Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung and Zhang Zhen.
Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai.
Anguish and alienation have rarely seemed as
attractive as they do in the films of Wong Kar-Wai. In the 39-year-old Hong Kong
director's previous films of the decade -- Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time,
Chungking Express and Fallen Angels -- characters divulge their feelings only in
voiceovers, remaining pensive, solitary and gorgeous to the end. Even the most
ardent lovers rarely get the chance to meet.
While they have the advantage of actually knowing
each other, the lovers in Happy Together, Wong's second film to be released in
North America, are only marginally better off. The flighty Ho Po-Wing -- played
by actor/pop star Leslie Cheung, best known in the West for Chen Kaige's
Farewell My Concubine -- and the sullen Lai Yiu-Fai -- Tony Leung of John Woo's
Hard Boiled and most of Wong's previous films -- make love vigorously only once,
in the first scene. They've come from Hong Kong to Argentina to "start over,"
but everything quickly unravels. In Buenos Aires, Ho becomes a hustler and Lai
works as a doorman at a tango bar. Their relationship erodes further as Ho
convalesces in Lai's bedroom after being beaten by a trick. They're unable to
tear away from each other so they can only tear at each other.
Wong -- who won Best Director this year at Cannes --
and cinematographer Chris Doyle fill the film with images that are both gorgeous
and lurid, graceful and hyperkinetic, all to a sumptuous score that combines the
nuevo tango of Astor Piazzolla and the piquant sleaze of early '70s Frank Zappa.
If Happy Together is not as jaw-droppingly stylish as Fallen Angels nor as
unconventional in its narrative as Days of Being Wild, it is the most passionate
of Wong's films. It is not, however, a love story.
"It's something like a love story after," says Wong
in a phone interview from New York. "We started where a love story normally
ended. Most people would like to tell a story how these two guys met in Hong
Kong, how they fall in love, run away from Hong Kong and live happily together
in Buenos Aires. So we try to start at this point. And to me the story is about
how a person quits his habits. Just like a guy who smokes a lot and he knows
it's not good for his health but somehow he's addicted. And when some force is
joined in, he has enough energy to quit this habit."
What inspired Wong to come to Argentina to film Happy
Together was not necessarily a quest for a more exotic setting than a Kowloon
subway station, but the literature of Gabriel García Márquez and Manuel Puig.
(The original title of Happy Together was Buenos Aires Affair, after a story by
Puig.) Wong is obviously sympathetic to the unorthodox narrative structures in
South American lit.
"In Chinese literature," says Wong, "the most
important thing is the theme, what the story is about. But how to tell the
story, I learned this from Puig and Marquez, because the form is sometimes very
much related to the theme, and the theme can sometimes be the form and the form
can sometimes be the theme."
Still, he didn't quite get what he expected in
"Because I'm very fond of South American writers, I
think, well, I can make a film in South America because the people in these
books seem very much like Chinese, regarding honor, passion, family value. But
when I got to Buenos Aires I realized it's totally different. Because it's not
so South American to me -- Buenos Aires is cold, freezing, and people are not so
'hot.' It's more like a European country, so we had to start all over again. And
I knew I couldn't make a movie about Buenos Aires because I don't know enough
about this place. I thought, 'I will concentrate on these two guys from Hong
Kong and in effect the only world that matters to them is in their room.' We
tried to create Hong Kong in Buenos Aires."
And this is how a planned six-week shoot turned into
four months and over 400,000 feet of footage (some of which may be reconfigured
into a CD-ROM version of Happy Together). The spontaneity in Wong's films can
mean a production will become chaotic. In effect, Wong doesn't really know what
the movie's about when it's being made. Chris Doyle, an ex-sailor and Wong's
main collaborator, jokes in Hong Kong Babylon, Frederic Dannen's new layman's
guide to HK cinema, that he doesn't bother reading the script: "I assume the
film is going to be about time and space and identity and isolation."
Says Wong, "Most of the time, I think I don't exactly
know where we are heading but I am very sure about what we don't want. So that
whole process is trying to go away from things we don't want and go toward other
possibilities. Later on, during editing, we know what happened
"Some directors, like Hitchcock, know exactly what
they want before they shoot the film. And then some directors just have an idea.
I prefer to have only an idea before shooting because otherwise the whole
process will be a drag -- doing something that you know already."
It's true, Wong's pursuit of what he doesn't know
already has led to some of the most startling movies of the '90s. In Happy
Together, there is much that is unexpected, like how Taiwanese actor Zhang
Zhen's character affects the story -- he brings with him an unsentimental
optimism, the feeling that all of the trauma we've just witnessed may in fact
have no bearing on future events.
This is an endlessly interesting movie, and it's
unfortunate that it may be pigeonholed as a 'gay film.' Says Wong, "In fact, I
don't like people to see this film as a gay film. It's more like a story about
human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men.
Normally I hate movies with labels like 'gay film,' 'art film' or 'commercial
firm.' There is only good film and bad film."
Still, there has been controversy over Wong's casting
of two Asian stars as lovers -- the film was banned in Malaysia and South Korea,
and was rated Category III in Hong Kong. He doesn't think it has negatively
impacted on the actors' careers -- ever since he cast all the top stars in Days
of Being Wild, a film so existentially minded that some audiences threw food at
the screen, he thinks the audience blames him for any excesses. But in Doyle's
Happy Together diaries (to be published under the title Don't Cry For Me
Argentina), Leung seems particularly shaken by the lovemaking. Again, the viewer
can feel the spontaneity in the scene, feel that Leung and Cheung did not know
how far they could go.
"I would say they didn't know," says Wong, "and
actually the first scene was shot on the first day, and Tony was very shocked.
So I had to explain to him that if I can make him fall in love with a can of
sardines in Chungking Express, why can I not make him fall in love with a man in