It’s quite unique to watch a film whose birth year and place happen to coincide with yours, and I was granted such an opportunity by BFI Flare’s list of Top 10 LGBT Films. Happy Together (春光乍洩), directed by Wong Kar-wai and released in Hong Kong in 1997, clocked in at third place, and I was fascinated at once by the idea of a gay Asian movie.
The first thing one must note about Happy Together is that it is not a happy film. In fact, a vague understanding of the 1967 Turtles song from which it takes the name would make this obvious at once, as the lyrics concern unrequited love. Nor, in fact, is the title a direct translation (春光乍洩 is an idiomatic phrase regarding a scandalously explosive exposure of private affairs).
Happy Together, unlike the song, however, is not about unrequited love – it’s about two men who swirl through an ouroboros of a relationship: a cycle of getting together, brief happiness, mutual abuse, break-up, depression, and getting back together – repeat, repeat. In the film, we witness the final cycle and the circumstances in which the snake’s tail is extracted from its mouth as they part for good. In many ways, the film is about the pain of love and how this can bring to the light one’s uglier side – universal rather than gay-specific concerns.
At the outset, the film is driven by the characters’ desire to visit the Iguazu Falls, inspired by a novelty lamp depicting a photograph of the falls. The lovers, Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) find themselves in Argentina, but are kept from visiting the falls as they get lost on the way and Yiu-fai becomes entangled in a series of small jobs, scraping together enough money to return home to Hong Kong.
The downbeat pensiveness of the film is characterised by Christopher Doyle’s insanely beautiful cinematography. The composition and angles are unbelievably gorgeous, their stillness enforcing a slow, ponderous pace. The first quarter of the film is shot in a gorgeously crisp black-and-white, marking the circumstances of their penultimate break-up.
Lurid yellows and blues flood back in when Yiu-fai and Po-wing reunite for the final time until the end, painting them in glorious Argentinian colour.
Sound acts as the perfect complement to the film’s visuals. Chang, a Taiwanese boy whom Yiu-fai befriends, embodies the film’s aural preoccupations. A prodigious listener, he asserts, “You can ‘see’ better with your ears.” Wong meticulously picks out what he wants his audience to hear, blending languages, voices, silences, the motif of tango music (and background moaning from a gay porn film, thank you Wong). Despite the range of sounds we hear, like the visuals, it’s uncluttered – we’re given adequate space to reflect on each sound, each voice.
I am no expert in Cantonese, a fact of which I ought to be ashamed as it is my maiden tongue, but I was bad enough to actually learn swear words watching it and understood well enough to judge the English subtitles. As befitted the gorgeous cinematography, the English translation was quite poetic, and you had Yiu-fai delivering these moving monologues, like:
Ho Po-Wing always says, “Let’s start over,” and it gets to me every time. We’ve been together for a while and we break up often, but whenever he says, “Let’s start over,” I find myself back with him.
The Cantonese reality, delivered in a somewhat bored monotone, I will assert now was far from being this bloody beautiful. I don’t know if it’s just the Cantonese language or Hong Kong culture or a mix of both or whatever, but Cantonese speaking is not poetic, largely straightforward, avoids overt affection, and is prone to brashness. (In the words of my Philosophy lecturer: “Cantonese is one of those languages that’s impossible to speak quietly.”) The way Po-wing and Yiu-fai spoke fully embodied that, and the English translation couldn’t quite capture that slightly arm’s-length emotion. If anything, the tone of their voices would give more away about their relationship.
Romance, then, absent in word, can only manifest itself in deed. Right before this famous dance scene, they’re grumbling and bantering about how shitty Yiu-fai’s dancing is in the classic Cantonese manner. But then they shut up. And they dance. And when they move in tandem, you can see why they keep drifting back to each other – it is sinuous, coordinated, joyous. It is romantic.
It’s been said that Wong purposely avoided filming in Hong Kong as he felt pressured make a more political film, addressing the Handover of 1997. As a result, Yiu-fai never quite returns to Hong Kong – and if I must criticise this film, I would say that the lack of return makes the film feel somewhat incomplete.
We only see Hong Kong in Yiu-fai’s imagination, a montage of upside-down footage as he realises that Argentina is completely opposite Hong Kong and wonders what it would look like the other way round. As the montage played, a somewhat familiar-looking set of buildings popped on screen:
This, dear reader, is where I grew up! Here it is, and in one of the myriad flats is possibly the infant Jocelin. How pristine it looks here, unmarred by the accumulated grime of the next eighteen years. I can confirm now that the old, laundry-draped building in the foreground no longer exists. The restless pace at which Hong Kong transmutes never ceases to amaze – and at times, frustrate – me.
The film ends with the three characters scattered across the globe, with only a sliver of promise that Yiu-fai will one day meet Chang again. Yiu-fai sees the Iguazu Falls without his former lover and feels a slight pang of regret. It’s a very open ending, with little sense of resolution. On one level, this frustrates the viewer who desires a proper conclusion, but on another, perhaps it’s about possibility: having broken out of his vicious cycle with Po-wing, Yiu-fai’s future is open to his own interpretation as he makes his journey back home, alone.