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.