For his sixth feature film, Happy Together, Wong Kar Wai left his beloved homeland of Hong Kong for the energetic nightlife of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The film was made in 1997, the very year that China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, so this geographic departure had various levels of significance. By putting his characters in a territory they were unfamiliar with, Kar Wai reflected the feelings of many Hong Kong citizens, or any person whose concept of home is changed and is forced with the sometimes undesirable task of “starting over.”
Moving the setting to Argentina was not the only departure that Happy Together represented for Wong Kar Wai. If his previous film Fallen Angels was a culmination of his unique style and consistent themes, then the ironically titled Happy Together was his attempt to do something new and different. There are no characters in his films with mob connections, no weapons wielded at any point, and no female characters present at all. Kar Wai strips the film down to essentially two characters and presents a raw, fascinating story.
The rawness of the story is evident right from the first shot as the film opens on two men in their underwear about to engage in a passionate sex scene. Despite very little dialogue it is evident the power relationships between the two: the character we will know as Lai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) is more calm and calculating and the character we will know as Ho (Leslie Cheung) is more erratic and emotional. The scene fades away and we realize it is a flashback to happier times in Hong Kong. The couple, now in Argentina, is attempting to travel to the beautiful Iguazu Falls, but bickering and stubbornness never lets them find their destination, a theme that will remain present in their relationship throughout the film.
With no remaining money, the couple splits up and is forced to find their own means to get back to Hong Kong. The more responsible Lai takes a job as a doorman at an Argentinian nightclub and the more impulsive Ho begins turning tricks. The couple is thrust back together when Ho is beaten up by one of his clients and Lai takes him in to his micro-apartment to nurse him back to health. The couple continues to fight while also resisting the urge to hop back in bed with one another.
There are rarely more than two characters that receive any dialogue in the film. Later Lai meets a straight co-worker named Chang and they form a friendship that fills most of the third act. The central relationship between Lai and Ho is less unrequited and more unfulfilled. They want to be together, but their love is so strong that they hurt each other too badly. In Lai’s voice over we learn that the time he spent nursing Ho back to health in his apartment was among of the happiest time they spent together. This tells us they had reached the point of near monogamy and Lai was able to see through the bickering and appreciate simply being near one another.
The performances are great, but the best thing about Happy Together is the visual storytelling. Longtime Wong Kar Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle returns to do the cinematography for this movie and he captures the vibrancy of Buenos Aires with the same candy colored lighting as we often see in the streets of Hong Kong. The film transitions from black and white to color so seamlessly that after first glimpse I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where the transition happened.
The shot composition is the best I have seen in a Wong Kar Wai film up to this point, as every frame seems to be dripping with significance. We transition from a wide open road with the two standing far apart after a fight to a helicopter shot of the beautiful Iguaza Falls. Kar Wai wants to show us the universal significance of one couple’s experience. Like the characters, Doyle’s camera has abandonment issues as it rarely allows for an empty frame, fluidly shifting around as the characters move around the space.
The characters regularly refer to their relationship as “starting over” and that echoes Kar Wai’s technique. This is the first time we have seen him so raw and the film is remarkably successful as a result. The one criticism that I have is that the couple’s time together was a little too dour. I understand the irony of the title, but did that really mean they had to be in a perpetual state of misery?
Regardless of any narrative flaws (many of you will surely disagree that there are any), it is understandable why Happy Together earned Kar Wai the Best Director Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and why it should be seen by any film lover.
Bottom Line: Happy Together is a feast for the senses and one of Wong Kar Wai’s best.