“Turns out lonely people are all the same.”
Maverick filmmaker Wong Kar-wai has always ushered in cynical romanticism via his films that are a product of the director’s endless flirtation with colours, melancholy, isolation and longing. His heartbreaking 1997 film Happy Together is no different and deals with similar tropes in a slightly different fashion. Initially titled 春光乍洩, which roughly translates to ‘Spring Brilliance Suddenly Pours Out’, the film was recently restored on Blu-ray in 2021 and prevailed as a testament to Kar-wai’s brilliance and enigma as an art-house filmmaker following his previous films Chungking Express, Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and more. The project even won him the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, making him the first non-Japanese Asian director to achieve this feat.
With various critics and scholars admiring the sheer cynicism and melancholy emanating from the film, in an interview with Khoi Lebinh, Kar-wai defended the new title Happy Together by stating that though it might seem “cynical” to certain people due to the separation they face early on in their relationship, to him, “happy together can apply to two persons or apply to a person and his past, and I think sometimes when a person is at peace with himself and his past, I think it is the beginning of a relationship which can be happy, and also he can be more open to more possibilities in the future with other people.” He even said that he did not want the film to be viewed as a “gay film” as “it’s more like a story about human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men”.
It is impossible to describe the harrowing beauty of the film without immersing oneself in the turbulent relationship shared by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung’s characters, Fai and Po-Wing respectively. The film opens with them cramped on a tiny bed within the four walls of a Buenos Aires hostel, fervently pawing at each other, engaging in sex that seems too alien and rough for lovers to engage in. It is almost as if they are strangers, bound within a certain time frame to finish off their business; the voiceover has Fai telling the viewers how Po-Wing wants to start over every time their dysfunctional relationship falls apart. The duo is far away from their home in Hong Kong and they have run out of money. They dream of watching the Iguaza Falls together but loses their way, both literally and metaphorically. Failing to find the waterfall, their volatile relationship falls apart as well and Leung’s Fai takes up a job as a doorman at a shady tango bar.
Cheung’s Po-Wing, promiscuous and desperate, becomes a companion to the lonely men, presumably engaging in sexual activities for money. Although Fai tries his best to avoid him, he ebbs and flows into the former’s life, ruining him every time he does so. However, Kar-wai revels in making them suffer via various missed chances where they often miss out on running into each other that could have probably rekindled the relationship. They are so imperfect for each other that their relationship seems tragically perfect. They are like two ill-fitting puzzle pieces that somehow find a way to get attached to one another, especially because they suffer from a sense of rootlessness. The idea of home is thwarted as they often feel a sense of nostalgia and longing for a home that does not exist, neither in Hong Kong nor in Argentina. They escape Hong Kong to salvage their relationship but Argentina offers no hope.
As Fai takes care of an injured Po-Wing, the sequences are morbidly hilarious. Volatile, Po-Wing often tries to get close with Fai who rebuffs his advances, seemingly tired of the emotional wreck the latter had turned him into. However, later in the film, it is revealed that Fai basked in the voluminous silence shared by them while an injured Po-Wing slept; Fair apparently felt a lot closer to his estranged lover. In a desperate attempt to cling on to his fleeting lover, Fai even hides Po-Wing’s passport which becomes one of the points of conflict in the films. The auteur is very conscious of his decision to switch between the two palettes- monochromatic and colourful. The film begins with a burst of colour before showing the two unhappy lovers in monochrome. It is not until they find each other once again that the film displays colour. The monochromatic colour scheme hints at the lifeless and monotone relationship they share, devoid of the passion and feverish desire for one another.
As Fai and Po-Wing slow-dance in a tight embrace within the grubby kitchen, it is almost as if they are crossing the unbridgeable gap between them, somehow trying to grasp at the lone remnants of the failed relationship. Fai’s squalid apartment, the lurid lighting of the dilapidated house they reside in, the shady tavern bars and nocturnal shots of Buenos Aires streets with its bustling nightlife painted in all its glory, Kar-wai tries to make the audience migrate halfway across the world into the realm of the unique and unknown. Christopher Doyle’s cinematography is stellar as he intentionally shoots in low quality to add to the general claustrophobic atmosphere of the film.
The third major character that is added to the mix is Chang Chen, a Taiwanese young man who claims to have a brilliant hearing. He works with Fai in the restaurant and the latter soon finds himself befriending this man whose uncomplicated worldview resonates with him. The film leaves their relationship ambiguous as one cannot help but wonder if Chang felt something more than platonic friendship for Fai when he rebuffs a movie date with a woman just to stay longer in the kitchen with Fai. He knows that Fai is depressed and heartbroken and takes him out for drinks. The volumes of unsaid words spoken between them hint at Kar-wai’s usage of missed chances yet again. Fai cannot help but sob into the tape recorder while talking with Chang, probably heartbroken over losing his only friend in the city. When he finally locates Chang’s parents in the night market in Taipei, he realises how Chang manages to be so carefree: “I finally understood how he could be happy running around so free. It’s because he has a place he can always return to,” he says as a sad realisation dawns upon him that as opposed to his pathetic condition, similar to Po-Wing’s, where they are disillusioned by the absence of the warmth of a home, Chang has one to turn to when he seeks solace.
The imagery of Iguazu Falls is extremely important. It is the first colourful imagery at the beginning of the film, the blend of the dark blue and green add a hint of supernatural surrealism to it, making it seem nearly otherworldly and ominous. As Fai stands in front of the Falls, getting drenched by the spurts of water that blur the camera as well as it closes in on his head, the man realises that he terribly misses his partner. Po-Wing looks at the revolving waterfall lamp and cries gut-wrenchingly into the blanket, trying to inhale Fai’s smell that the discarded blanket probably has entrapped. The haunting background scores help heighten the feeling of loneliness, isolation and despair while painting the pathetic relationship shared by the duo who cannot bear to be with and without each other. The film ends with the exhilarating ‘Happy Together’ crooning by The Turtles which almost echo the sensation ‘California Dreamin’’ had to offer in Chungking express — nostalgia, melancholy and poetic desire.
The erotic melancholy rendered by the auteur’s vision to the film is palpable. Fai and Po-Wing are perhaps meant to be yet the timing is awfully wrong, as always. They are hauntingly vulnerable, emotionally and psychologically confined to each other, stifled by the hatred and desire oozing from their bodies. The innocence of young love is replaced by fatigue and exhaustion as they desperately try to cling to each other for old time’s sake just to “start over” yet again. When Fai finally breaks free of the cycle, it is nearly cathartic for him. Yet an unhappy truth sticks to his mind- when he hated Po-Wing for engaging in meaningless encounters with men and subsequently found himself doing the same, hooking up with men in the bathroom as it were “easy”, he realised that “lonely people are all the same”.
The upside-down Hong Kong and the jarringly-lit streets of Argentina, the ethereal beauty of the Falls and the quiet lighthouse – all these are raging motifs that Wong’s stylistic brilliance makes him employ to transpose the viewers into the feverish and cynically romantic world of the film that has no escape. Leung and Cheung simply, with their blazing and maniacal performances, help form lumps in the throats of the audience, haunting them with the memories of romantic doom. One cannot help but lament the ruinous cage of romance and delusion these two hopeless romantics are constricted in as they get caught in the familiar Wong Kar-wai tropes of claustrophobic desire, violent longing, apathetic loneliness and masochistic passion, hoping to salvage a relationship that has shambled beyond measure.
“Lai Yiu-Fai… we could start over.”
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