Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997) ***
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai.
Written by: Wong Kar Wai.
Starring:  Leslie Cheung (Ho Po-wing), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Lai Yiu-fai), Chen Chang (Chang).

Wong Kar Wai’s ironically titled Happy Together is about a gay Hong Kong couple living in Argentina who are most definitively not happy together. Like the two films that Wong made directly before this – Chungking Express (1994) and Fallen Angels (1995), Happy Together is about a relationship, but is really about the impossibility of making a true lasting connection – everything is only temporary. I loved Chungking Express, really liked Fallen Angels, but ended up only merely amused by Happy Together. Yes, it is as visually stunning as those others – anything done by Wong when working with his go to cinematographer Christopher Doyle is visually stunning – but this time, I didn’t feel much connection to the paper thin story, or the two main characters – one of whom is a classic hustler/user, and the other grumpy stick in the mud.

When we first meet Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung), they do indeed seem happy together. They are on their way to what is said to be a beautiful waterfall, and are simply enjoying the drive. But then, the car breaks down, and all the resentment that has been bubbling beneath the surface comes spilling out. They break up, but cannot really stay apart. For one thing, Ho is constantly getting himself into trouble – and now has just been beaten up – and comes back to Lai to help him along. Feeling bad, Lai takes him in, but the two start arguing almost right away. True, they sometimes still fall into bed together for a passionate round of fucking, but that’s about it. They don’t like each other, but are stuck in a foreign country where they do not speak the language, and have no way of getting home – and probably don’t want to go back anyway. Hong Kong has just been turned over to the Chinese, and their families don’t much like them. They are definitely not happy, but they certainly are together.

Wong won the best director prize at Cannes for Happy Together – and it’s easy to see why. There isn’t a frame of the movie that isn’t interesting to look at. His camera whizzes around these two people, the editing is at times chaotic. Yet the film also has a strange tone, set by the visuals, halfway between lust and hatred, or perhaps where the two meet. It’s clear that Ho and Lai don’t much like each other anymore, and yet they cannot let go. It is to their credit that Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung deliver excellent performances in the movie, despite the fact that their roles are underwritten. It is also to their credit that they did the movie in the first place – these are two huge stars in Hong Kong, and I cannot imagine any two Hollywood stars of their stature doing a movie with this much homosexual content.

Yet, while the movie is about two homosexuals, its message is universal. You don’t have to be gay to understand what drives these two people – their problems are the same as straight people, and their relationship is no more or less dysfunctional than many heterosexual relationships. They are caught up in a spiral of lust, love, dependence and hatred, and cannot break free.

Personally, I think that this is one of Wong’s least successful movies, and that is because for perhaps the first time, I agree with his detractors on this film. The film is all about its style, not its substance, which gets buried underneath all of Wong’s visually trickery. I thought that the visuals in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (not to mention In the Mood for Love and 2046) were just as impressive as in Happy Together, but their thematic content, and the characters were more developed. I liked Happy Together a great deal – but unlike the best of Wong’s films, I did not love it.

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