Criterion Prediction #95: Happy Together, by Alexander Miller
Title: Happy Together
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Leslie Cheung, Gregory Dayton Shirley Kwan Suk-Yi
Synopsis: Lai and his boyfriend Ho escape from Hong Kong to Argentina but their mercurial and abusive relationship of breakups, reunions, and abuse takes their lives in diverging paths of emotional longing and reflective contemplations of life, love, and nationality.
Critique: Wong Kar-wai is a unique case in that he’s a singular talent whose distinct voice gives shape to emotionally driven narratives and themes. Resolute in his artistry with a broad range of expression Wong’s cinema returns to similar stylistic devices and thematic territory, and yet his body of work always feels fresh and vibrant, familiar at times but never repetitious. Like the films before and after in the director’s career Happy Together is a love story where the subject is such a powerful arbitrator in the characters destinies it’s almost a force of nature, substantiating not just the trajectories of the characters but inspiring the stylistic mechanics.
Wong Kar-wai can launch a project with a loose narrative, shoot the footage and “find” the film in cobbling the material together in editing/post-production. As an artist, he seems to indulge himself at times but these indulgences spurn his woozy visual compositions, boosted by maverick cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Unlike other filmmakers, we want Doyle and Wong to luxuriate in their artistry because the final product feels divorced from the lofty pretensions that we associate with international arthouse.
Here, it feels fair to give equal credit to Christopher Doyle’s camerawork marking the highpoint of a radiant collaboration. Their work together seems to be an intuitive method of expression through an assortment of film speeds, colors and angles. They’re drunk on capturing a cross-processed and incongruent world.
Happy Together is in the tradition of the director’s previous lineage of keepsakes and sentiments that reconcile unrequited love and passion. It plays against the convention of exotic romanticism in making the South American location a snare for Ho and Lai. Given the level of contention between the two, seems their relationship is doomed regardless of their being in Hong Kong, mainland China or Argentina. If this were someone else’s movie, it might be a reach to connect nationality and romance but in the conversation of Wong Kar-wai’s penchant for spurned fate and dispossession, it feels like a natural coupling.
There’s an ethnographic postscript in Happy Together that comes from changing the setting of the narrative from the fixed urban cityscape of Hong Kong to Argentina and Taipei.
Naturally, the director’s adherence to themes of detachment would extend to the anxieties surrounding the handover of Hong Kong to mainland China in 1997. While the more localized apprehensions of the handover would take shape in Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong, and The Longest Summer, Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story – Happy Together, and its magnification of displacement finds Ho (Cheung) Lai (Leung) as strangers in a strange place, but, could their abandonment be an inherent characteristic of a weary crown colony experiencing a seismic change in culture, politics and economy? Now, with the twentieth anniversary of the handover and the protests against President Xi Jinping, the notion of cultural autonomy of Hong Kongers seems all the more relevant. Happy Together is pulsing with political implications that appear to be overshadowed by its bold style.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Criterion hosts Wong Kar-wai’s OOP Chungking Express but, for now, the only available movie is In the Mood for Love. As beautiful and intriguing as the film is, next to his neighboring work it feels so much less exciting than Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels, and of course Happy Together. For the longest time I figured that the titles featured in Kino’s Wong Kar-wai DVD Collection were a part of the Kino camp but rumors of the long OOP Chungking Express coming back and the increased presence of Wong Kar-wai’s movies on Filmstruck give me hope.