Cheung Gwong Tsa Sit

(Happy Together, Hong Kong - 1997)

by Vanes Naldi
6/25/05 (Vanes 7/01)

Cast: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Leslie Cheung, Chen Chang
Genre: Drama
Director: Kar Wai Wong
Screenplay: Kar Wai Wong
Cinematography: Chris Doyle
Composer: Danny Chung
Runtime: 96 minutes

The funniest thing about this film is not the fact the title smartly plays on the main character's relationship. It's that ironically Tony Leung, the "Tom Cruise" of Hong Kong cinema who achieved success with roles like Hard Boiled where he plays the cocky, pretty boy character like Cruise does (or used to do), gives his best performance of all time as a low-key, romantic gay lover. The same could be said for Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine), who plays the parasite partner of Leung in a great way. Both actors deserved acclaim for their performances here, Cheung and especially Leung give Oscar performances, but there's ZERO chance anybody voting for the Academy Awards will either watch or care about this film. However, the Cannes festival, more receptive to good filmmaking even if non conventional, granted director Wong Kar-Wai the Palm D'Or for Best Director, for his most different project to date.

If you look at Kar-Wai's films, they usually are devoid of too much narrative, and strong on images, looks and locations. While Happy Together still respects that formula, this is the most "linear" of Kar-Wai's films to date, it delves into one of Hong Kong's "hot" genres, the gay movie, but in a way that totally redefines the genre: there are no cliches here. Okay, one of the first scenes has the main characters have sex after a fight, but there's no attempt to picture homosexuality as a different or socially problematic condition, there's no condescending to the characters or the audience for cheap giggles and Wong resuses to establish the dominant/subordinate relationship like in most Hollywood gay films. There's also no over the top dramaticism for the smallest little things. Leung and Cheung are as masculine as they come, or at least far more masculine than 99% of Hollywood's "straight" guys. They just they happen to be gay. The fact the story might be used for any other romantic drama with "straight" character just emphasized the fact Kar-Wai doesn't want to picture being gay as being different or particular to generate attention. Some people criticized Wong for the film's outline before watching the film, and now I hope they have realized the big mistake they made.

The story is about two Hong Kong lovers, Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung). Their relationship is so tormented they decided to move to Buenos Aires, begin life there as a "fresh start" (a recurring theme in the film) and try to re-establish their relationship. While Ho is almost a parasite, doing nothing all day, being overbearingly annoying and impulsive, Lai is a romantic lover, who can't cut the ties of their relationship because he still feels strongly about him. He can't free himself of his feeling, can't heal his love, so he's constantly depressed. He tries to forget about his constant fighting with his partner working for a tango bar. One night, Ho storms in a start giving a "warm welcome" to one of the clients, in front of Lai. He eventually comes home beat up to the point he has to stay bedridden for days. Lai can't deal with it anymore, he can't allow himself to waste his life with this parasite, but he still loves him. Lai changes work, tries to see Ho as less as possible, try to forget him.

Finally, something changes for Lai: working at a restaurant, he meets Taiwanese Chang (Chen Chang), and while Chang doesn't ask Lai the "question" nor he's aware of his "peculiarity", they develop a nice, honest friendship. He's got a particular ability - he had problems with his eyes in his childhood so he developed his hearing, while his eye problems stabilized with growth. He's able to hear people talking far away, and is far more interested in hearing than seeing (he says you can see better with your ears than your eyes). In one of the most touching scenes of the film, Chang gives Lai a walkman to him, to record a few words as a souvenir (beautifully portraying Chang's particular ability. He doesn't like photos, but Lai's voice will remain with him forever). He promises to take Lai's sadness to the end of the world ("La Terra Del Fuego" in Argentina) and always remember him. Lai, putting the walkman near is face, starts thinking about his life, and breaks down crying.

Tony finally realizes his long life dream of seeing the Iguazu Falls in person, and then comes back home to Hong Kong, only he stops a moment to Taipei to see Chang's parents. He understands there why Chang was so calm, so gentle, so different from Ho. His positive roots belong to the way he was grown by his family. He steals a photo of Chang he sent them, and finally goes home.

This is more a film about leaving home, living alone, depressed by love lost, by the fact you can't heal the wounds generated by a bad relationship, that it comes back to haunt you. The only time Lai and Ho really felt happy together like the title suggest is when Ho was suffering after being beat up, and couldn't continue to berate Lai with his egoism and annoying presence. Still, Lai continued to love him, and he grew a feeling for Chang, he didn't know if it was love, or the deepest friendship. Most of all, WE didn't know, and here enters Wong Kar-Wai's masterful job, because the non conventional way the plot develops, it doesn't show everything that happens, it only hints, and lets us decide if something happened or not. We really don't find out if Chang was straight or not, we really don't know if he loved Lai, or if it was only a great friendship. The great feeling we get is from the images, the ambience, not the plot.

Master of alternative cinematography Chris Doyle surpasses his incredible work in Fallen Angels, delivering one of the most amazing works of art and images put together. His use of the black and white, moody and underlying the relationship between Ho and Lai, slowly "heals" and like Lai's attempt to stray himself for such a painful experience turns into warm greens, reds and blues, warm like the feeling Lai gets spending time with Chang. Argentina might as well be Hong Kong here, for the way Doyle films it. There's a sense of isolation given by the "limited" ambient we see, the same isolation the two feel, in a word were they don't belong. There's, as always, Doyle's use of fast cuts, different filters and speed manipulation. It's a great way to convey the feeling of the characters, more so than every sort of dialogue.

The film wouldn't reach its potential without the great acting by the leads, Cheung and Leung. Tony Leung gives his best performance to date, totally differentiating himself from the roles he played in his past, and delivering a great sense of desperation. Cheung is also excellent, as the bitchy and overbearing Ho, who keeps trying to redeem himself and have a "fresh start" with Lai. There's also a nice performance by Chen Chang, as Lai's particular friend.

What the film lacks in conventional plot, it compensates with looks and images. We understand what is going on from the environment. We don't need any background on their past, how they got together, their characters, because everything is supplied by the images. Wong Kar-Wai treats such a "risky" argument with great realism, without ruining with stupid cliches without over dramaticizing the aspect of their relationship to make it seem more painful just because they're "different". It might as well be a straight couple, but what matters is love, what it does to people, how people try to live without it or after it. One of Wong's most touching and powerful films to date, and the best after Ashes of Time.



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