Title: Happy Together
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Chang Chen
Country of Origin/Language: Hong Kong/Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese
Rating: R (classified as Category III in HK due to subject matter more than graphic content)
Length: 96 minutes
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Summary: An absolutely heartbreaking film about intimacy and responsibility with superlative performances and beautiful cinematography.
Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing arrive in Argentina from Hong Kong and take to the road for a holiday. Something is wrong and their relationship goes adrift. A disillusioned Yiu-Fai starts working at a tango bar to save up for his trip home. When a beaten and bruised Po-Wing reappears, Yiu-Fai is empathetic but is unable to enter a more intimate relationship. After all, Po-Wing is not ready to settle down. Yiu-Fai now works in a Chinese restaurant and meets the youthful Chang from Taiwan. Yiu-Fai’s life takes on a new spin, while Po-Wing’s life shatters continually in contrast. (from IMDB)
Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) are lovers stuck in a dysfunctional relationship. They leave Hong Kong to start things anew and end up in Argentina. Po-Wing buys a lamp with an image of Iguaza Falls on it, and they decide to take a road trip to see the waterfall for themselves. Their car breaks down, they blame each other, and break up again.
Yiu-Fai takes a job as a doorman at a tango bar in Buenos Aires. Po-Wing takes a series of lovers, whoring himself out to anyone who wants him. Yiu-Fai, who still loves Po-Wing, is driven increasingly crazy by seeing Po-Wing with other men; at the same time, Po-Wing longs to get back with Yiu-Fai, but Po-Wing’s punishing need for self-destruction makes him vindictive and manipulative. He flaunts his new lovers in front of Yiu-Fai yet continually calls and asks to be taken back. Yiu-Fai resists the temptation – he admits he can never resist when Po-Wing says “Let’s start over” – until Po-Wing turns up at his door severely beaten and with his hands broken.
Yiu-Fai – sensible, stable, and caring – looks after Po-Wing while he recovers. Po-Wing – charming, needy, and vulnerable – worms his way back into Yiu-Fai’s bed and they begin their relationship all over again. While Po-Wing is physically helpless, their love blossoms and they are genuinely ‘happy together’. Afraid of losing this feeling, Yiu-Fai hides Po-Wing’s passport in order to keep him close.
But as Po-Wing heals, his self-destructive tendencies return. He demands his passport back and becomes wildly jealous of a colleague at Yiu-Fai’s new workplace. Chang, a young Taiwanese, is working to get enough money to go home, but first he wants to visit ‘the lighthouse at the end of the world’, at the very southern tip of Argentina. Chang is someone who enjoys listening to others; he perceives the world through the sound of voices, and he’s drawn to Yiu-Fai because of the care in his voice. Their attraction is slow and mutual, but Yiu-Fai is still struggling with his feelings for Po-Wing, and so Chang leaves Buenos Aires.
Po-Wing’s jealousy becomes the catalyst for the final collapse of their relationship. Yiu-Fai refuses to give back Po-Wing’s passport, still trying to hold onto their happy times, and Po-Wing walks out. Yiu-Fai falls apart with this double loss and numbs the pain by picking up random men. Earlier in the film he rebukes Po-Wing for his need for casual sex and declares “I’m not like you”. Now Yiu-Fai admits that, too late, he understands Po-Wing’s compulsion: “Lonely people are all the same.” But unlike Po-Wing, Yiu-Fai can forgive himself: “I feel like I’m waking up from a long sleep…” and he can move on.
When I told Wave I’d be reviewing this film, I’d forgotten just how much it made me cry. There I was, sitting with a cup of tea and a piece of paper to take notes and soon I was sniffling, then I was hugging a plate of cheesecake and sobbing. The thing about Wong Kar-Wai is that he doesn’t make films, he makes records of human experience. Depending on your point of view, this either makes him a genius or a pretentious git. Obviously, I’m firmly in the ‘genius’ camp and I would recommend anyone to watch at least one Wong Kar-Wai (WKW from now on) film.
Reading Aunt Lynn’s review of Argentine film Plan B a few weeks ago made me wonder if that director was influenced stylistically by WKW. There’s a lot of very slow scenes, odd juxtapositions (e.g. when Yiu-Fai wonders what Hong Kong looks like upside down, we have a shot of Hong Kong upside down), and several very long shots of the Iguaza waterfall, which is one of the leitmotifs of the film. There’s very little dialogue – not surprisingly, since WKW changed his mind about the story several times and often just gave the actors instructions to improvise at the start of the day’s filming – and though there is a plot, this is a film about emotion and response rather than action. With lesser actors, the film would have fallen apart. Fortunately WKW had at his disposal two of Hong Kong’s greatest actors, Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai.
Cheung and Leung had both been in a number of WKW’s earlier films. Leslie Cheung was drawn back to working with WKW by the storyline of Happy Together. Though he never openly came out – the HK film industry had a sad tendency to categorise gays as wildly camp or as sinister perverts, with both stereotypes played for laughs – Leslie’s homosexuality was one of the worst-kept secrets in Hong Kong. He was delighted to be given the opportunity to play a ‘normal’ gay man, and much of the film’s emotional resonance comes from his portrayal of Po-Wing’s nihilistic collapse. What gives this role even deeper poignancy is that Cheung, who suffered from depression, committed suicide in 2003. Watching this film with that knowledge really blurs the lines between actor and character. WKW explores themes of identity in many of his films and there’s no doubt the blurring was intentional, but watching it now that Leslie is dead, it becomes even more devastating.
Tony Leung didn’t want to play a gay role and in fact was tricked into taking the part. WKW showed him a fake script and revealed the truth only when Tony arrived in Argentina. The first scene he shot was the scene that opens the film – Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing having sex. Fortunately he didn’t get on the next plane back to HK. Leung is widely acknowledged as a superb actor (he won Best Actor in the Hong Film Awards for this role) and his greatest strength is his subtlety and ability to underplay a part. In Happy Together, he’s the perfect balance to the more histrionic Cheung.
It’s hard to review a film as deeply nuanced as this, because you really could watch it twenty times and find something new in it each time. I think who you feel sorry for or identify with the most also plays a huge part in the perception of the film. The first few times, I felt sorry for Yiu-Fai and thought Po-Wing was vile. Now I feel more sympathy for Po-Wing. In a few years I imagine I’ll see it another way again. Because there’s not a strong plot, as with most of WKW’s films it’s about the characters, and whether they engage our sympathy at any given moment. I’ll be honest, there’s days when I’ve put this film on and switched it off after 15 minutes because I couldn’t bear it. Other days I can literally watch it three times in a row.
There’s a whole bunch of themes that come up in Happy Together, and many of them are explorations or re-imaginings of themes WKW used in other films. I’ll just mention them briefly because they’re important not just to the film but are also key to understanding WKW’s work as a whole. Nostalgia, intimacy, self-deception, and time are all major themes. In Happy Together the nostalgia is not just for the times when the two lovers were happy, it’s also nostalgia for home and a sense of belonging. Intimacy is the one thing both men crave, yet Po-Wing continually destroys his potential for happiness and Yiu-Fai suffers because of his continued affection for his lover. Both men self-deceive – Po-Wing’s refrain of “Let’s start over” is a lie from the very beginning, an abusive and manipulative cycle where both men know that this time will be exactly like the last, and yet they still try. Time and memory also play into this when Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai keep imagining happier days, continually trapped in the past and possibly fearful of the future.
Also it’s worth noting that WKW made this film just before Hong Kong was handed back to China after 156 years of British rule. There was a certain amount of apprehension surrounding the handover, and a lot of directors expressed their uncertainty and fears in their films of 1996-1997. WKW said he didn’t want to make a handover film, that’s why he went to the other side of the world to Argentina, but in fleeing from the reality of HK’s future, he actually ended up making a handover film 😆
Finally I’m going to mention the cinematography. The film switches between b&w and colour footage, and often the colour is slightly overexposed to give a harsh contrast. There’s also different speeds, upside down shots, and WKW’s trademark slow cuts, where the film is cut back into itself to create a very disconcerting jerky slow-mo – WKW likes using this effect when characters are going through doors and noticing one another. It’s not immediately discernable unless you’re paying close attention, but as with all WKW films, the more you watch, the more you see.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle is pretty much synonymous with WKW and the two have worked together on seven films. They shot 400,000 feet of film for Happy Together and no one, least of all the actors, had any idea what the final cut would look like until it screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997. It won WKW the prize for Best Director, and the final result shocked Tony Leung, who admitted that he was completely confused by the different storylines they’d filmed.
WKW resisted labelling Happy Together as a gay movie and instead called it ‘a universal love story’. He said it could easily have been about “a man and a woman or even a man and a tree”; he just happened to decide it should be about two men. It’s not an easy film to watch, but WKW does not make easy films. If you have the patience and the mood for something challenging and ‘arthouse’, then I very much recommend Happy Together. It is honestly a film that repays several viewings. But it will tear your heart out and stamp all over it.