Toxicity is abundant in Wong Kar Wai’s ironically-titled Happy Together.
‘Ho Po-Wing always says “Let’s start over” and it gets to me every time. We’ve been together for a while and break up often, but whenever he says, “Let’s start over” I find myself back with him.’
Why do we stay with those we do? Sometimes, this is an easy answer: they make us happy, or a better person. Sometimes the answer is a little less obvious: there’s an obligation, perhaps a desire to please. Who knows. But what about those who are intrinsically bad for us? Those who, while in no way are villains or bad people, simply bring out the worst in everyone? A pairing that’s poisonous, yet somehow unavoidably addictive. This is the question asked by the master of capturing human folly, Wong Kar-wai in Happy Together.
It follows the lives of two Hong Kongers, Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), a gay couple visiting Argentina in an attempt to reconcile their relationship. They plan on going to the Iguazu Falls, after buying a lamp with its image on the shade, but their usual cycle of abuse and breaking up, as well as their own insecurities, means the coupling quickly falls apart and they resort to living miserably by themselves in Buenos Aires.
Fai takes a job as a greeter for a local club, but grows ever resentful, while Wing disappears for stretches of time, usually coming back in dire straits. One day, Wing shows up to Fai’s apartment bloodied and bruised, and Fai takes him back – albeit hesitantly, and it looks like they finally are able to be happy together, but for how long?
Of the two, Wing is the most self-destructive. Leslie Cheung does a lot of good work here, infusing Wing with a lot of his own personal struggles. Outwardly, Wing has no interest in changing any of his ways. The way he bursts in and out of Fai’s life almost seems to suggest that he doesn’t see his ex in the same “main character” light the audience does. To him, Fai is another character in his own larger narrative, even if Wing does rely on him to basically live for half the film.
Tony Leung’s Fai is hardly without fault. His addictive personality means he is always resorting to smoking and alcohol, especially when things are looking at their worst: he drinks on the job, smokes like a chimney and worst of all, cannot help himself when Wing comes back into his life. Wing is shown to be nothing but a burden, a bad influence and altogether terrible for Fai’s wellbeing, yet Fai always lets the guy back into his life. Fai sees Wing as an addiction he has to quit, and the central struggle in the movie is his acceptance of this, and the steps he takes to counter it. Both performances are incredibly powerful, filled with nuance and layers to each character that makes it impossible to look away.
Happy Together is probably Wong’s least focused movie (which is definitely saying something), with the timeline jumping forward randomly, and no real story anywhere. Instead, Happy Together is more about the emotional journey the characters go through, and the way they deal with different circumstances, including each other. The acting and cinematography are the real focuses, here and Wong’s usual dismissal of finished scripts works to the film’s advantage. The bookending narrative – involving the recurring theme of the Iguazu Falls – is really just there to get the story moving and to give the setting some context.
But it’s not to say that the setting means nothing. Instead, having the film take place half a world away from their home leaves the two leads feeling isolated and imprisoned throughout the majority of the movie: it was their choice to go here to see the falls, and it’s their lack of choice that keeps them where they are. The lamp in Fai’s apartment is a constant reminder of this, and a major theme throughout the movie. Happy Together is not a romantic film, but it is one about love and how you can trick yourself into believing you’re in it even when there is countless proof to the contrary.
Despite all of this, Happy Together isn’t that much of a downer, not eventually. There’s plenty of heartbreak, as well as emotional and physical pain throughout, but ultimately it preaches a message of optimism; of keeping the past in the past and to move past the same oft-used wells and into other lands. Fai briefly gets this midway through when he meets another gay Hong Konger (apparently this isn’t all that uncommon in Buenos Aires), who he ultimately has to let go of, and whose footsteps he chooses to follow in when he decides to take steps to improve his life.
Combined with Wong’s skill behind a camera and his nifty use (or lack) of colour, Happy Together isn’t the most accessible ouvre by the filmmaker. Newbies are definitely better off catching Chungking Express, which is about as perfect a representation of the director as you can get. Happy Together is less good in a few ways, but it’s definitely still a top-notch character study and while it can get a bit hard to watch in some places, I’m definitely glad I saw it.
Verdict: It probably won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but Happy Together is nevertheless a strong, compelling drama loaded with excellent camerawork and performances
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Chinese title: Definitely more accurate
Cigarette packets: hundreds
Fai’s neighbours: must really hate him
Buenos Aires Tourism Board: probably didn’t approve this film.
Happy Together (1997)
Also known as: 春光乍洩 (lit. Spring light at first glance or Exposed Skin Together [idiomatic])
Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Writer: Wong Kar-wai
Leslie Cheung – Ho Po-wing
Tony Chiu-Wai Leung – Lai Yiu-fai
Chen Chang – Chang
Gregory Dayton – Lover