Happy Together (1997)

Happy Together (1997)
Directed by: Wong Kar Wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung
Genre: Drama
Runtime: 96 minutes
WI's Rating: 8.4

The story follows a young gay couple from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, where they foolishly imagine they can salvage their stormy relationship by starting over in a new place. No sooner do they arrive than they quarrel and separate. As the movie, narrated by Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), the more introspective of the two, follows Lai around the city, the cacophonous urbanity that in other films by Mr. Wong serves as a mood-enhancing stimulant only underscores his alienation and melancholy.

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 , 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 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.
As the film opens, the two are already locked in a pattern of abuse: Leung, the steadier, more practical of the two, is ill-equipped to handle Cheung’s immaturity and lack of commitment. When the two stall out in Buenos Aires indefinitely, without the money to go home, Leung logs time as a doorman at a tango bar, while his partner carouses with other men and lives dangerously.

For all its darkness and discord, Happy Together ends on a note of cautious hope. Lai begins working at a restaurant and forms a friendship with a young man named Chang (Chen Chang), and develops a romantic attachment to him. The film remains ambiguous about Chang's sexuality, but the character comes to represent a new option for Lai, a life without Ho and their dance of love and hate. It's unclear whether or not Lai will ever be truly happy, but Wong ends the film in a way which celebrates that uncertainty, since it represents possibility and the hope of something different than what went before. 

Their relationship is really the heart of the story which goes completely opposite of the film's namesake. Not once are they happy together nor are they happy apart. The film acts as a sort of tug-a-war with these lovers constantly battling to win each other back or push each other way. Never once is one's "male" dominance long lasting, leaving these lovers continuing their love hate relationship.The narrative was considerably random; we never know where Wong Kar-wai would lead us after following particular events. However, every sequence was made beautiful and meaningful—meaning to say, the beauty creates substance in this over-exploding gay romance. All in all, Happy Together is one of the most exceptional film made by Wong Kar-wai for its blunt, ingenious perspective of an ailing relationship craving for reconciliation. Instead, it grabs the sentimental side of this deteriorating relationship in an honest, explosive way. The non linear story also perfectly captures the life of these two characters who are literally fish out of water. Wong's fixation on alienation and searching come through more in this film than any of his others. The powerful acting propels the story and the emotional content of their relationship gives it a heart. The film is not happy nor is it very entertaining beyond the characters. Nothing much is gained and nothing much is lost yet the aesthetic beauty of the cramped and ugly Argentina background leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.

The couple show their true colours in heated dialogue exchanges that contain blame and jealousy, as well as regret and longing. A brilliant scene perfectly captures their entire relationship through visual metaphors. The pair sleep in separate beds showing their distance, while dressed in only their underwear which signifies their vulnerability. The partner being interrogated uses their blanket to hide from the confrontation, only to be left alone and then pursue their own line of questioning in a seemingly endless argument. This sequence works so well as it shows Wong Kar Wai using his best visual poetry, which is easy to grasp as well as being humorous and poignant. Another such symbolic moment sees the pair having reduced their initial dream of travelling to a waterfall, into a lamp with a waterfall upon it. Their dream becomes a tiny little footnote that they admire every now and again when they break from their bickering.

Wong's 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. We see the Falls 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 Lai.

Happy Together like its Turtles inspired title, is a contradictory look at love and how it can actually be possessive obsession thickly veiled to those involved. The title is ironic as the film showcases the on-again off-again romance where the participants are nothing but miserable during their time together. The Turtles song from which the film takes its title has always been one of my favourite songs of all time, and one of the reasons is how sweet and endearing the lyrics are, mixed with an often dark melody. 


Comrades: Almost Love Story/ Tian Mi Mi (1996)

Comrades: Almost Love Story/ Tian Mi Mi (1996)
Directed by: Peter Chan
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Leon Lai, Eric Tsang
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Runtime: 118 minutes
WI's Rating: 8.7

the story starts off pretty simply. During the 1980s, Hong Kong was an up and rising economic powerhouse in Asia. It attracted many Chinese Mainlanders (a term to describe those who came from China) who migrated there for employment and success, indicating that there was a lack of opportunities back home. In 1986, Li Xiao Jun (played by Leon Lai) arrives in Hong Kong. He's a Mainlander from some rural community up north. He lived in the tiniest room of minuscule apartment at his Auntie Rosie, who was actually running a brothel, and several other Thai sex workers.  He come to Hong Kong to make some money in order to eventually bring his fiancée down and get married. This task is made difficult because he is rather naive and more importantly, doesn't speak a word of Cantonese. His best hope is to work menial jobs until he can learn the language and better his circumstances. Even though his life was hard due to the language problem, Xiao Jun worked very hard, starting from the bottom as a delivery guy for a butcher shop

He, then, formed a friendship with Li Qiao (maggie Cheung), a tough young woman who be more well-versed about Hong Kong than he was. She spoke Cantonese like a Hong Konger, behaved like a Hong Konger and even thought like a Hong Konger. It begins when he goes into a McDonald's to pantomime his way into ordering a hamburger. The cashier, Li Qiao, is arrogantly frustrated with his inability to speak Cantonese and tells him he'd better get with the cantonese and english because in the hustling capitalism of Hong Kong, people like him don't stand much of a chance. He is drawn to her because she can speak to him in Mandarin and she is very cute. "Are you from the Mainland, too?" he asks. "Of course not!" she says. (It's hard to move up in Hong Kong with that stigma attached.) They end up spending time together.

from this moment, "Tian mi mi" song chants in entire film
They grow closer. At one point she confesses that she too is from the Mainland (but from nearby Guangzhou Province). He replies "I've pretty much known that all along." "They why did you let me take advantage of you?" "I needed a friend and you're the only one I have." They become lovers of convenience and proximity. He still loves his fiancée and sends her letters, but she is distant and Li Qiao is near.

Li Qiao, however, is not the romantic lead often found in typical stories; her main method of making money is to hoodwink fellow main-landers into handing over resources. It just so happens that naive Li Xiao-Jun is one such man to fall for her trickery but, although they begin their time together as deceiver and victim, their shared loneliness and status as desolate souls in a big, bustling metropolis brings them together in a passionate, albeit, doomed affair. 

The two vow to stay only friends, which seems easy as their lives prosper. However, when financial slowdown sets in, things take a turn for the worse. Chiao turns to working in a massage parlor for cash, and comes to question her "friendship" with Xiao-Jun. Xiao-Jun brings his fiancee, Xiao-Ting, to Hong Kong, and Li Qiao eventually takes up with Pao(Eric Tsang),a Triad boss with a heart of gold. However, despite their best efforts, their fates cross again and the two find themselves questioning their earlier choices. 

With a fiance back in China, Li Xiao-Jun knows his time with Li Qiao must end; they depart each other's company physically, moving onto new relationships, but deep inside an unbreakable bond has been formed. In keeping with the film's English title, as much as our leads would prefer this to not be a love story, it is indisputably so - the pair shared youth and fell head over heels with each other and the music of Teresa Teng together. Bonds like these are not easily broken.

Comrades, Almost a Love Story focuses on the isolation in the crowd and correlative loneliness that many newcomers to a big city often experience. Xiaojun and Li Qiao, despite both being Chinese, find themselves isolated amongst the Hong Kongers. Between humorous scenes of them trying to learn English (with an American teacher having his class chant “jump you son of bitch, jump” as they watch a cowboy movie) and their attempts to climb the social ladder as migrant workers, the two eventually fall in some state of love and lust, breaking the oath of fidelity Xiaojun made to his fiancee, brought together by their mutual Chinese-ness in a sea of Hong Kongers who would rather see themselves as British subjects, especially in the face of the repatriation to come a year later.

Director takes an unusual approach to the urban isolation romance. Rather than frame his characters in long shots, emphasizing the crowds around them, he shows them in tight close-ups and two shots, adoringly close explorations of the star’s lovely faces. While there are occasional establishing shots of crowds (Lai bicycling through the Tsimshatsui district, narrating his life in a letter home; Lai navigating a crowd lined up for new housing, bringing water and chocolate to Cheung), for most of the film we are seeing the two leads either alone or together (a few times from the point-of-view of an ATM machine, the pair alone in a small square patch of screen space) while the world outside is reduced to blurry, fragmented noise.

The cleverest of these — and one with huge resonances for Chinese viewers — is the duo’s shared passion for Taiwanese thrush Teresa Teng, whose idealistic Mandarin melodies entranced a whole generation of mainland and overseas Chinese during the ’70s and ’80s. (Pic’s Chinese title, which literally means “Honey Sweet,” is one of her best-known songs.) The duo’s early failure to make a living selling her albums in hard-bitten, Cantonese-speaking H.K. — and their shared grief at her death in 1995 — is the movie’s most touching expression of the often false hopes that power Chinese emigres.

The music of Teresa Teng also plays a huge role in this film. The Chinese title, Tian Mi Mi is one of Teresa’s songs and couple loved humming to the song while riding on the bicycle. Li Qiao was an ardent fan of Teresa Teng and sold her cassettes as a part time endeavour. Li Qiao herself is a very interesting character to watch in this film. Underneath that harsh straightforward manner she displayed, her love for Teresa Teng’s songs represented her softer side. She could have been gentler if life was a bit nicer to her. Yet, unlike the innocent Xiao Jun, Li Qiao was often in a survival mode, her mind set to make money as much as possible. Teresa Teng’s music made the film a much sweeter journey as it serves as a stark contrast to the city-centred cinematography of the film.

The object of their shared affection is Teresa Teng, the legendary and powerfully emotional Taiwanese singer; a performer whose song gives the film it's original title. As one of the first singers to bring popular music to China, her songs were revolutionary - rather than communist anthems celebrating the power of the regime, Teng's tender laments spoke of heartbreak and longing, giving dignity to the self as an individual. This was considered dangerous by a government who were formed on the ideology of the collective over the self and, as such, these simple love songs became personal, political statements.