AUDIENCE AND ACTOR, HAPPY TOGETHER
By Bruno George | Under the Rainbow’s Queer Movie Night
STYLE & MOTION
Happy Together sometimes gets an unfair shake. Wong Kar-Wai’s filmmaking style—the sparse dialogue, long takes, and relatively motionless camera—has been compared to “watching paint dry.”[i] This is dead wrong. Even when Wong’s camera is still, something in the frame is in motion, whirling or pulsing or flowing, even if it’s just a saturated color that vibrates; or the swirling vortex of Iguazu Falls or the pulsing novelty lamp; the upside-down Hong Kong of the antipodes or the taillights of Buenos Aires’ nighttime traffic transformed into dazzling, quadriform rays; the lowering black skies or the intense colors of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. And if the dialogue is sparse, it’s often not needed, not when the acting is so expressive, so operatic. Wong keeps his actors in motion in Happy Together, not just in the shots of soccer or sex or tango, and of course in all the scenes of weeping, from Lai Yu-Fai’s (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s) crumpled face to Ho Po-Wing’s (Leslie Cheung’s) full-body sobbing, but this lucid, operatic emoting even shows up in small, throwaway moments like the sequence of discrete expressions on Lai Yu-Fai’s face when he rejects and then accepts Ho Po-Wing’s watch.
Ultimately, the shots are interesting not just because they’re beautiful, but because they mean something; they tell a story. The whole arc of the love story is epitomized in four disparate shots of Yu-Fai’s face seen through the windscreen of a car. Shortly after the film’s start, he appears in a car’s rearview mirror, looking small and beleaguered, separated from Po-Wing. Next, although he has joined Po-Wing in the front seat, the camera focuses first on and then the other, not cutting between them but swinging back and forth, never showing them together in the frame. Then, in the taxi, in a scene of reconciliation, the wounded Po-Wing lays his head on Yu-Fai’s shoulder while the city whirls past in the taxi’s rear window. Near the end of the movie, we see Yu-Fai in the car again, but this time he’s driving to Iguazu alone.
Even without subtitles, you could follow the story through the movie’s two major arcs or axes of visual change. The one axis, illustrated above, goes from two men together to one man, alone. The other axis, illustrated below, goes from two men face-to-face or back-to-front, speaking or dancing or fucking, to two men side by side, unspeaking and apart, gazing ahead into separate futures.
HOW GAY A MOVIE IS IT?
For a movie about two men falling in and out of love, Happy Together may not strike some viewers as very gay; apart from the sex scenes, the film seems to take place in a world that is simultaneously post-gay and pre-Stonewall. The two lovers, Lai Yu-Fai (played by Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) have next to zero social reality as gay men. Few of the scenes take place in gay social spaces, such as gay bars; Yu-Fai isn’t out at work, not even to his close friend, Chang. Po-Wing turns tricks, but he does so in a straight tango bar. The melancholy cruising scenes in the public restroom and the porno theater seem to hail from another era, out of step with the film’s release date of 1997. (Possibly the strangest thing about Happy Togetheris its vision of the world as an all-male homotopia; unless one of the blurry forms on the screen in the porno theater is a woman, the only female characters are a restaurant worker and a middle-aged lodger; their combined screen time can’t be more than three minutes.)
To explain the movie’s gay disconnect, people have pointed to the fact that writer-director Wong Kar-Wai is not gay. But if that disqualified a movie from mattering to LGBTQ people, then Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee and based on a story by Annie Proulx, wouldn’t be the cinematic touchstone it is.
Happy Together’s seeming anachronism has everything to do with its origin in Hong Kong. The film is set in 1995, as we see in the first few minutes of the movie, when Po-Wing’s passport is stamped on arrival in Argentina. In fact, although it’s set in Buenos Aires, Happy Together is in many ways a Hong Kong movie, and it reflects the status of LGBTQ rights in Hong Kong at the time. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, the year of the film’s release, when sovereignty officially reverted to China. Although sex between adult men was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, that didn’t happen in Hong Kong until 1991.[ii] Today, in 2021, same-sex marriages are still not recognized in Hong Kong.
This is the atmosphere in which Leslie Cheung, who was a mostly closeted actor and pop star in a longtime gay relationship, dared to play sexually non-conforming roles in movies in the 1990s, a career move that ultimately contributed to his coming out. In 1993, Cheung played a cross-dressing Peking Opera star in Farewell, My Concubine, a film initially banned in China.[iii] InHappy Together, when Ho Po-Wing makes do with straight bars or when Lai Yu-Fai remains diplomatically silent on the question of the kind of women he likes, the story seems to unfold in 1990s Hong Kong, regardless of the Buenos Aires location.
Although Po-Wing’s repeated come-on to Yu-Fai is “let’s start over,” the story of Happy Together is less about beginning again than about a protracted ending, or series of endings, punctuated by tense periods of détente, such as the failed road trip and Po-Wing’s restless, cruisy convalescence under Yu-Fai’s care. If Po-Wing can’t stop starting over, Yu-Fai has a hard time letting go. By holding onto Po-Wing’s passport, Yu-Fai keeps Po-Wing imprisoned in the former relationship, as though Po-Wing were now the sole participant in the fraught love they once shared. This reversal and isolation can be seen at the film’s end, when Po-Wing tries to re-create their love idyll in Yu-Fai’s old room. He painstakingly restores the novelty waterfall lamp and the oversupply of cigarettes, but without Yu-Fai there, the museum to their love is only a tomb, and when Po-Wing realizes this, he collapses into the most anguished of the film’s several crying scenes.[iv] Yu-Fai, having immured Po-Wing, can now apparently let go.
Despite the fact that Yu-Fai’s bittersweet happiness at the film’s end is purchased at the price of Po-Wing’s lasting sorrow, Yu-Fai’s return to Asia—not to Hong Kong right away, but to a surrogate home in Taipei—is one of the masterpieces of the cinema, both visually and emotionally. His first return is a fantastical, imaginary one. As he ponders the fact that Argentina and Hong Kong are on “the opposite sides of the globe,” Wong shows us Hong Kong upside down and in swooping, gliding motion, in contrast to the static trap Buenos Aires has become for Yu-Fai. After this scene it’s apparent that, for Yu-Fai, putting his topsy-turvy world right means returning to Hong Kong.
The back story of Yu-Fai’s estrangement from his father is one of the film’s weaker elements. For most of the film, the acting is so gloriously, precisely physical that you could almost follow the story with the sound off. In one scene, Po-Wing compares Yu-Fai’s gig as a wrangler of Asian tourists to sex work; at the same time that he verbally mocks Yu-Fai’s sing-song “welcome welcome welcome,” Po-Wing wrenches his hips back and forth in physical illustration of “whoring.” In another sequence, when Po-Wing tries to pass off a trick’s watch as a lover’s gift, Yu-Fai conveys emotion in a series of discrete, explicit, unmistakably legible facial expressions, from scorn to curiosity to grudging acceptance—a style that might be considered overacting in other films. And then—it bears repeating—there’s all that weeping. By contrast, the story of Yu-Fai’s estrangement from his father is conveyed only in dialogue, and so lacks the clarity of these other story elements. Perhaps for this reason, Yu-Fai’s reunion at the end is not with his own family, but with his friend Chang’s family, and not with his home city of Hong Kong but a surrogate home in Taipei, a place where he can once more be a stranger among other strangers.
MAGIC & MUSIC
Yu-Fai’s reunion with the city of Taipei at the end of the movie is so affecting because of two things, the collision of two staple elements of the Wong Kar-Wai cinematic universe: DIY magic and pop music. In Wong Kar-Wai’s movies, characters often express a daffy romanticism through DIY rituals: in Chungking Express, a jilted lover eats can after can of pineapple with the same expiration date, hoping to comprehend the meaning of love’s end; in In the Mood for Love, Mr. Chow extolls the efficacy of telling your secret burdens to a hole in a certain tree; in Chungking Express, an airline steward draws a boarding pass on a paper napkin, a kind of magic totem to bring her lover back to her. It’s the same in Happy Together, whose reparative DIY ritual is Chang’s claim that heartbroken people can leave their sorrows behind in a lighthouse in Tierra del Fuego.
On the level of story, in the world of the characters, this magic is ineffectual whimsy. Cop 633 in Chungking Express could never actually board a plane with a paper napkin. But the for the audience, the magic is effective when the story’s turning points are pegged to these spells. So when Chang stands at the lighthouse on Tierra del Fuego, cinematic magic does what DIY magic spells might not be able to; it changes heartbreak to happiness. The sky lightens and lifts, a glorious blue in opposition to the bleached and lowering sky at the film’s start. There’s no reason for the fictional Yu-Fai’s heartbreak to be assuaged by Chang’s ritual, but it’s easy for Wong’s cinematic language to work its spell on the audience.
In Wong Kar-Wai’s movies, endless repetition of a pop song forms a subset of these reparative DIY rituals. Characters glut themselves on the same song over and over, as if it were an incantation. Most of the time, in most of Wong’s films, these songs are examples of what’s called diegetic music, meaning music that’s heard in the world of the movie. (Diegetic music = music the characters hear; non-diegetic music = a soundtrack only the audience hears.) What Wong’s characters try to do, by playing a song over and over, is something that cineastes do by watching and re-watching favorite movies: the repeated aesthetic experience submerges or surpasses or transforms existence, momentarily, effecting a reconciliation between oneself and the sorrows of the world. It’s a bit of reparative magic.
In the world of Wong Kar-Wai’s stories, the characters themselves usually cast the pop-song spell, as diegetic music. Thus a barmaid in Chungking Express selects reggae crooner Dennis Brown’s “Things in Life” and we watch the needle drop on the 45 in the jukebox; and, in the same movie, an air hostess endlessly re-plays the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’.” The characters themselves attempt this magic.
In Happy Together, most of the repeated songs are non-diegetic. We hear Caetano Veloso’s plangent “Cucurrucucú Paloma” every time Iguazu Falls show up on screen, but Yu-Fai, when he goes there, hears nothing but the roar of the waterfall. At the end of the movie, in another instance of non-diegetic music, Danny Chung’s “Happy Together” plays over sped-up, colorful scenes of crowds in and around the trains of Taipei. The effect of hearing this song for the nth time, over this bright new scenery, is a mood of bittersweet resignation for the audience. Yu-Fai and Po-Wing have had their hearts broken, and so has the audience, vicariously, but we, the audience, also exist in this world, where we can enfold fictional, vicarious heartbreak in a real experience of perceiving an aesthetic totality. (More plainly, our fictional heartbreak is compensated for by the pleasure of watching a movie, which entails not only following the story but taking in the whole thing, sound and color and emotion, and, in olden times, the tender solitude of cinema-going.)
In the scenes on the elevated train at the end Happy Together, Lai Yu-Fai, seated alone in the front car, seems to watch a movie of an Asian city. He really is in an Asian city; he’s in Taipei, a place where he is not necessarily any more of a stranger than anyone else, a city where being Asian no longer automatically means being foreign, as it usually did in Argentina. But at the same time that he’s really there on the train, the way that the scenes are shot make them a cinematic experience, not just for us but for him: behind glass, the bright movie of the nighttime city rushes past Yu-Fai. It’s also a return to the rush and speed and beauty of living in a city that suits you, which is to the say the glorious and slightly numbed feeling of being one atom whirling amid other colliding atoms in a global metropole.
At the end of the movie, Yu-Fai, just like the audience, has an aesthetic experience of the story we too have been watching, the story of love’s dissolution and exile’s end. The bittersweetness of the ending, for the audience, is available to Yu-Fai too now. This merging of the audience’s mood and Yu-Fai’s is achieved in several ways: the train ride becomes a movie experience for Yu-Fai, as the lights blur and streak the way they do at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the camera, positioned at the front of the train like Yu-Fai, offers the audience Yu-Fai’s subjective p.o.v., a relative rarity in movies; and in the film’s penultimate moments we see Yu-Fai wearing earbuds, so that the sweet and sentimental strains of Danny Chung’s “Happy Together” are heard, not just by us in the real world, but also by Yu-Fai in the fictional one.
[i] It’s a judgment that’s made about many of his films, though seldom by anyone whose opinion really counts: https://www.oneguysopinion.com/ashes-of-time-redux-dung-che-sai-duk-redux/; https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/worthy-but-not-deserving-1.75058 ; https://www.google.com/books/edition/Mizoguchi_and_Japan/t93kDwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22wong+kar-wai%22+%22paint+dry%22&pg=PA3&printsec=frontcover;
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_Hong_Kong#History It’s also been suggested that telling a gay story was Wong’s response to the looming handover, the switch from colony of the UK to resorption in China, and the further or ongoing threats to people’s autonomy in the new state.
[iv] This scene has been even harder to watch ever since Leslie Cheung took his own life in 2003. It’s said that he was suffering depression and also feeling the pressure of being a gay celebrity in Hong Kong.