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World of Wong-kar Wai: Happy Together

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[On November 25th in NYC, Janus Films began presenting a slate of 4K remasters for legendary director Wong Kar-wai’s catalog of films. Set to run for the next few weeks, we at Flixist will be taking a look back at each of these films and explaining what makes them so important to cinema as a whole. Join us as we enter into “The World of Wong Kar-wai.”]

Despite all of the social progress we’ve made in the 23 years since Happy Together was first released, a lot of its themes and its ultimate message still ring pretty true. Following the tale of two gay Chinese men that are living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the allegory of their difficult and destructive relationship as a contrast to the unrest Hong Kong citizens felt about being acquired by the mainland in the late ’90s still holds a lot of water. People in Hong Kong dealt with some horrific police brutality and riots earlier this year because of controversial political decisions, the likes of which wouldn’t be happening if the city was still a free sovereignty.

That isn’t even picking apart how LGBTQ rights have hardly progressed much in the same time frame. It’s incredibly sad that the depressing journey that Lai Yui-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) go through is a story that still happens to LGBTQ people in 2020. There’s certainly more general acceptance, but politicians continuously fight over what rights should be doled out to “non-traditional” folks and there are even recent rulings that have overturned many laws that should be basic human rights.

I think a lot of that just speaks to how universal the story of Happy Together is. Set against the tumultuous period of uncertainty in 1997 that dealt with Hong Kong’s independence, the general story of Happy Together follows the rocky relationship of Fai and Po-Wing as they explore the boundaries of their love and try to make a living as foreigners in an almost alien land. As you can quickly tell, that setup directly mirrors the uneasiness that Hong Kong citizens felt about being handed back over to mainland China, wondering if their current lives would be completely flipped upside down.

The visual allegory makes this abundantly clear, with the plot almost being secondary -and sometimes tertiary- to specific framing of shots and the actions of the main cast. There’s certainly a narrative thread running through each scene, but the point of Happy Together isn’t to see a story play out and get a happy ending. This is meant as more of a character study for how people deal with destructive relationships and overcome the misery in their lives to accept something new.

You can take any aspect of the film and apply it to yourself, that’s how wonderfully Wong wrote everything. It’s not always the most entertaining of films and certainly isn’t what I’d consider Wong’s best work, but it wasn’t hard for me to put myself in Fai and Po-Wing’s shoes and feel as if I was living their lives. My own personal experience working with homeless individuals allowed me to connect with these characters as those deemed “unsightly” by society are often pushed into lives of crime, drugs, and cheap sex just to feel anything.

That’s really the central conflict between Fai and Po-Wing. Fai might be out of the closest and able to accept his sexual identity, but he still has a more conservative outlook on life. Contrast that to Po-Wing, who is more of a maverick and has a sort of “rock-and-roll” attitude. He isn’t above whoring himself out to make money, whereas Fai does a different type of prostituting by selling his soul to work at a menial job. None of this would happen if the two weren’t foreigners in a land that doesn’t accept them, not to mention their homosexuality probably puts them even lower in most people’s minds.

Interestingly, despite being regarded as one of the best LGBTQ films in the “New Queer Cinema” movement of the 90s, Wong himself doesn’t consider Happy Together as a gay film. “I don’t like people to see this film as a gay film,” Wong said to Cineaction Toronto in 1998. “It’s more like a story about human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men. Normally I hate movies with labels like ‘gay film,’ ‘art film’ or ‘commercial film.’ There is only good film and bad film.” Maybe he didn’t fully embrace the label at the time, but there is some truth to his statement.

Happy Together isn’t explicitly about two characters being gay. Much like how real-life LGBTQ people are human beings, both Fai and Po-Wing have character traits beyond their sexuality. That shouldn’t even be a part of my commentary, but so often do films typify gay characters as one-dimensional cutouts that happen to inhabit humanoid bodies. In 1997, it must have been incredibly refreshing to see two gay men live realistic lives, even if their relationship was one of erosion.

Even with that element not as significant anymore, there’s still much to Happy Together that elevates beyond its contemporaries. Wong has a fondness for using color in his films and this film is no exception. Beginning in black and white, the movie progresses through different color saturations in a manner meant to show how Fai is starting to bring balance to his life. By the end, Happy Together has a wide spectrum and looks almost better than real-life.

You also have the most visually stunning moment where Fai comments about how different Hong Kong must look when staring down from Buenos, Aeries. The shot is then flipped vertically to make Hong Kong look as if it’s falling into the sky. Wong didn’t do this as a political commentary but meant it to be a literal representation of how Fai feels so alienated from his homeland while abroad.

Then there’s the title of the film, which takes on an almost ironic quality to it. One thing I didn’t touch on when looking at In the Mood for Love is the original Chinese title, which sort of ties into the thematic element of the film. With Happy Together, the English name comes from a lyric by The Turtles (which is something Wong loves doing for his international names), but the original title of Blowup absolutely foreshadows the dysfunctional relationship Fai and Po-Wing have. Looking deeper, it’s also something of a musing on whether or not Hong Kong would be “happy together” being back with China or possibly “blow up” when things go wrong.

Needless to say, Happy Together still stands up 23 years later as another solid film from Wong. It certainly has pacing issues and doesn’t offer what most viewers would describe as traditional narrative design, but its deep imagery and multi-layered commentary offer a respectable look at life from a different vantage point. Hopefully, as time goes on, we as a society can grow beyond the experience that Fai and Po-Wing have to allow people from all walks of life to live happily together.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.