Happy Together 1997 Analysis Essay

Happy Together

The films of Wong Kar Wai are often about people who feel very intensely, who love and hate with a fiery passion that bursts out in the garish, expressive aesthetics of the films. In Happy Together, Wong examines this kind of passion especially intimately, through the gay relationship of Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), who visit Argentina together as a way to reinvigorate their on-again-off-again relationship, but wind up instead merely replaying the same troubles they always have. The film is a powerfully focused examination of this disintegrating, up-and-down relationship, capturing the violent emotions, the heartbreak, the longing and desire, and the fleeting moments of happiness that are like the glue holding this fractured romance together, momentarily bridging the gulf that's widening between these two men.

That gulf is represented, in many ways, by the waterfall at Iguaza, which they promise to visit together during one of their happier moments. The falls, seen on a lamp that Yiu-fai bought — a bright and gaudy representation of the falls, lit from within by a rotating cylinder that makes it seem as if the water is glistening in the sunlight — come to represent for Yiu-fai the potential for happiness and togetherness. This trip is something they planned to do together, a goal for their relationship, a sight they could share. Wong visually suggests that it's also an abyss that might swallow them whole. An image of the actual falls is inserted early on, as a response to the hopefulness that Yiu-fai has for the trip, but the image of the reality is very different from the lamp's sunny depiction of natural splendor. It's a sensuous color image of the waterfall, all dark blues and jungle greens, inserted into the mostly black-and-white opening section of the film. The camera slowly turns around the falls, capturing the slow churning of the water and, increasingly, the drifting white smoke that begins to fill the frame as Wong's graceful camera move pushes the tumbling water itself off to the sides. In stark contrast to Yiu-fai's optimistic desire to see this place with his lover, the image is dark and sinister, an image of destruction and apocalyptic grandeur: it is a seemingly bottomless pit, filled with smoke from the violent churning of the water as it crashes into the reservoir deep below. It's a gorgeous but foreboding image, a suggestion that what waits at the end of the trip is not reconciliation but erasure, heartlessness, brutality, the cold and cataclysmic violence of nature.

That image, so frightening and intense, lingers over the rest of the film. When that tracking shot of the falls predictably recurs at the end of the film, it provides a kind of melancholy closure, as one lover sees the falls in person, the water rushing down towards him, its spray drenching his face, while the other is left with the lamp, a gaudy and false facsimile of the real place. That's the essence of the film, the moment it's journeying towards, as Yiu-fai struggles against the confining boundaries of his unhappy relationship with Po-wing, a relationship where it's not clear who needs the other more, who's keeping who prisoner.

That dynamic plays out within some of Wong's most potent and beautiful images, as captured by his usual cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Though set mostly in Buenos Aires, Wong finds in this city a Southern hemisphere counterpart to his home base of Hong Kong, which perhaps explains the sequence where Yiu-fai, realizing that he is in the other half of the world from his home, imagines what Hong Kong would look like upside-down. The answer, as envisioned by Wong, is indeed turned upside-down but not otherwise that different, as he finds in Buenos Aires a similar late-night neon vibe, all hazy lights and poetically empty street scenes, occasionally interrupted by a bright, summery daytime scene where the sun fades the images to a white glare. That impression is introduced slowly into the film, as most of the early scenes play out in a crisp, high-contrast black-and-white, with only selected moments rendered in the characteristic warm, brilliant colors of the Wong/Doyle collaborations. When, after Yiu-fai and Po-wing are reunited following some time apart, the film explodes into full, sumptuous color during their cab ride back to Yiu-fai's apartment, it's as though the fullness of the couple's conflicted emotions have finally exploded to the surface of the film.

Despite these strong emotions, Happy Together is more relaxed and languid than previous Wong Kar Wai films, in which unpredictable violence could erupt at any moment, and this film looks forward to the slow, sensuous rhythms of In the Mood for Love rather than the the frantic tempi of most of the preceding films. The body of the film focuses on the lovers' uneasy reunion, as Yiu-fai tries to hold onto the unstable Po-wing, who obviously needs and cares for Yiu-fai but still can't help straining against the bounds of their relationship, going out, sleeping with other men, prostituting himself with American tourists. The relationship settles down slightly when Po-wing is beaten up by some of his clients for stealing a watch, and Yiu-fai tends to his lover during his recovery. The scenes of tension and arguing are offset by scenes of surprising tenderness and affection, like a sequence where Po-wing teaches Yiu-fai to dance, and the dance slowly becomes a gently swaying embrace. This scene, like the opening's disarmingly explicit and erotic sex scene between the men, establishes the stakes of their troubled love, the real depths of feeling upon which their often fractious relationship is built.

There's also tenderness in the depiction of Yiu-fai's friendship with his restaurant coworker Chang (Chen Chang), which is contrasted against the doomed love affair at the center of the film. As Yiu-fai's relationship with Po-wing collapses, his connection — platonic and hesitant, though not without suggestions of attraction and intimacy — with Chang deepens. Chang is a typically eccentric Wong character, a young man who had been nearly blind as a child and who had, as a result, developed extremely sensitive hearing and an ability to detect the smallest nuances of emotion in people's voices. He also, despite his displacement in South America, has the stability of home and family that the rootless Yiu-fai, wandering in a foreign land and disconnected from a family that's all but disowned him, only wishes he could someday return to. Those longings, the heartache and sadness of these aimless men, are expressed in typical Wong fashion. Chang carries a tape recording of Yiu-fai's tears to the "end of the world," a lighthouse in the far south of Argentina, where, it is said, his worries can be dissipated; it's a moment that looks forward to the similar scene at the end of In the Mood for Love. Po-wing also enacts the ritual of visiting his lover's apartment while Yiu-fai is not there, cleaning the place and rearranging things, a form of intimacy without direct contact that weaves through Wong's films.

Happy Together, like nearly all of Wong's films, is a deeply moving and rich work, a film about dislocation and the longing for stability. These characters have drifted far from home, isolated from their families and their homes, and they unsteadily try to make their way in an unfamiliar land even as their emotions overwhelm and unbalance them. Turned upside-down from their homes, they rush towards the churning abyss, towards the end of the world, and then pull back towards redemption and rebirth at the very last moment.

Happy Together


Chun guang zha xie 

Hong Kong, 1997 

 directed, written and produced by Wong Kar-wai
cinematography: Christopher Doyle
editor: William Chang Suk-ping ; Wong Ming-lam
design: William Chang Suk-ping
score: Danny Chung Ding-yat
music by Tomas Mendes (sung by Caetano Veloso), Astor Piazzolla, Frank Zappa
sound: Leung Chi-tat, Tu Du-che
executive producer:  Chan Ye-cheng
production company: Jet Tone ; Block 2 Pictures
running time: 98 minutes


Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing ... Ho Po-wing
Tony Leung Chiu-wai ... Lai Yiu-fai
Zhang Zhen ... Chang

Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer, at the Toronto International Film Festival, 1997 

Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Po-wing (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing) have "started over" their relationship, for the umpteenth time, but this time they've gone all the way from Hong Kong to "the end of the world", Buenos Aires, to do it. Po-wing is the flightier one; who flits in and out of Yiu-Fai's life whenever he needs Yiu-fai's care. Yiu-fai is the quiet, loyal nurturer, the sufferer, the brooder with an undercurrent of violence. He's a landing pad for Po-wing, his cook, his shopper, his dance partner, whatever Po-wing needs. But they're headed for another inevitable breakup. There are complications: Yiu-fai meets a co-worker, a displaced Taiwanese teenager named Chang (played by Chang Chen), with whom he begins to spend time. The film begins and ends with a voyage: to the Iguazu Falls, whose mystery draws Yiu-fai, and to Taiwan, to Chang, family and home. 

We watch how two men fall in and out of love, but (as Wong repeatedly insists on in his interviews) "Happy Together" isn't essentially a "gay" film: just a story of how two very different men love each other and can't tolerate each other. 

Maybe this story is one we are already a bit too familiar with; Wong Kar-wai's greatest gift, up to now, has been to tell us stories whose shapes and contents we've never even begun to think of, before. 

But, he has never made anything quite like Happy Together's kaleidoscope of of beauty. Wong's virtuosity (and that of his long-time collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and editor/production designer William Chang) in finding, creating, and altering images seems absolutely unconstrained. Images so suffused with emotion that they take your breath away: 

  • stuttering slow motion effects isolating the briefest moments of emotional connection: as Yiu-fai and Po-wing eye each other, as Yiu-fai and Chang shake hands 
  • fractured, prismatic montage, as Po-wing and Yiu-fai confront each other through a blizzard of quick cuts, coming from every available angle and distance, yet whose perfectly assured rhythm makes them all hang together as a sense of one (irreducibly fractured) moment 
  • a long take (40 seconds, which is long for this film), the camera holding relentlessly on Yiu-fai who, unable to articulate his sadness, weeps into the tape recorder that Chang gives him  

Wong knows how to make us feel time's flow in every possible way: fracturing and speeding it up by jump cutting with abandon; playing with extreme fast-motion to film Buenos Aires and Taipei traffic so we feel the compressed, giddily accelerated pace of urban time; slowing a tender lovers' dance to the moment-lasting-an-eternity that it will persist in memory. 

The filmmakers' technical wizardry extends to a control of colour that encompasses harsh high contrast black and whites of the road-movie opening, blue- and sepia-tinted monochromatic transitional scenes, highly-saturated colours of its urban settings, and the uncanny naturalism of the most arresting image of the film: Iguazu Falls. The film is built around this scene: it is shown near the beginning and again near its end, just before the coda. We see the Falls -- locus or fetish-object of the characters' yearnings -- from high overhead, in an image that slowly rotates through 180 degrees, taking all the time in the world. The first time, as a place that can't be reached; and at the end, as an arrival point, however temporary, for Yiu-Fai (in between, Wong inserts a series of obsessively repeated shots of a rotating Iguazu Falls souvenir lamp in Yiu-fai's room). The two framing shots connect directly with a similar pair of shots in Days of Being Wild -- the full screen of slowly swaying, rich green tropical trees -- similarly deployed near the beginning and end of that film. And both pairs of scenes are suffused with a particular kind of rhapsodic music that Wong uses to signify a kind of perfect world -- real or imaginary, close at hand or impossibly far off -- that his characters need to believe in in order to survive. In Happy Together, an ecstatically tender Caetano Veloso song, and an excerpt from Astor Piazzolla's Tango Apasionado, suffused with desire. 

If you are looking for embedded echoes of Wong's other films, you'll find them: 

  • playful ones, when Yiu-fai accuses Chang of looking like the Blind Swordsman, who was Tony Leung Chiu-wai's character in Ashes of Time. 
  • narrative echoes, like the date stamped on Po-wing's and Yiu-fai's passport, May 1, 1995, which marks not only the beginning of Happy Together, but the date from Chungking Express when Faye's boarding slip to Tony Leung (Cop 663) expires (and the birthday of Takeshi Kaneshiro's Cop 223). 
  • formal echoes, like the fast-motion shot of Buenos Aires traffic from dusk to night, a clock-billboard askew on the right side of the screen. This parallels the architecture of the opening shot of As Tears Go By, where a screen of TVs recedes from the right of the screen, beside a high-angle shot of an urban night street scene. An image that perfectly captures one of Wong's favourite tropes,Ê a visibly fractured space, inhabited by two different kinds of time, each unfolding at its own pace 
  • and structural echoes, like the above-mentioned waterfall and forest scenes. 

As Wong himself has admitted, "... all my films are not stories. I think they are more about characters. The story line is not strong" (interview in the New York Times, Sunday October 12, 1997). Faced with this kind of carefully conceived visual bounty, though, it seems churlish to complain about what seems like an uncharacteristically impoverished narrative. 

Even more so, when you consider just how fine the performances are that Wong has again elicited from a gifted cast. Taiwanese pop-idol Chang Chen has a sweet, easy presence that plays well as the third member of the lovers' triangle. Leslie Cheung is a joy to watch, not, this time, because of his preternatural onscreen beauty, which is pretty much a given, but somehow despite this, in the way he becomes the impishly childlike, exasperatingly selfish, irritating and yet oddly magnetic character that somehow has a claim on Yiu-Fai's love and on our attention. A fine stroke, to dissolve the burden of Cheung's own aura of narcissism by casting him as a character whose self-love is gently mocked. 

And Tony Leung Chiu-wai must be the most prodigiously gifted actor in contemporary Chinese cinema, along with Maggie Cheung. What a courageous, risky, completely unguarded performance, that reaches deeper into the source of his craft than a "star" might be expected to offer. Leung has steadily built up a substantial body of work, from Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness (1989, Taiwan), through a series of widely varied, richly characterized roles in films like Hard Boiled (1992), He Ain't Heavy He's My Father (1993), Mack the Knife (1995), Cyclo (1995, Vietnam), and Wong Kar-wai's two 1994 releases, Chungking Express and Ashes of Time. In Happy Together, Leung reaches the top. He draws, fearlessly, on what looks like a limitless reservoir of sensitivity and power, and creates a character who burns himself into your memory. 

I'm left thinking that Wong's new film needs time to sink in, time for its various aesthetic strategies even to be noticed, let alone accounted for.Ê If at first it seems as if the film's story is overwhelmed by its technical invention, if its substance is destabilized by its form, then even this impulse has significance. The constant theme of Wong Kar-wai's cinema is that the formal conditions of our experience have changed so radically that they compel us to live an entirely new kind of experience to fill them, to fulfil all of their promise and potential. That's just what is at the crux of Happy Together: a productive tension, a pressure on its content by its structure, that hints at an expansion of possibility without any of the old limits. 

In the preceding remarks, I've been preoccupied with drawing out one thread of Wong Kar-wai's art: his proposal for a new "technology" of time, one which offers to render re-intelligible a radically changed world. Wong is just as ambitious in regards to space, the other defining vector of our experience. For a very preliminary indication of where his equally radical technology of space may be headed, we could look closely at Happy Together's epilogue. Does this most problematic section of the film even begin to address the question of "why in Argentina?": why have Wong and company wandered so far away from home? I'm going to suggest that issues of place for Wong are impossible to disentangle from their ideological implications, their relationships to power. Issues which are more prudently addressed through indirection, from a certain distanced, displaced setting: hence, Buenos Aires. Wong even jokes about this gambit, in the film, with upside-down shots of Hong Kong traffic illustrating how that city might look to Yiu-fai from his geographically inverted perspective. But contrary to Yiu-fai's expectation, home has a way of appearing more rather than less immediate when you are as far away as possible, on the opposite side of the world. 

After Yiu-fai reaches Iguazu, the film seems to arrive at a place of repose; it feels finished, fading to black for several seconds. Cut to airborne camera sweeps of Chang at the southern tip of Argentina, then to the epilogue, as Yiu-fai, now in Taipei, watches news of Deng Xiaoping's death on TV, then goes out to a night market and finds Chang's parents. The final image seems to be right out of a film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan's pre-eminent filmmaker. Yiu-fai watches out the front of a speeding train (on Taipei's new urban transit system), as it zooms along elevated tracks, pulling into a station . But, on top of this sequence that is quintessentially Hou, Wong inscribes an urban nighttime location (against Hou's more typically rural settings), and another fast-motion time twist. The emotional weight of the scene, though -- its sensation of freedom, a euphoria in simply being-in-motion (which contrasts with the various traps of stasis that Yiu-fai and Po-wing were mired in, in the rest of the film) -- seems very close to the central scene of Goodbye South Goodbye (1996): the long ecstatic motorcycles-in-motion shot, of Jack Gao and company sailing along a country road. 

This scene is one of the very few points of connection that I am aware of between the contemporary cinemas of Taiwan and Hong Kong. And it is telling that it should closely follow an abruptly inserted on-screen image of Deng Xiaoping's televised funeral. In the parallel new futures of both post-colonial Hong Kong and its post-1997 cinema, old political and cultural entanglements have ruptured, and new options become possible, along with new dangers. Yiu-fai, freed from his own emotional entanglements (one might even say that he has undergone a moment of de-colonization in his personal life), barely takes notice of the momentous events on the mainland, unfolding on his TV set. In this briefest of glances towards and then immediately away from Deng on TV, the film registers, then peremptorily dismisses a mainland connection. This is not where the "story about a reunion", promised in the film's original subtitle, is headed. 

Yiu-fai's new world heads back to Hong Kong through Taipei. It finds its momentum in the energy and sense of possibility that comes from both of these cities' spaces, together. Perhaps this is what really is at the heart of the "happy together" that the film's ecstatic conclusion celebrates: a synthesis, full of possibility, of two cultural spaces, or two cinematic spaces, or two ways of life. An embrace which is also a rejection, after a long struggle, of seductive alternatives with no future. 

But there is more to the story: one more city. For Wong Kar-wai's take on Beijing, though, we will have to see what he does with his next feature, Summer in Beijing

October 17, 1997 

back to the index... 

Shelly Kraicer 
email the website editor

all content © 1996-2002 Shelly Kraicer

0 thoughts on “Happy Together 1997 Analysis Essay

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *