Saturday Editor’s Pick: Happy Together (1997)

by on November 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Nov 19 at 7:30 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


MoMA tips its hats to bold, eclectic international film distributor Fortissimo Films, in a series running thru Nov 21.


Rob Nelson for City Pages:

Wong Kar-Wai’s film Happy Together gets its groove on right away with a grainy black-and-white shot of two lovers trysting on a bed in a near-empty room. Wearing only his tidy whiteys, one playfully slaps the other’s behind in trade for some tickling kisses on the neck. Suddenly, the one on the bottom rolls atop the other, pinning his hands down and nibbling his bare chest. Then they swap places again, the other spitting into his hand and reaching down between his lover’s legs, just as a well-placed Godardian jump-cut gives a pre-orgasmic hiccup to the coming action–which lasts all of 30 seconds. Set in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong’s Happy Together imagines the tumultuous relationship between two HK men in Argentina as a breathless quickie, its sudden bursts of sound and image giving the sense of a sweaty, libidinous vacation.


Happy Together is about the startlingly visceral effect of Wong’s editing: his cut from the smeared black-and-white image of the lovers’ road map blowing across their windshield to a freeze-frame of Lai holding his hand over his face, and then to the oversaturated blues of the roaring waterfall that remains out of the characters’ reach. It’s about the simple poetry of how that shot is matched to the wails of an Argentinian crooner who seems to be weeping waterfall tears for the unhappy couple. It’s about Wong’s insistence on weaving his songs into the visual fabric, repeating musical phrases again and again until these percolating rhythms become lodged in your head. Ultimately, it’s about the dream state that Wong delivers to his audience, the gracious manner in which he provides you the chance to wander. The story may end in Taiwan on a heartbreaking note, but we’re left somewhere between here and there, happily drifting through the film’s luscious netherworld of sound and image.


Bruce Diones for the New Yorker:

Wong Kar Wai’s latest effort is an intoxicating blend of glossy nighttime visuals and loose melodramatic narrative that would give Douglas Sirk pause. Wong’s erotic style strands his troubled characters in a romantic cul-de-sac. The film is a rare achievement, so drenched in melancholy it can make an audience swoon.


J. Hoberman for the Village Voice:

As romantic as it is fragmented, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together is both bravura love story and an attitudinous buddy film. Anxious Tony Leung and spontaneous Leslie Cheung break up, reunite and break up, wandering drunk through the Buenos Aires night in search of the privileged moment as the movie itself swoons in and out of scorched color.


Time Out (London):

Under the Chinese title used for Antonioni’s Blow-Up (it connotes the exposure of something indecent), Wong Kar-Wai and cameraman Chris Doyle have crafted their most lyrical film. The romance between two gay men from Hong Kong ends soon after they arrive in Argentina. Lai (Leung) gets a job as a doorman at a Buenos Aires tango bar and starts saving for his ticket home. Ho (Cheung) turns tricks for fun and profit, but comes running back to Lai for comfort when one of his clients leaves him bruised and bleeding. Lai befriends – and somehow draws emotional strength from – a Taiwanese kid on his way south to ‘the end of the world’. The three main characters give Wong all he needs for a piercing meditation on the meaning of partings, reunions, and attempts to start over. From afar (Buenos Aires is Hong Kong’s antipodes), he crystallises the anxieties and hopes of Hong Kong people on the eve of the return to China.



Kent Jones in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2001):

Just like Hendrix with his endless bag of tricks, effects segue into one another with matchless fluidity, and the viewer/listener gets a quick trip to heaven. During moments like Tony Leung’s fast-motion elevated train ride through the glittering Taipei night at the end of Happy Together, questions of representation drop away and film viewing gives way to pure ecstasy. Like Tarantino and Wenders, those other art hero epiphany-builders, WKW is continually going skyward, exploding his exclusive, up-to-date form of cinematic beauty over the narrative like a fireworks display. What makes him a genuinely great director is the fact that his fusion of speed, color, and vision, always linked to desire, dictates both the form and the subject matter of his work.


Every WKW movie has its own brand of sumptuousness. In previous films, part of the thrill was wondering where the camera was going to alight next, and the knowledge that a scene was more likely than not to end up in a spatial configuration radically different from the one in which it began. A good portion of Happy Together takes place indoors, too, but Doyle’s camera finds so many small wonders that it feels as vast as a rain forest.



Stephen Holden for the New York Times:

”When you travel, your first discovery is that you do not exist,” Elizabeth Hardwick observed in her book ”Sleepless Nights.” That sense of acute isolation while in transit is woven into the exhilarated, brooding tango music seeping through the soundtrack of Wong Kar-Wai’s powerfully moody film ”Happy Together.”


The cinematography of the director’s longtime collaborator, Christopher Doyle, lends the streets, alleys and bars of Buenos Aires a fizzing candy-colored glow. Every so often, the camera momentarily draws back for a street-scene overview in which the blinking signs, traffic and clouds accelerate into a breathless sensory rush.These moments are contrasted with gorgeous blue-tinted shots of Iguacu Falls, the awesome group of waterfalls on the Argentina-Brazil border that serve as a spiritual magnet for the bickering lovers. Twice in the film, the camera surveys this phenomenon in lingering, breathtakingly lovely aerial shots. ”Happy Together” also makes strikingly effective use of contrasting black-and-white and color sequences that correspond to the movie’s reflective and in-the-moment modes.


The pathos deepens as Lai, who dreams of going back to Hong Kong, takes two jobs, working days in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and nights in an abattoir, and even descends to occasional prostitution, to earn the money for his return trip. By the end of the film, you feel you have shared his squalid life of bedbugs, cheap cooking and too many cigarettes.



Steve Erickson for Fandor:

Happy Together was made in close collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Wong and Doyle’s vision for the film combines aspects of the French New Wave with avant-garde cinema, fashion photography and music videos. It’s a particularly fetishistic view of Buenos Aires, spontaneously focusing on a puddle of water and making it look supremely beautiful. In interiors, Doyle alternates between dingy green and day-glo orange lighting. Happy Together never looks particularly naturalistic, but it’s always striking. The film is also marked by its wall-to-wall use of music, particularly the odd combination of Argentinian tangos and Frank Zappa.


In 1997, Cheung, one of Hong Kong’s few openly gay actors at the time, and Leung ranked at the top of Hong Kong’s A-list at a point when the local film industry had peaked. Working with material far edgier than their norm, they turn in superb performances. The film’s focus on their endless bickering would be much harder to take if their acting wasn’t so riveting. Back in 1997, Happy Together was also notable to American viewers for its lack of angst about gayness. A mere 5 or 6 years after the heyday of our New Queer Cinema, it presented a gay couple with no worries about AIDS, homophobic politicians or coming out. The more personal issues faced by every lover loom larger on this couple’s mind. The issues addressed by films like Gregg Araki’s The Living End and Todd Haynes’ Poison haven’t disappeared from American life, but the apolitical approach of Happy Together no longer seems so strange.

Whatever context one approaches Happy Together from, Wong’s joy in filmmaking remains crystal clear. Images that could feel like MTV clichés in another director’s hands, such as sped-up vistas of urban life, retain a thrill. Ho and Lai may not have much of a future together, but the film makes sure to place plenty of reasons for happiness along their rocky path.



Alt Screen contributor Joe McElhaney for Senses of Cinema:

A Hong Kong film set largely in Buenos Aires, Happy Together is not quite a road movie (the one major attempt at travel which the protagonists make results in their car breaking down), not quite a film about exile (the exile seems too self-imposed), and in spite of the provocative casting of Cheung and Leung as lovers, not fully part of contemporary gay cinema in that not only is its director not gay but the film ignores homosexuality in explicit social or ideological terms. Even the decision to shoot the film in both black and white and color reinforces this sense of indeterminacy: the black and white images are never purely black and white but are always haunted by color, while the color itself is often partial or washed out.


Much of the literature on Wong has related the concerns of his work to post-war modernist cinema and Happy Together offers yet another example of the Deleuzian time-image: a world in which the characters drift, unable to successfully complete actions, a cinema unable to provide conventional narrative construction and instead shows a fragmented world caught up in a perpetual state of melancholia. In the case of Happy Together, though, this basic modernist concern also gives rise to an intensely physical cinema. It is there, first of all, in the bodies of the actors. Not the least of the film’s remarkable accomplishments is how it handles the personalities of two major stars of Chinese cinema, placing Cheung’s diva-like grandeur against Leung’s stolid inflexibility, a stolidity which often gives way to moments of unexpected emotional power. (Is there a finer actor in contemporary cinema than Leung?) This physicality has about it nothing of the choreographed and ritualistic movement found in the work of filmmakers like Tsui Hark or John Woo. The characters in Happy Together eat bad food, get drunk, dance, become sick, yell at one another and have sexual encounters marked by passion, violence and, later, anonymity. They move in this way because they are incapable of articulating their thoughts or feelings into words or useful action. Movement in Happy Together is almost constant. But this physicality and movement continually escapes culmination. Furthermore, the almost perpetually hand-held camera does not simply film or generate movement but becomes a kind of physical presence within the body of the film.


The entire film, in fact, offers itself up as a kind of physical object which speaks directly to us, working through the bodies of the actors and back out to the specific formal properties of cinema.



Leo Goldsmith for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

Happy Together is Wong Kar-wai’s melancholy postcard from Buenos Aires, a vibrant, painful, and deeply nostalgic “wish you were(n’t) here” from two uprooted immigrants yearning for emotional security, for their homeland, and for each other.


Unlike many of Wong’s films, Happy Together follows the events of the story in a linear chronology that is all but totally coherent. Fai’s voiceover narration leads the audience through the first portion of the film, detailing the sequence of the couple’s break-up and their eventual reconciliation when Po-wing is violently attacked and badly injured. (This reconciliation is denoted by the film’s shift from black and white to color film stock.) Desperate for emotional reciprocation, Fai nurses Po-wing back to health in his dingy apartment. He eventually tries to control Po-wing, trapping him in the tiny apartment and stealing his passport so that he cannot leave Argentina. This marks their return to the familiar cycle of sex and bickering, though for Fai, these are their “happiest days together.”


Romantic relationships in Wong’s films are nearly always portrayed as circular, repetitive, and obsessive, but Happy Together offers a way out for its characters, a linear move forward from the cycles of love and hate. This is structurally represented in the shift in the voiceover from Fai to Chang, a cook in the Chinese restaurant in which Fai works and with whom he develops a close (and possibly romantic) relationship. The appearance of Chang in the narrative offers Fai the possibility of actually starting over and not returning to the same masochistic cycles of his love for Po-wing.



Henderson again for Slant:

Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film is a mass of contradictions. It’s a movie mostly sour on love but filmed as though filtered through the vehement rush of a newfound romanticism. It’s both fragmented and cyclical. It’s stiflingly claustrophobic and also brashly international. And it’s an intimate, interpersonal look at the forces that keep two men simultaneously joined and repelled like whirring magnets, filmed (at least subconsciously) on the cusp of a major national moment.

This being Wong-land, the emotional amplitude is ramped up quite a bit, but how different are Ho and Lai’s arguments about passports, cigarettes, and bedbugs from you and your lover’s spats about dinner or domestic chores? Especially given most of those fights are ever really about passports or taking out the trash? That being said, underpinning Happy Together’s displaced lover-haters and their desire to return home, portrayed in true Wong fashion with insert shots of Hong Kong’s skyline on the other side of the world filmed upside down, is the fact that the movie was shot on the cusp of Hong Kong’s return from British rule to its new status as a sovereign territory under China. The event is never explicitly referred to, but it seems to inform and intensify their inverse wanderlust, and also Lai’s growing attraction to a young Taiwanese man he is able to share a few stolen but chaste moments with before they, too, find their separate ships sailing. Happy Together is a vibrant, colorful, but scarcely Arcadian gay classic.



Christopher Kelly for Film Comment (March/April 1999):

Hetty MacDonald’s Beautiful Thing treats the awkwardness of sexual confusion as nothing more (and nothing less) than genuine awkwardness; and it explores with tenderness and intelligence the utterly recognizable feelings and desires of its characters. Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (97) takes much the same approach. From its opening sex scene – a roughhewn, blistering affair, erotic in its attention to the two leads’ naked bodies and (unlike Nowhere) wholly willing to allow its characters orgasm – the film is unabashedly gay. Or is it? What follows is an epic and tortured battle between two lovers who will never be “happy together,” as they separate and break apart, fall in and out of love. Are the feelings they experience on their journey (tenderness, alienation, loneliness, confusion, self-hatred, desperation) any different from the emotions that the characters in a heterosexual Hollywood divorce epic like Shoot the Moon go through? Of course not – and that’s precisely what makes Happy Together so vibrant and original a gay vision.


Homosexuality does not exist in a vacuum. If being gay is about unrequited love, or soft-focus fantasy, or furious selfhatred, or emptyheaded bliss, or even the fear of sex, it is about all of these things at once, never each one separately. What the gay cinema demands are works, like Beautiful Thing or Happy Together, in which homosexuality, as in real life, is essential to both character and story but does not define either.


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