escapade and has to be taken to the hospital.  Ho’s hands are left all bandaged up, and he must be waited on and spoon-fed (chopsticks-fed) by Lai.  Although Ho is now more petulant and demanding than ever, Lai reflects in voiceover that Ho’s helpless dependency on Lai make this his happiest period with Ho.   It was then that they were truly happy together, and accordingly the film presentation suddenly shifts from black-and-white to color.

After some time (about forty minutes into the film) Lai takes a job working in a restaurant kitchen. One of his  coworkers is a Taiwanese expatriate, Chang (Chang Chen), who casually befriends Lai. Meanwhile the Lai-Ho relationship is going through ever-worsening ups and downs, finally leading Lai to despair.  After coming to the conclusion that he can’t go on with it anymore, Lai is heartbroken, and he spends time with Chang to get his mind off Ho. The focalization and narrative voiceover, which up to this point had been exclusively associated with Lai, now occasionally shifts to Chang, with Chang’s voiceover reflections about Lai.  Chang, incidentally, is almost the opposite of Ho.  Rather than focusing on his own self and image, Chang is a serious listener of other people – so serious, he tells Lai, that he can discern other people’s inner emotional states just by listening to them. And so he likes to eavesdrop all the time on Lai’s conversations whenever he is in the vicinity.  We never really learn if Chang is gay or not, but there is clearly an affinity between Lai and Chang that slowly develops over the rest of the story. 

Eventually Chang departs for a trip to the southern tip of Argentina, perhaps, it is hinted, to try and rid himself of his own sad memories.  Lai manages to save up enough money to afford a trip back to Hong Kong; but before he leaves, he makes that promised visit to the Iguazu Falls. While Lai seeks to re-engage with the real world by visiting the real falls, Ho is shown moving back into Lai’s old apartment and staring dejectedly at the souvenir lamp depicting a crude artificial image of the falls.
 
On his return trip to China, Lai has a stopover in Taiwan, and though Chang is absent, Lai visits Chang’s family street market café in Taipei. While there, he spies a picture of Chang at the back counter and steals it for future reference. .

There are several reasons, to me, why this story never really gets into gear. One problem with Happy Together is the excessive and mundane repetitiveness of the Ho-Lai interactions.  They don’t even convey a hint of progression.  Perhaps this was Wong Kar Wai’s intent – to convey the idea that the relationship wasn’t going anywhere – but depicting tedium in a film is always a losing proposition.  Wong got around this kind of problem in his earlier films by effectively telling two shorter stories, either sequentially or in parallel, so that we did not wear out one story over the routine running time of a feature film.  It is true that there is also the Chang-Lai story in this film, but it’s too inconsequential to give the viewer relief from the tedium of the Ho-Lai story.         

 
Another difficulty with the film is the cinematography from Christopher Doyle, whose previous work for Wong Kar Wai and elsewhere has been superb. As usual with Doyle, there are the overt temporal-flow variations, as well as the deliriously moving camera shots, but they all seem more mechanical on this occasion.  Moreover, the switching back and forth from black-and-white to color seems artificial and pointless.  And the excessive contrast in many of the shots often leaves darker portions of the images clouded in blackness.  This excessive contrast seems to be intentional, but why?  For example, there are several sequences showing Lai and Chang playing soccer in a back street with some  mates.  For these sequences, the camera is aimed directly into the sun, whose brightness leaves all the players indistinctly dark.  Although this visual effect does perhaps evoke a memory of looking into the sun on some occasion, there doesn’t seem to be any point to these shots, and so they stand out as oddities while the viewer struggles to make out what is going on in the frame.

Maybe the most fundamental issue with the film is the almost total absence of women.  Although Wong Kar Wai insisted that Happy Together was simply a story about two people relating to each other and was not a gay film, in fact the missing feminine component in the film compromises his aesthetic virtues. The opening images orient the viewer quickly about this matter, showing an extended scene of two naked men in bed aggressively making love. Of course I recognize that your mileage may vary on this, but I would say some of Wong Kar Wai’s best moments in his previous films involve images of beautiful, passionately heartbroken women who yearn after unresponsive men.  These images are not from a woman’s perspective: they strike me as images of male fantasy and are seen from an external male point of view.  It’s the mysterious feminine allure of romantic longing as seen by men.  But despite admirable performances by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in Happy Together, this romantic-emotional effect isn’t achieved (at least for me) in this film.  That is, the corresponding sensibility – Wong’s previously presented sensibility but shifted over to this film’s relational context – is not achieved here.  Leslie Cheung, just as he was in Days of Being Wild, is the self-absorbed narcissist; but on this occasion the sense of longing for him is seen from an internal perspective (that of Lai Yiu-Fai) – and this is not the male-fantasy-fueled external experience of those earlier Wong films.  Even if the Ho Po-Wing character had been fashioned as a woman in the film, this internal/external difference in perspective (i.e. difference from Wong’s earlier films) would have remained.  By abandoning that earlier romantic fantasy sensibility, Wong has lost something here.  Never mind, Wong Kar Wai would take a step back in the right direction with his next film, In the Mood for Love (2000).
★★½
       
Notes:
  1. Kraicer, Shelly (1997), “Happy Together”, A Chinese Cinema Web Site, http://chinesecinemas.org/happy.html.
  2.  Buenos Aires is practically at an antipodean position with respect to Hong Kong.

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