Review: ‘Happy Together’

Maverick director Wong Kar-wai manages to pour old wine into new jars with "Happy Together," a fizzy chamber yarn about two gay Hong Kongers in Argentina that's as slim as a bamboo flute but is his most linear and mature work for some time.

Maverick director Wong Kar-wai manages to pour old wine into new jars with “Happy Together,” a fizzy chamber yarn about two gay Hong Kongers in Argentina that’s as slim as a bamboo flute but is his most linear and mature work for some time. Melding the melancholia of his swordplay epic “Ashes of Time” with some of the poppy visual and musical elements of “Chung King Express,” Wong has come up with a distinctive third product that should garner good critical response and perform well in select sites. Pic is much more a general meditation on relationships than a “gay movie,” though that element will be a useful extra arrow in distribs’ quivers when marketing this specialized item.

During its making, the movie underwent even more changes than is normal for a Wong pic. The location shoot dragged on for four months, from September to December last year, in difficult working conditions; the original storyline was massively altered during shooting; and characters and subplots were eliminated after the original three-hour cut. Final result (with a reported tab of $4.2 million) is one of Wong’s most straightforward movies in some time, pared back to concentrate on only three characters, and as pure a piece of almost plotless, metaphysical cinema as he’s made in his career.

Major surprise is that what was widely pre-billed as a gay-themed movie is only peripherally concerned with such matters. Though the universe in which the main characters move is exclusively male, the abstract feelings the movie evokes — loss, regret, love, hate, happiness — are transfigured to a universal, sexually neutral level. In many respects, that is the pic’s greatest achievement.

In a move that’s clearly designed to get the distracting sex element out of the way, the movie starts with a moderately steamy (but in no way explicit) bed scene between the two principals, the serious Lai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and more flip Ho (Leslie Cheung), in a grungy apartment. They’re then shown arguing on the road as they get lost on the way to the fabled Iguazu Falls — a spectacular, almost mystical location that serves as a destination for spiritual renewal.

But at some unseen point, the pair break up; Lai works as a doorman at a tango bar in Buenos Aires, and Ho as a hooker. Ho, however, still wants to get back with Lai, and eventually Lai takes Ho in when he arrives at his door one night, badly beaten up.

Movie switches from monochrome to color at this point (some 25 minutes in), with Lai nursing Ho back to health but — in an engagingly funny sequence — refusing to get back into a sexual relationship. Lai has, however, hidden the self-destructive Ho’s passport, in an attempt to keep him around and out of trouble.

The interlude doesn’t last long, with Ho getting antsy as soon as he’s better and Lai befriending a young, straight kid from Taiwan, the innocent, idealistic Chang (Chang Chen). When Chang leaves for Taipei, Lai is thrown back on the scrap heap of depression, facing serious homesickness and the ongoing problem of what to do with Ho.

All this is shown in a fractured but fairly easy to follow way that draws a convincing portrait of Argentina as some kind of upside-down version of Hong Kong where emotions, social norms and relationships are topsy-turvy, with none of the safety nets that exist back home. In the final, East Asian scenes, a powerful sense of security and homecoming returns to the picture, mirroring Lai’s own feelings and amplified by the use of the Turtles’ famous title song — as exhilarating as “California Dreamin’ ” in “Chung King Express.”

For a film that’s as much based on a wisp of a plot as this, the mise-en-scene is crucial, and Wong has wisely ditched the frenetic, debilitating energy of his previous “Fallen Angels” in favor of a more relaxed (though still edgy) style, taking his cue for the mood from Argentina’s lassitude and the melancholia of its music. Astor Piazzolla’s “Tango Apasionado” is a fitting accompaniment to many of the stylized visuals, in which pastels rather than primary colors dominate.

Perfs by both Leung and Cheung, both major H.K. stars, are good, with the former consistently playing against the latter’s bad-boy persona, and both bringing a playfulness to the relationship that stops the pic from miring in sexual politics. Taiwanese thesp Chang (the lead in Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day”) brings a blast of fresh air to the movie as Leung’s new-found friend.

The real star of the movie, however, is lenser Christopher Doyle (in his fifth outing with Wong), whose grainy, high-contrast visuals — shot on 35mm but “forced” throughout — do much to keep the picture involving when the story is either going round in elaborate circles or revisiting earlier ground. Though there are some parallels to the visual style of “Chung King” and “Angels,” overall “Happy” has its own, distinct look. It’s fair to say this is an instance in which the lenser is an equal partner with the director in the finished picture.

Other tech credits are rich, especially William Chang’s sleazy, highly atmospheric production design. For consistency with the use of other Frank Zappa numbers in the pic, Wong originally wanted to use his version of “Happy Together,” but rights problems forced the helmer to rerecord the song in Hong Kong. Producers are still considering minor trims to the movie, including toning down the opening sex scene for some markets. Chinese title, from poetry, literally means “Spring Brilliance Suddenly Pours Out.”

Happy Together

Hong Kong

Production

A Golden Harvest release (in Hong Kong) of a Block 2 Pictures presentation, in association with Prenom H. Co. and Seowoo Film Co., of a Jet Tone production. (International sales: Fortissimo Film Sales, Amsterdam.) Produced by Chan Ye-cheng. Executive producer, Wong Kar-wai. Directed, written by Wong Kar-wai.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Christopher Doyle; editors, William Chang, Wong Ming-lam; music supervisor, Danny Chung; production design, Chang; sound (Dolby), Leung Chi-tat, Tu Duu-chih; assistant director, Johnny Kong. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 14, 1997. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Ho Po-wing - Leslie Cheung
Lai Yiu-fai - Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Chang - Chang Chen
(Cantonese and Mandarin dialogue)

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