Upon its 1997 release, Happy Together, which takes places in Argentina, was sometimes interpreted as a response to the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, even though the film never even alludes to this event. Its references to Chinese politics are brief indeed: one character watches a news report on Deng Xiaoping’s death. Now that 14 years have passed since the handover, Happy Together looks noteworthy for a different reason. It marks the end of director Wong Kar-wai’s period of spontaneity.
In the ‘90s, he managed to make five films. Three of them – Chungking Express, Fallen Angels and Happy Together (for which he won the Grand Prix for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival)- were made relatively quickly, at least in comparison to the years of work he spent on Ashes of Time. In the following decade, he made only three films. While In the Mood for Love ranks among Wong’s best work, 2046 and My Blueberry Nights suffer from an arid quality that suggests Wong had begun to cannibalize himself. But Happy Together presents his work at its best.
Happy Together chronicles the on-again, off-again relationship of Ho (the late Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung), a gay couple from Hong Kong living in Buenos Aires. As if to throw a challenge at homophobic viewers, its sole sex scene occurs almost immediately. From there, the film is more concerned with the dark emotional aspects of their relationship. The couple’s destructive devotion to each other comes to seem rather masochistic. However, Wong remains a romantic at heart, and he stresses the value in love even when it produces more pain than joy.
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Happy Together was made in close collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Wong and Doyle’s vision for the film combines aspects of the French New Wave with avant-garde cinema, fashion photography and music videos. It’s a particularly fetishistic view of Buenos Aires, spontaneously focusing on a puddle of water and making it look supremely beautiful. In interiors, Doyle alternates between dingy green and day-glo orange lighting. Happy Together never looks particularly naturalistic, but it’s always striking. The film is also marked by its wall-to-wall use of music, particularly the odd combination of Argentinian tangos and Frank Zappa.
In 1997, Cheung, one of Hong Kong’s few openly gay actors at the time, and Leung ranked at the top of Hong Kong’s A-list at a point when the local film industry had peaked. Working with material far edgier than their norm, they turn in superb performances. The film’s focus on their endless bickering would be much harder to take if their acting wasn’t so riveting. Back in 1997, Happy Together was also notable to American viewers for its lack of angst about gayness. A mere 5 or 6 years after the heyday of our New Queer Cinema, it presented a gay couple with no worries about AIDS, homophobic politicians or coming out. The more personal issues faced by every lover loom larger on this couple’s mind. The issues addressed by films like Gregg Araki’s The Living End and Todd Haynes’ Poison haven’t disappeared from American life, but the apolitical approach of Happy Together no longer seems so strange.
Whatever context one approaches Happy Together from, Wong’s joy in filmmaking remains crystal clear. Images that could feel like MTV clichés in another director’s hands, such as sped-up vistas of urban life, retain a thrill. Ho and Lai may not have much of a future together, but the film makes sure to place plenty of reasons for happiness along their rocky path.
Steve Erickson is a freelance critic who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, The Nashville Scene, the Tribeca Film Festival’s website, ArtForum, Film Comment and other publications.
WATCH HAPPY TOGETHER ON FANDOR.