Happy Together (Chun gwong cha sit)
Hong Kong (1997) Dir. Wong Kar-Wai
Gay lovers Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) arrive from Hong Kong in Argentina for a road trip holiday to visit Iguazu waterfalls but the relationship turns sour and they soon split. Yiu-fai gets a club job to earn the money to return home where Po-wing shows up with his many partners. One night Po-wing shows up beaten with injured hands and Yiu-fai takes him in and nurses him while trying to keep Po-wing at arm’s length which Yiu-fai finds hard. Once Po-wing returned to health he resumes his wild life style and Yiu-fai kicks Po-wing out again. Then while working in a Chinese restaurant Yiu-fai meets Taiwanese Chang (Chen Chang) who offers some light in Yiu-fai’s otherwise dark life.
China’s foremost producer of esoteric personal dramas Wong Kar-Wai predates the Oscar winning Brokeback Mountain by almost ten years with this tale of a love gone wrong between two men. And in true boundary pushing fashion Wong casts two renowned actors/heartthrobs in Tony Leung Chiu Wai and the late Leslie Cheung as his homosexual couple in complete contrast to anything they’ve done before. It’s a gamble which pays off as both men reach deep within themselves to convey the internal turmoil of their suffering characters in what is one of Wong’s bleaker works.
The narrative – accompanied by voice over narration from our three main players – tries to keep a linear direction while the imagery flits around in a slightly unconventional style with the picture alternating from oversaturated colour to black and white, from slow motion to upside down and plenty of shutterspeed tampering along the way. The film’s title is bitterly ironic since our couple are anything but, even when they were still a committed couple the tension was still there.
Po-wing is clearly the more adventurous and out going of the two, taking to picking up men in clubs and public toilets while Yiu-fai is the “sensible” one who suffers the most on an emotional level. Most of the scenes of isolation and hurt feature Yiu-fai while Po-wing’s suffering is physical and essentially superficial compared to the torture Yiu-fai goes through. He finds some solace in the company of the level headed and philosophical Chang whose sexuality isn’t revealed but hinted and thus the relationship remains strictly friends and nothing else.
The film’s setting of Argentina gives Wong a chance to pile on the sense of loneliness and despair Yiu-fai feels by being a stranger in a strange land despite a healthy Chinese contingent there. The cinematography of the noted Christopher Doyle once again compliments Wong’s unique vision with some sumptuous shots including the metaphoric use of the Iguaza waterfalls. Visually this film fits in with Wong’s previous (and latter) works with his trademark yellow tint of the picture but narrative wise, things are a little shower and disjointed.
Neither of the lead characters are easy to get an empathetic grip on and the numerous visual style jumps are just as culpable for this lack of connection. This feels more cynical than Wong’s prior films and thus lacks that kooky charm found in the likes of 1994’s Chungking Express. This may appeal to some but for me I couldn’t connect with or appreciate this film to the same levels as I have others from Wong’s catalogue.
Happy Together will please hardcore Wong Kar-Wai fans as the familiar elements of his idiosyncratic style are present but those who dip in and out of his catalogue, as this reviewer does, may find this one a bit more hard work to appreciate