“Turns out lonely people are all the same”
Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong romance film Happy Together (1997) stores most of its meaning in its title. The English translation was inspired by The Turtles’ 1967 song of the same name, which was then covered by Danny Chung on the film’s soundtrack. The Chinese title (春光乍洩 ) can be interpreted in two ways; either as an idiomatic expression that alludes to “spring sunshine emerging to bring the world alive”, or a glimpse of something intimate, such as one’s underwear. In this case, both explanations seem apt. Happy Together is also one of the films in the New Queer Cinema movement.
Carried away to Buenos Aires by the turbulent current of their on-again off-again relationship, Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) find themselves battling the same exhausting forces that always put an end to their bliss. Stuck in Argentina with no money to get back to Hong Kong, the two succumb to the grime and poverty of the city, coming together whenever their separate paths turn out to be dead-end streets. But as the two try to control the passion that seems so volatile that it is almost insurmountable, it becomes clear that in order to break free, one of them will have to be left behind.
The words “let’s start over”, meant to instil joyful hope, symbolise anything but new beginnings. Their echo freezes Lai Yiu-Fai in a state of horror every time he hears them. After all, he is well-aware of the torment and agony that he will have to endure before he hears them again.
The words also allude to the magnetic pull between the two doomed men, and the tantalising flow of emotion that leaves them haggard and broken. The entire plot is, oddly enough, embedded in the kind of emotional displacement that completely erases the issue of gender, becoming quite asexual as a result. Instead, we are faced with two human beings cowering from the scowl of loneliness.
Every aspect of the film adds to the dream-like impression it makes on the audience. The rough, hand-held camera is aware of its amateur sway, alluding to the presence of a third-person and heightening the intimacy between the two men. The grainy screen is either doused in saturated colour, or stripped so raw that it reverts back to its black and white roots. There is no light when your love is not by your side, it would seem. Moments of harrowing self-reflection are irritated further by sleepy tango music, teasing the union of bodies the two men once cherished.
And against the backdrop of Christopher Doyle’s sensual cinematography, a rollercoaster of emotion steals us away. The film presents a perverse need we all share – the urge to seduce and repel, then do it all over again. This cycle of self-destruction illustrates the deceitful nature of passion, the portrayal of which is rarely attempted in film, as no one has ever reached its true depth. By removing the two protagonists from the rest of the world, the silent sacrifices they make for each other are brought to the surface, only to be dissolved again when possessiveness rears its ugly head.
The poverty they trudge through reflects the deterioration within, forcing the film to surrender to the kind of rawness that makes every fleeting emotion on the men’s faces echo hollowly in our minds. Most importantly, however, the coarse exterior of Happy Together never once tries to seduce the audience.
The film thrives on the brutally minimalist existence it shackles its protagonists to. It bristles in the face of the ugliness we are used to overlooking. You will find no romanticism in this portrayal of the inner-workings of the heart. As it turns out, joy and despair are only a breath apart.
Amazon, Criterion Channel