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Joined: 30 Jul 2007
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Location: North Carolina, USA

PostPosted: Sat Sep 15, 2007 5:28 am    Post subject: Happy Together

The (im)possibility of Love
Happy Together
A Film by Wong Kar-Wai
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung and Cheng Chan

Happy Together is a Wong Kar-Wai film about two Hong Kong homosexuals adrift in Argentina. When the film was released in 1997, many interpreted it as a meditation on the possibilities of co-existence with China (and Taiwan?) after the British handed over Hong Kong to the Mainland. Such a reading of the film is potentially still a valid one, but an alternate reading, one that explores the nature of love and alienation, puts this film firmly within the context of many of Wong’s other films, most notably Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love and 2046. With the passage of time, I believe, the more purely political reading of the film has lost some of its resonance, while the exploration of the theme of love plays ever stronger.

Tony Leung is Fai and Leslie Cheung, Po-Wing. They were on-again, off-again lovers in Hong Kong and have journeyed to Argentina to “start over”. After the first scene of their lovemaking, shot in a black and white bleached almost to white (possibly representing the white hot nature of their sexual desire for one another), the story picks up with an ill-fated attempted to see one of the great natural wonders of South America, the Iguazu Falls. The falls are featured in the opening of the film, and they are a magnificent sight: enormous, powerful, intensely beautiful. They become, in a certain sense, a metaphor for the power of the passion these two men feel for one another. But, while the falls are a neutral phenomenon of the natural world, the relationship of these two men is constructed out of a toxic mix of obsession, jealousy, domination, pain and seduction. As if the mix of the pathologies of two disturbed individuals wasn’t enough, their personalities are fundamentally incompatible. Fai is jealous and controlling. Po-Wing is promiscuous, unfaithful, and apparently incapable of committing to the relationship. These two men spend most of the movie dancing around each other in a deadly dance of mutual manipulation. Po-Wing is a master of seduction. He knows Fai cannot resist his beauty and sensuousness, Fai despises himself for succumbing to Po-Wing’s manipulation, and ends up hating himself even more than he hates his sometime lover. Inside of each man there is a fundamental incompleteness. Not only are they alienated from Hong Kong and Argentina, where they resemble nothing so much as castaways surrounded by an indigenous culture that is foreign and, ultimately, incomprehensible, they are fundamentally alienated from themselves. Po-Wing is such a narcissist that he has no true existence apart from the love and/or pain his presence causes Fai. As soon as Po-Wing’s emptiness is filled by Fai obsessive love, he is off again for another round of sexual adventures with strangers. Fai suffers masochistically each time he is with Po-Wing, but it soon becomes apparent that he simply cannot help himself. He is seduced over and over again, almost always against his better judgment into restarting this totally dysfunctional relationship.

The physical pull between the two lovers is evident in so many details in the film, some of them presented by Chris Doyle’s cinematography as things of real beauty. The scene of the lovers dancing the tango together, where their sexual desire is bounded and shaped by the conventions of the dance, are among the most touching scenes in the film. So too, the scene when they are up on the hot roof wearing nothing but their underwear. Fai is plastering something and Po-Wing comes over to him and pours a bottle of water over his shoulders before bending over him and kissing the water off his neck and shoulders. This is an extremely powerful presentation of Po-Wing’s powers of seduction and his inherent sensuality. It also clearly shows Fai’s attempts to resist this seduction. To create the necessary physical and emotional distance from Po-Wing, he refuses to respond. At other times, he uses anger to distance himself from his desire for Po-Wing and to try and keep his intense emotional anguish at bay, at least for awhile.

For much of the film, Fai resists Po-Wing’s efforts to restart their incendiary physical relationship. The level of frustration builds between the two men until it culminates in acrimonious scenes of mutual jealousy. Po-Wing leaves and Fai tries, unsuccessfully to bury his grief. It is just at this time that Fai makes a new friend, a young man from Taiwan, Chang. Chang stands apart from the drama swirling around Fai and Po-Wing. He is young, possibly heterosexual (his sexual orientation is ambiguous in the final cut of the film) and possesses a decidedly different character from the two Hong Kong lovers. There is a calmness and centeredness about Chang that contrasts markedly with the drama and emotional turmoil of the other two men. As Chang and Fai become friends, Chang is able to offer Fai a sense of quiet stability that has been missing from his life, at least since he met Po-Wing. Chang helps to externalize Fai’s grief and depression by speaking of it. He is also there to support his friend in bouts of drunkenness and unprovoked rage. Chang simply accepts Fai for what he is and does not try to change him in any way. This helps Fai recover a true sense of himself for the first time in years. He feels strong enough to resist Po-Wing’s attempts to reunite with him and he also picks up the thread of his life in Hong Kong, where it turns out that he has broken his father’s trust. Acknowledging this, he seeks reconciliation not only with his father, but with himself and his Chinese culture. The film ends with Fai well on the way back to Hong Kong and to himself.

For a film that was essentially unscripted and fraught with production delays, change of cast members half way through (Leslie Cheung left the film after only 6 weeks to honor a series of concert engagements, to be replaced by Cheng Chan who was not part of the original cast) and other unforeseen misfortunes, the plot has a coherence and elliptical nature that are impressive. The most powerful scenes are those that Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung share as the doomed lovers. There is a fierce engagement in the characters as they parry and thrust, grasp and dodge--physically and emotionally--that makes for riveting cinema. Sometimes what plays out on screen is intensely painful to watch but, like a train wreck, you must watch, rapt, unable to look away. There is also an intense physical tenderness that betrays itself, and externalizes the character’s true feelings for one another over and over again. Wong Kar-Wai has said that this could be the love story of any couple, a man and a woman, two men or two women. I’m not sure I agree. There is a powerful physicality coupled with an emotional reticence that strikes me as typically male in the pairing of Fai and Po-Wing. It would be hard to imagine the same emotional and kinetic dynamics in couples featuring other sexual make ups.

The camera work and lighting is superb throughout. Nothing is ordinary in the look of this film. Most scenes representing the realm of memory are shot in various shades of black and white. Sometimes the contrast between light and dark is so extreme that the figures are reduced to virtual silhouettes against a light or dark ground. Even many of the color sequences are shot using extreme contrast. With two such handsome leading men, there seems to have been a conscious effort not to highlight or linger on the beauty of their faces. This focuses the viewer’s attention firmly on the emotional content of the characters rather than their physical appearance. Most of the film also takes place in a handful of close interiors or at night on a few streets. There is very little sense of Buenos Aires presented in the film. Because Fai is trapped inside of his hurt and desire, and we see most of the film through his eyes, we have little awareness of the world around him either in its physical appearance or its inhabitants. Wong Kar-Wai traveled to Argentina to shoot a film, and ended up setting much of it in non-descript interiors that could be almost anywhere in the world. This underscores the fact that, because of his emotional state, Fai is alienated from the world around him and from himself. By the end of the film, when Po-Wing returns to the apartment Fai has abandoned and attempts to recreate his life there with Fai by doing many of the same things he had seen Fai do, performing the same tasks, using even the same gestures, we sense that now it is Po-Wing who is trapped inside of his alienation. As the film ends he is taking the first steps on the journey that Fai is, at that very moment, half a world away, almost completing.

Such powerful meditations on the nature of love, desire, identity and memory fit comfortably within Wong Kar-Wai’s oeuvre. He has explored these themes from various angles in virtually all of his pictures. But Happy Together is perhaps unique in the penetrating gaze the director turns on the interactions between the lovers. Only part of the film is set in the past and under the total sway of remembrance. Many of the most intense scenes between Fai and Po-Wing unfold in the present and we are voyeuristic witness to the part each man plays in the creation and destruction of their relationship. But the present quickly becomes the past, which seems to endless repeat itself like infinite images in a fun house mirror. Only by introducing an outsider, in the person of Chang, can this self-perpetuating cycle be broken. Happy Together ends on perhaps the most hopeful note of any Wong Kar-Wai film. Chang, never a prisoner of his past, offers Fai a warm but disinterested friendship, and this in turn gives Fai the ability create a different future by making peace with his past. The last scene of the film, with Fai on an elevated train in Taipei, is hopeful, as if he is speeding to the point where his past and present converge, a point in time and space that will reveal the way to an unforeseen future.
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Joined: 27 Mar 2011
Posts: 419
Location: Lexington, KY United States

PostPosted: Fri Jun 17, 2011 2:53 am    Post subject:

Excellent review - so well thought-out and realized. You have a great understanding of the work, as a whole, while I have tunnel-vision, and concentrate, mostly, on what the actors are doing - both as characters, and as interpreters. It would probably take me 20 viewings, to get out of it, what you have, in two.

BTW, thank God for Kino's 2009 restoration of the film; so many wonderful expressions were lost in the darkness of the original video release. (Don't know if it was so dark in the theatre. Darkness on the other hand, though, can allow the audience to participate more in the storytelling. I suppose either presentation has it's strengths.)
"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." - Groucho Marx
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