Happy Together (1997) // Wong Kar-wai

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.

Apparently, Wong had already toned down the craziness of his and Doyle’s cinematography in this film. That obviously means I need to stalk his previous films to bask in even crazier stuff.
That lighting, what the actual h*ck.

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.

*loud weeping*

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.

Say something, they said. It’ll be fun, they said.

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.

*cue “awwww” sounds*

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.

Paradi$e botch

The White Rabbit Gallery’s (aka the nation’s best white-people run gallery of contemporary Chinese art) Sep ’15-Jan ’16’s edgily named Paradi$e Bitch exhibition sounded like a promise to spill some “sik truths” about the shallow acquisitiveness of societies East and West, whilst simultaneously anointing its attendees with exorbitant degrees of culture and coolness in its paradisiacal womb.

It was kind of subpar, actually. Certainly not a paradise. Perhaps Purgator¥ Bitch might have been a slightly more apt moniker in light of its mediocrity; what’s more, it even has the yuan sign which is certainly a more accurate reflection of Chinese materialism.

The collection proved to be meagre and largely forgettable. That is not to say that it wasn’t without highlights. The best was a monumental sculpture located on the ground floor of the Parthenon Marbles with headless, upside-down Buddhist monks superimposed onto the equally headless necks of the chiton-clad maidens.

The good sculpture. Can’t credit because I have no idea who did it, but whoever it was, kudos to you.

This piece was particularly evocative and also strangely beautiful. It has a lot to say about uncomfortable cultural exchange, whether it be the East-West clash which has left Eastern culture strangely bereft (the monks are upside-down, disoriented in this cultural clash), or the subtle commentary on “stealing” culture (as the British Musuem “stole” the Parthenon Marbles from Athens, the West has similarly appropriated aspects of Asian culture as curios).

Another work which I liked, Li Hui’s The Cage, was interactive; it was situated in this dark room with a “cage” constructed of lasers. The curious thing was that the artist actually predicted how people would feel towards the penetrable cage in their statement, which shows a rare instance of actual thought being put into one’s work in this exhibition. In essence, the concept was about intangible barriers and, though easily overcome, we often choose to trap ourselves in them (which was how we acted initially when presented with the light-cage).

Li Hui’s the Cage, aka the lightsabre duel room when you bounce light off your phone and at your friends.

And besides those two, I found all the other artworks either vaguely amusing or incredibly irritating.

Vaguely amusing prizes go to the six videos by Bu Hua and the abandoned nightclub thing, mostly because other people I knew liked them but I felt mostly impatient during the videos and the nightclub took up a lot of space to say very little.

But since vague amusement, and even mild irritation really, is less fun than INCREDIBLE IRRITATION!, I am compelled to move on to entertainingly pour scorn over the works with which I was most displeased.

One essentially featured this traditional Chinese rendering of a young girl. It was a video, and in the video, she basically just stripped off all her clothes, over and over again, in a tiresome and sickening loop of stripping. The artist statement blathered on a bit about how Taiwanese movies used to be censored or something – bullshit. Even if you really felt the need to do a work about the predicament of the Taiwanese porn industry in 1918, it is hardly an acceptable excuse to create your own personal stripper over whom to slobber – one, not to mention, who looks barely out of prepubescence. And, O Tired Trope of Tired Tropes, sporting a demure smile on her blushing, virginal face. Oh, I do love me some clichéd submissive Asian chicks. Hooray for yellow fever.

Really, we’ve all seen men justify their boob obsession as high art because hey! it’s goddess boobs, which is ok, because the ancient Greeks didn’t wear clothes; honestly, it’s a bit of an old trick by now. We’re all a bit tired of it. Stop fetishising women in your art and pretending that it’s about history.

The other one which itched my nerves was, in fact, the eponymous piece. It was a music video featuring the dude below the next paragraph and his twin (or maybe it’s actually also himself, can’t be sure) panting over the legs of this shorts-clad girl.

His concept statement pretty much said that he liked to “have fun” and “be outrageous”. Such creativity and originality is nothing but astounding.

 

“I lyk 2 b w1ld!!!!!!!!!11!!1!!!!!!111111!1!111 3 misunderstood by society”

 

Aside from the rampant male gaze/female objectification of this work and eye-rollingly insipid statement, there was also the general issue of cultural appropriation with his “fun” tattoos of Hindu symbols. Now, I am generally one to be all for cultural exchange and tend to avoid “cultural appropriation” accusations, but the appropriation of sacred symbols for the sake of rather shit and meaningless “art”about “having fun” is kind of not on.

By all means, you could say that his concept aim of “being outrageous” has been fulfilled through me, but I suggest I am not quite the outrageous he wants me to be. He wants me to be outraged at his open sexuality and weird dancing and the fact that he is calling a rap video art. But by that, I’m not outraged. In fact, it’s a bit, y’know, run-of-the-mill in the art world. I’m just generally displeased at his blinding lack of creativity and taste.

I think my intense dissatisfaction with Paradi$e Bitch also stems from the sheer brilliance of its predecessor, State of Play. From the oddly solemn BDSM spires, to the tragic, heartwrenching photographic series of Chinese transgender sex workers, to the whimsical-yet-oddly-profound David music video about the commercialisation and subsequent trivialisation of art, the intensity offered by State of Play simply was not matched by Paradi$e. And backlit by the brilliance of the previous exhibition, perhaps Paradi$e was merely silhouetted into mediocrity.

Maurice // E.M. Forster

To kick off my musings on literature, I’m going to start with E.M. Forster’s posthumous 1971 novel, Maurice. Just before I do that, I’d like to make a quick, one-off disclaimer: although I’m going to be majoring in English and most likely would’ve read some academic articles on the works I will discuss, I’m not (yet) a qualified literary academic, so please refrain from using me as a legitimate source as these posts will mostly centre on my personal impressions and interpretations.

With that out of the way, let’s jump into the fun bits.

Completed in 1914 and dedicated to an unspecified “Happier Year”, this novel is bound inescapably with Forster’s bittersweet optimism. Maurice presents the very average Maurice Hall and, specifically, how he comes to terms with the one non-average aspect of his life: his attraction to men. Middle-class, moustachioed, and a bit slow on the uptake (Forster was trying to create his anti-self), Maurice navigates what it is to be gay in pre-war England (illegal, for one) as he becomes romantically involved with – first – Clive Durham, an intellectual philhellene at Cambridge, and – then – Alec Scudder, Clive’s gamekeeper.

Perhaps the most striking element of Maurice is how explicitly it deals with sexuality. That is not to say that Forster is pornographic (after all, the erotic climax of the novel is summed bosom-clutchingly thus: “…and touched him.”), but he certainly does not shy from discussing it. From Mr Ducie’s ludicrously earnest Sex Talk with the fourteen-year-old Maurice (complete with stick-drawn diagrams in the sand), to his teenage sexual awakening and “solitary indecencies”, to his acknowledgement of his sexual orientation in university, to his self-loathing as he is faced with loneliness, to his physical relationship with Alec (“I have shared with Alec… All I have. Which includes my body.”), Forster’s frankness – in both his subject matter and language – is both refreshing and revealing.

In Maurice, Forster – who was himself gay – wages war against his repressed motherland, which has “always been disinclined to accept human nature”, with the choice weapon of sexuality. Maurice is a “warrior”, he embarks on “battles” and “campaigns” for his love, he “defies” society, he exercises “brutality” and “power”; Maurice is a fight for recognition, for acceptance of same-sex love. Against the power of open sexuality, civilised England cannot bring itself to do more than disapprove. The final chapter is particularly emblematic of this, as Maurice seeks out his turned-straight ex-lover Clive and informs him that he and Alec had sex in his spare room. Clive is horrified (because Alec is a. male and b. working-class, what an arsehole), he wants to “smite the monster [Maurice]”, but being “civilised”, he only wants it “feebly”. It is in the feebleness of civilised England that Forster places his bittersweet optimism; bittersweet as, though England’s acquiescence to his cause is inevitable because of her weakness, it will be long before acquiescence arrives.

Unclothed cuddles from the 1987 film. Honestly, it’s kind of more horrifying that they made Maurice blond.

Yet Forster engages with eros not only in its carnal manifestation, but also with its oft-neglected divine, platonic facet. Plato-fanboy Clive was particularly obsessed with eros in this form, refusing to consummate his and Maurice’s relationship over its three-year course; he reasserts in the final chapter that any relationship between men must remain “purely platonic”. Maurice in turn makes constant references to feeling platonic love for Clive, with some one-soul-inhabiting-two-bodies stuff, as well as the two-imperfect-halves-make-perfect-whole kind of thing.

In comparison, Maurice and Alec’s relationship seems much more carnal. They barely know each other when they first have sex (indeed, Maurice has to ask for Alec’s Christian name afterwards), and then later on, when Maurice has a crisis of gay and refuses to acknowledge Alec’s messages, Alec blackmails him (for what? We’re not sure) – or at least pretends to. Either way, none of the initial moments of their relationship seem particularly platonic. Forster is no Greek philosopher; he advocates for both vulgar and divine eros, as opposed to a focus on just the divine. However, It’s as if Clive and Alec each represent one facet of eros, and Maurice is not quite able to reconcile the two halves into one whole (extended reference to the Symposium unintended).

 

I admit that I’m just putting this here because: awwwww.

Yet Maurice need not wait for Boyfriend #3 to fulfil eros for him, as Forster carefully plants the potential for platonic love to grow between him and Alec. They fall in love after conversing and wandering around London. Now, I suspect that “falling in love” in the Forster era (cf A Room with a View) is less of a big deal than we of the millennial generation make it out to be today. Nonetheless, he at the very least establishes feelings of mutual affection between them, an inkling of non-physical eros. They symbolically “marry” when Maurice conceals his identity by taking Alec’s name. Most significantly, both of them leave their relatively comfortable lives, their flourishing careers and the safe haven of family, to elope into the “greenwood” where they “shan’t be parted no more”.

How does this, then, establish Alec as the fulfilment of eros for Maurice? In order to see, we must observe how Alec penetrates (ha ha) the novel. His initial appearances are insignificant flitters in the background of Penge (Clive’s ancestral estate, where he works) during Maurice’s visit; Maurice feels temporary distaste at the unnamed gamekeeper’s casual flirtations with two girls. Maurice has brief, incidental encounters with him attending his duties as Scudder. After they have sex, an almost incidental affair, Alec becomes pervasive; ultimately, he becomes inextricable from the narrative. Similarly, he balloons in Maurice’s life until Maurice simply cannot exist without him. Is that not, then, both parts of eros complete? Vulgar eros is a given, but when either cannot be without the other, when their unity leads to their mutual completion, surely divine eros is at play.

I return to the idea of the “greenwood” to which they depart. Maurice has, most significantly, a happy ending – something about which Forster was quite adamant, to his credit. It is in fact imperative to Forster’s war against repressive England that they remain together. In solitude, Maurice is weakened by loneliness and unfulfilled desire, but in contrast, “two men can defy the world”. Together, Maurice and Alec embody hope for the young modern homosexual as they pursue a life away from the disapproving eye of English society.

And here, I must revisit Forster’s bittersweet optimism. Together, Maurice and Alec can defy the world, but Forster finds himself living out the rest of his life more or less bereft of such a lifelong companion. Thus, to some degree, they live, love, and defy in lieu of him. There is reason to be optimistic for other same-sex attracted people, but Forster himself will never quite experience that optimism for himself. Ultimately, bittersweet wist polishes Maurice into the determined, yet poignant text I had the utmost pleasure to read.

Resources:

  • E.M. Forster, Maurice (with introduction by David Leavitt)
  • E.M. Forster, Terminal Note [on Maurice]
  • Anne Hartree, Paragraph, vol. 19, “‘A passion that few English minds have admitted’: Homosexuality and Englishness in E.M. Forster’s Maurice