The Power of Love, Part 3: Happy Together (1997)

Me and you and you and me

No matter how they toss the dice, it had to be

From Happy Together by The Turtles

There is a scene in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) where the lead, a young British-Pakistani man played by Saeed Jaffrey, is shown having sex with his romantic partner, a neo-Nazi played by Daniel Day-Lewis. They are in the back of a run-down laundrette, while his conservative and religious uncle conducts business at the front. The scene, as well as the film as a whole, marked a landmark in independent British film-making as it broke down many barriers. It was also an acclaimed and successful film that initiated the rising careers of Frears and Day-Lewis. Despite the progressive storyline, not many same-sex romantic films followed in its footsteps. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s (my upbringing years), the LGBT community (and later extensions of the term) were marginalised in mainstream movies, mainly due to a strong religious lobby against such forthright portrayals of non-heterosexuality. Gay men were often minor, ultra-camp characters, while lesbians were treated with unflattering and often negative characteristics. Bisexual and transsexual characters were either nowhere to be seen or their sexualities were hidden beyond recognition. Despite some notable exceptions and a rise of New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s (My Own Private Idaho; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) it was a slow ascent to progress.

Another notable exception is Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, a Hong Kong production from 1997. It is a romantic drama that explores the turbulent love affair of two gay men. There is no definitive plot, but rather a straight-forward storyline presented with a trademark artistic flair by acclaimed director Wong Kar-wai (Days of Being Wild; Chungking Express; In the Mood for Love). We meet Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), a Hong Kong couple travelling to Argentina in an apparent attempt to seek out a better life. Although not explicit, the beginning of the film hints that their journey may well be a result of the uncertainty brought on by the nearing handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Indeed, the so-called ‘better life’ is quickly erased as it becomes clear that the two men’s relationship is quite volatile, subsequently descending into abuse and casual violence. A visit to the exquisite Iquazu Falls turns sour as they get lost and have to walk for miles to find help. They go their separate ways and find work in Buenos Aires, but soon meet up again, reconcile, hurt each other and break up again. The story goes on in a ‘rinse and repeat’ direction, but without stranding us in an infinite and boring loop of ‘will they, won’t they’. The combination of Kar-wai’s direction, Christopher Doyle’s delectable cinematography and Cheung and Leung’s committed acting elevates the film to masterpiece status.

I first watched Happy Together many years ago, and the thing that stood out most for an inquisitive, younger version of myself was the unconventional aspect to it all. The cultures of Hong Kong and Argentina (then very much beknown to me) collide in a fantastic and unexpected way. Whereas, to a young, naïve viewer from Ireland, it should come across as flamboyant and exotic, it actually doesn’t. And the reason for that is very much wrapped up in Christopher Doyle’s lavish cinematography. Like in Kar-wai’s later masterpiece, In the Mood for Love, Doyle ensures that the colours are flattened, often dark and shadowy, and the surroundings are often closed in with beautiful wall and floor designs. There is a lot of high art going on, but I still find it accessible. You can grasp meaning amongst the grainy, shadowy corners of the screen, such is Kar-wai’s intent. Everything is neat and subtle, and the attention to detail is incredible.

Now, there is no indication at all that Kar-wai harbours a homophobic sentiment here (I haven’t read any critique in this regard) but Kar-wai is not homosexual so I guess the question could be raised, given that the relationship of the two men is presented as being quite toxic. The thing is, however, that his film offers an empathetic depiction of a queer relationship. The characters are realistically human, and their relationship is never sexualised. Both Cheung and Leung are brilliant in their portrayals of lovers mostly at odds but sometimes in tender harmony. Both have been or were major actors in Hong Kong cinema since the 1980s. Leung gained worldwide fame for In the Mood for Love, Infernal Affairs, Red Cliff and Lust: Caution, but his nonchalance brilliance is best demonstrated in the earlier Chungking Express, City of Sadness and Cyclo. Cheung was a prominent figure in Cantopop in the 1980s and his role in Farewell My Concubine (1993) brought him international recognition in acting. Sadly, Cheung committed suicide in 2003 having been plagued by depression and a constant media critique of his personal life (he was bisexual).

In this film, some audiences will say that the title seems to be very cynical, because it is about two persons living together, and at the end, they are just separate. But to me, happy together can apply to two persons or apply to a person and his past, and I think sometimes when a person is at peace with himself and his past, I think it is the beginning of a relationship which can be happy, and also he can be more open to more possibilities in the future with other people.

Wong Kar-wai on Happy Together

Kar-wai’s statement about the title and meaning of the film is very insightful, and quite inspirational in a way. There is no doubt that Ho and Lai are just awful for each other – their love for one another is by turns deep/meaningful and destructive/devastating. Lai grasps a picture of Ho at the end (by now they have once again gone their separate ways) and whispers that he may not ever see him again but at least he knows where to find him. The sentiment marks the infinite infatuation that both men have for one another, but it also acknowledges that they are just better not being together. In this particular romantic pairing, the power of love is inescapable but detrimental to their well-being. It is indeed a heart-breaker of a movie, but the heartbreak is neatly tempered with pragmatism and hope.

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