Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

wong karwai happy together 2

Imagine me and you. I do. Happy together. Most folks think that’s a love song, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear it’s about a relationship that never actually happened. The key to unlocking it is that word, “imagine”.
(Taylor Mason, Billions)

Phải biết cám ơn, phải biết xin lỗi, và phải biết quên.
(Phạm Duy)

Wong Kar-wai was born in Shanghai in 1958, but he was brought up in Hong Kong. His first publicly recognized movie was As Tears Go By (1988), a fast-paced gangland movie set in Kowloon, an urban area of Hong Kong, which was somewhat reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). It tells the story of a gangster (Andy Lau) caught between the demands of his partner (Jacky Cheung), and his girlfriend (Maggie Cheung). This very first movie of Wong Kar-wai already showed the Hollywood influences on his film-making style.

In 1990, Wong Kar-wai released his second movie, Days of Being Wild, whose setting was in the 60s’ Hong Kong. The movie follows the odyssey of Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), who seems to be in full control of his relationships with his two girlfriends (Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau) and his best friend (Jacky Cheung), yet at the same time, he’s so uncertain about his origin and always longing for seeing the mother that left him. Such uncertainty prompts Yuddy to look for his mother in the Philippines. However, his mother refused to validate him, and he was subsequently killed by the gangsters on a train.

My own private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant

The characters and the story plot remind us of My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and released in 1991, which also portrayed the journey of a beautiful young man in search of his mother. This theme of searching for one’s own origin perhaps has something to do with the identity 

Wong Kar-wai is famous for his open-ended improvisation film-making technique; he hardly sticks to a prewritten script. Rather, he follows the actors with a handheld camera, oftentimes accompanying his cinematographer Chris Doyle. He simply records everything on set, and only organizes them in the editing room.

Wong Kar-wai’s third film, Ashes of Time (1994), was loosely based on a wuxia novel written by Jin Yong. The characters Ouyang Fang (Malevolent West) and Huang Yaoshi (Sinister East) are from The Legend of the Condor Heroes, but the movie was about their early lives when they had yet been well-known swordsmen. One interesting detail of the movie plot is that whereas the Malevolent West wants to remember things happening in the past, the Sinister East wants to forget them. Is this contradiction in the attitude of “West” and “East” towards the past related to the dreadful fate of Hong Kong, the city that was taken away from the mainland by British colonialism after the Opium Wars and then returned to China after 99 years? 

Chungking Express (1994) was the movie that earned Wong Kar-wai international renown. Its inspiration is derived from Murakami Haruki’s novels. The movie tells the story of the two policemen whose troubles come from their romantic relationships with women. There’s a scene in which a phone rings in a telephone booth, which reminds us of the lyrics of Billie Holiday’s These Foolish Things. (“A telephone that rings but who’s to answer”). Chungking Express was followed by Fallen Angels (1995) that depicts the troublesome relationship between a hitman and his partner. Both films were set in 1990s Hong Kong, and both tried to depict the city’s urban space in its process of disappearing, through quick cutting and slicing through different narratives. 

Happy Together (春光乍洩) was different from the aforementioned movies in various ways. It doesn’t have a double plot. The cast includes only three men (although there had been a scene starring Shirley Kwan, it was later on excised from the movie). It is a Hong Kong film, but one set in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a closing sequence in Taiwan. It’s a film with details about homosexuals and homosexuality made by – for what the statement is worth, and not wishing to be essentialist about categories – a heterosexual director. And it’s also a film about Hong Kong on the eve of the transfer of power, complete with a televised sequence recording the death of Deng Xiao-ping; a film about exile, or nostalgia, or displacement; and, finally, a film about Hong Kong, or, possibly, about Argentina.

Before thinking about the film as any or all of these things, it will be useful to have an outline of the plot to introduce the film to the readers who do not know it or for those whose memory is hazy. Happy Together depicts the experiences of two Hong Kong men: Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung). These two characters’ names, as is revealed when the final credits roll, are those of two of the film crew who worked on Happy Together –  actually the focus-puller and the gaffer – whose passports appear at the beginning. The two men are on the road on the way to see the world-famous Iguazu Falls. Quarrelling, Ho abandons Lai who then finds work in a tango bar in Buenos Aires. Ho later tries to get in touch again with Lai who eventually takes him in again after Ho has been beaten up. Lai responds to Ho’s acts of promiscuity by hiding his passport.

wong karwai happy together
wong karwai happy together

Lai next begins working in a Chinese restaurant where he meets a Taiwanese man, Chang (Chang Chen), who is travelling the world. Ho ransacks the flat looking for his passport and Lai throws him out. Lai and Chang go to a bar where Lai weeps into Chang’s portable stereo. Chang leaves Lai to go to Tierra del Fuego and while there plays the tape recording of Lai weeping that was made at the bar. Lai decides to return to Hong Kong, and works in an abattoir to get more money for the fare. Ho gets in touch again, perhaps to retrieve his passport, but Lai does not see him and leaves for the Iguazu Falls. When Ho arrives at Lai’s flat, Lai is in Taipei. Lai goes to find Chang’s family’s noodle-stall, finding that Chang has left in order to do military service. Lai takes with him a photograph of Chang and boards a train in Taipei, so that the film ends with a sense of that city seen from the train.

Happy Together premiered just one month before the handover of Hong Kong, an event marked with the ceremony on June 30, 1997, that officially transformed Hong Kong from a British colonial ruled city into a Chinese special administrative region (S.A.R.). And, interestingly, the film ends with a sense too that something is about to happen, but refuses to reveal what will actually take place. As the film closes, Hong Kong’s handover of power is less than one month away, and the future of Lai in relation to his past in Hong Kong or to Chang or to Ho is not discussed in the movie.

(to be continued)

See also:

Million Dollar Baby (2004), directed by Clint Eastwood

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), directed by Wes Anderson

What makes the 1986 adaptation of Journey to the West a classic


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