Happy Together

Reviewed by YTSL

Confession:  I had never heard of the Argentine novelist, Manuel Puig, until I started reading about the Shanghai-born Hong Kong-based moviemaker, Wong Kar Wai.  Apparently, Puig has a way of telling a story with all the pieces jumbled up that Wong admires.  Supposedly, the latter's HAPPY TOGETHER, a movie which is indeed set in Argentina for the most part, is "loosely, almost diaphanously based on" the former's "The Buenos Aires Affair".  This may well be so.  But not having read it, I don't know.

What I do feel is that, ironically enough, HAPPY TOGETHER is by far the most focused, straightforward and linear Wong Kar Wai film I have seen (and I have at this point viewed all of his released works bar for his first directorial effort, "As Tears Go By").  Not unrelatedly, that which is still only the sixth production that Wong helmed also appears to be his most modest and pared-down work.  Interestingly, it has been revealed that the movie, which currently is approximately 98 minutes in length, originally clocked in at three hours (In the process of its being cut down into the final product, a character played by singer Shirley Kwan got entirely excised from the story).  And although it did take longer to film than expected (four months rather than six weeks), we are hardly talking about the kind of time (two years) expanded on making the movie as occurred with his seminal "Ashes of Time".
All in all, HAPPY TOGETHER feels like a small, personal film.  Ground down to its essence, this 1997 international awards winner centers around two Hong Kongers who are (temporarily) exiled in Argentina, their on-off emotional and physical relations with -- plus its influence and effects on -- the other.  The responsible and outwardly stoic but internally wretched Lai Yiu-Fai is portrayed by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (who deservedly won a best actor award for his performance in Hong Kong and apparently only lost out the best actor award by a vote at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival).  The reckless and narcissistic yet emotionally -- as well as physically -- needy Ho Po-Wing is played by Leslie Cheung (who was also nominated for best actor for this performance).
The movie (which won Wong Kar Wai the best director award at Cannes; and cinematographer Christopher Doyle a Taiwanese Golden Horse award) begins with a scene of Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing having sex.  Shortly after, on an aborted trip to see Iguazu Falls, they quarrel and break up.  Yiu-Fai suspects -- actually, knows -- that at some point, Po-Wing will come to him and ask to "start over" once again.  In the meantime, he gets tormented by watching Po-Wing prostituting himself for a living and going with his clients into such as the tango club cum bar for which Yiu-Fai works as a doorman.  Before too long, Po-Wing is indeed back in Yiu-Fai's apartment and life.  At some point in the film, Yiu-Fai quits his doorman job and goes to work in the kitchen of a restaurant.  One of the workers there is a young Taiwanese man (played by Chang Chen) who is out to see the world, temporarily stopping in Buenos Aires to make enough money before proceeding with his travel which now has taken him effectively halfway around the globe from his native land...
One of the amazing things for me about Wong Kar Wai's films is that however quirky (maybe even downright weird), flawed, frustrating or enigmatic and philosophically archetypal are the characters in them, they also do seem so believable and actually real.  Even if you don't personally know people like them (yet), you can expect -- even if you don't want to do so! -- to come across someone like one of them at some point in your life.  This is the case with Yiu-Fai (who, incidentally, is named after one of Doyle's assistants!), Po-Wing (who got his name from the other assistant cameraman!) and Chang (whose character's name is the same as that of the actor who plays him, a quite common occurrence in Hong Kong movies!).
Still, this is not the main reason for my finding so much worth in Wong Kar Wai's distinctive (body of) work.  Rather, that lies in there being scattered throughout them those wonderful thoughtful musings, which initially seem like throw-away asides, that actually take some moments for my brain to take in and process (at which point, I have to rewind the tape and read -- I'm subtitle dependent -- them again).  Then there's Christopher Doyle's stunning and often sensuous cinematography (In HAPPY TOGETHER, the Iguazu Falls shots were amazing; ditto that of the lighthouse at "the bottom of the world"; the close-ups of bodies being held in embrace as they did the tango or just stood still, etc. were like slow moving paintings (as opposed to pictures)).  These two elements alone make this film a fulfilling intellectual as well as sensory treat of a very high order.  As with other Wong Kar Wai productions though, you know that there is so much more that I have not discussed and which is there for the viewer to individually discover.

My rating for the film:  9.