‘Happy Together’ shows Wong Kar-Wai at height of directorial powers
The recent release of 4K restorations of Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai’s complete catalog has caused consternation in WKW circles because he has significantly rebalanced the colors to which his fans had become accustomed. Still, it’s marvelous to watch “Happy Together” (1997) again with a much sharper picture than you remember from a no-frills DVD transfer circa 1998.
This classic Kar-wai romance opens with the unrestrained passion from two lovers, Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung), and immediately showcases unrestrained verve from the director, who switches freely between black and white and color photography. Only the early films of Jean-Luc Godard are an adequate analog to the ecstatic energy Kar-wai brings here.
Hong Kong natives, the two men move to the opposite point on the globe, Argentina, and try to survive as a couple (and as immigrants). Despite Fai’s constant disapproval, the more mercurial Po-Wing always charms his way back into his lover’s good graces by suggesting, “Let’s start over.”
The talisman of the film is a chintzy but captivating lamp that features the Argentine landmark Iguazu Falls — the men want to visit this sacred place but end up going in circles.
Fai labors through the night as a tout at a tango bar, often finishing a pint bottle of booze by dawn. He returns to his bare bones apartment to wait on the even-later arriving Po-Wing, who makes money in what we suspect is sex work. “Happy Together” offers Kar-wai’s uniquely languorous shots of home life, in which men sit about in their underwear and dream. While in constant conflict with each other, Fai and Po-Wing are also isolated by language from their neighbors — the most memorable sentence spoken by a native is the pizza delivery guy, who exhorts Fai to “Find me a Chinese girl with big tits.”
Po-Wing refuses to help Fai with household chores, but he does teach him how to tango. Their dance amid the crumbling wreck of the apartment kitchen is rapturous moment of bonding that lingers long after Po-Wing leaves Fai again in that most classical manner — going out for a pack of smokes.
In order to avoid running into Po-Wing’s old paramours, Fai leaves the bar and starts a job in a cramped restaurant kitchen where he bonds with a Taiwanese dreamer named Chang (Chen Chang), who’s on his own lonely journey through South America. Chang kindly records Fai’s troubles on mini-cassette and takes them to the end of the world (a lighthouse in Ushuaia that looks out to Antarctica) to disperse them in the wind.
Fai wants to return to Hong Kong — Kar-wai’s characters are always coming home — so he gets a chilly side-hustle as a meat packer. The red puddles of beef blood mix in our minds with the vat of sweet and sour sauce he preps at the restaurant. The film is about gay love but also defies expectations of an expat romance. The protagonists are filled with lush love-hate such that Fai hides Po-Wing’s passport and won’t return it. After all, “Happy Together” does not refer to storybook endings for the characters in the film — it refers to a song by The Turtles.
This film benefits from Kar-wai’s legendary collaborations with two men at the height of their powers: cinematographer Christopher Doyle and actor Tony Leung. This triumvirate has created an entire universe of film, a ravishing aesthetic that will captivate as long as the Iguazu Falls continue to pound.