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Happy Together
Into the Night: Leslie Cheung (left) and Tony Leung play gay lovers with romantic insomnia in 'Happy Together.'

Lovers are 'Happy Together' at 3am

By Richard von Busack

IN BUENOS AIRES, the setting for Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, a pair of gay expatriate men from Hong Kong quarrel, break up, make up and go their separate ways. There is no sense of the beginning of the affair, only of its inevitable end. The menial jobs and the flea-bag apartments they share and their own isolation as gay Chinese men in Argentina add to the sense that these are the only two men in the world for each other. Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing) sinks the lowest of the two, turning tricks with men who beat him up; Lai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) somehow keeps his head above water as an unhappy doorman at a tango bar and as a nightman at a slaughterhouse. It's a melodramatic plot, but the mood is cool and detached; the disordered array of the scenes keeps the story remote. You watch Happy Together dispassionately, as if it were filtered through another movie-viewer's eyes.

Kar-Wai is the Paul Auster of Hong Kong cinema: a sometimes flowery urban romanticist adored for ephemeral work. Fans of Kar-Wai usually mention that he's escaped the crass action milieu of Hong Kong (and subverted big stars like Leung and Cheung) and praise Kar-Wai's use of the story-shuffling techniques of Jean-Luc Godard. Isn't praising a Chinese director for being more like Godard than, say, Tsui Hark, a form of highbrow colonialism? Others single Kar-Wai out for having made the first movie about gay Asian men. But Hong Kong cinema is suffused with gender bending, although Kar-Wai has at least stripped away the coyness and disguise that gay characters assume in Hong Kong movies.

Kar-Wai's strength is that he's a real nighthawk. His films have a halo of blue-white fluorescent light. The director's fragmented, romantic stories seem more substantial because of their atmosphere. Kar-Wai lingers over streetlights on wet pavements, just as he shows a sleepless, three-in-the morning fetishizing of objects discarded by the lost lover: a can of pineapple in Chungking Express, a tacky souvenir lamp in Happy Together. No romantic has to be reminded of the importance of tobacco to film love stories, and Wong Kar-Wai makes movies in which the people who smoke look like they mean it. (It's such an obvious pose when a health-conscious Yankee actor lights up.)

His nocturnes are truly beautiful, but I get bored by his deliberate repetitions, such as the stuntlike use of nearly a dozen reprises of "California Dreaming" that almost set me to shrieking in Chungking Express. The next time Kar-Wai strips down story, dialogue and character, I wish that he would strip down length as well. Unlike Godard, who was trying to squeeze footnotes, satires and puzzles into his romances, Kar-Wai is mum about everything but doomed love. At an hour and half, you've heard all the director has to say on the given subject, and you've heard it thrice.

Happy Together (Unrated; 97 min.), directed and written by Wong Kar-Wai, photographed by Christopher Doyle and starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing.

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From the Nov. 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro.

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