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Happy Together
(Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit)
China - 1997
Directed by Wong Kar-wai

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998


Wong Kar-wai makes your head spin, he really does. Happy Together is a riot and a feast of pure cinema, a sprint through the lands of photography, editing and silvered celluloid. A distant relation to Oliver Stone, by intent considerably more disciplined and controlled, Kar-wai is a blast of oxygen into the stale air of mainstream film. His direction is akin to a mixed-media collage, whereby an artist unites diverse elements by direct juxtaposition. Kar-wai seems to have chopped his developed rushes into pieces, taping them back together in random fashion. The film leaps in time and position, breathlessly jamming frames together, forcing pieces into unintended holes. Yet like chaos theory, there is an overall pattern, a trend partially discerned as the film ripples past.

These mingled upsets occur within the foreign landscape of Argentina, a place where Hong Kong nationals can escape their past. Newly arrived, gay couple Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) decide to visit the fabled Iguazu falls. Unfortunately when their wreck of a car breaks down, they break-up. In Buenos Aires anyone can get a job; Lai ends up working in a Tango bar, pulling customers right off the street. Ho takes the easier path of hustling, attaching himself to a well-heeled American tourist. Neither is exactly overjoyed by their predicament but for now they're both too poor to make the journey home. Of course, given the parameters of their elastic, semi-permanent bond, their paths cross.

Truly Kar-wai is a master of his chosen format, technically deft he moulds the film into remarkable shapes. Yet his particular genius extends beyond the mere understanding of how to manipulate camera and stock; Kar-wai massages the medium itself, turning it into a vehicle for emotion. Each element, whether fade, slow motion or filter, is intended to communicate a specific feeling, divorced from the actors and their lines. In this way Happy Together works on two separate channels; the cast act and interact on one level, the film itself transmits on another. From the first we receive reality as the characters wish it to be seen, while the second gives us the unvarnished truth. It's only in the eyes and mind of the audience that these two streams merge and intermingle, creating a glorious montage, a sensual barrage.

Cast into this turbulent sea, Wai and Cheung are forever in danger of being swamped by Christopher Doyle's outstanding photography. A punishing blend of exaggerated, saturated colours cut against washed out black and white, Doyle's treatment of Happy Together is genuinely exhausting. Yet, when edited by William Chang and Ming Lam Wong, the movie transcends most functional uses of film stock (as a mass-transport system for images) and leaps right into another dimension. Doyle's handheld, close-up photography is intimate and personal, taking us into the core love-hate relationship. Lai and Ho, stranded in this South American unknown, have no one but each other; yet Happy Together isn't about location, it's about dislocation -- from self, birthplace and love.

That said, as light as the story is on narration, Wai and Cheung impress. They take the loosely bound script and distil one over-arching theme, the issue of control. This shifting balance, echoed in a rough anal sex-scene at the film's beginning, dominates their shared moments. We learn that Ho has always made Lai start over, governing the pace of reconciliation, then Lai gains authority via accident. In this, as elsewhere, the central pair convince, jointly weaving a history of tender moments and sunburn rejection. For local viewers, this battle of identity can perhaps be taken as a metaphor for the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland; as individuals struggle with emotions seemingly bigger than themselves, so Kar-wai's home is dwarfed by its Communist neighbour.

Central to Happy Together is the way in which Kar-wai fractures scenes, rarely presenting the whole story. All we get are bits and pieces, snapshots so tightly clipped that the standards of introduction and resolution are often torn away. Such harsh truncation makes one uneasy, pushing us off-balance, never sure if we've grasped Kar-wai's layered meanings. This is why a second viewing is so important, just to get used to the driving at a hundred miles per hour pace. Unfortunately even then Happy Together remains loose and wayward, almost to the extent of losing the plot. The myriad parts don't quite sum to produce something greater, instead they nudge against one another awkwardly. Yet Doyle's camerawork is fluid and jagged, like the Arctic Ocean, while Kar-wai's language is sophisticated; enough to make this intense experience worth seeking.

Runtime:  97 minutes

Note:  Wong Kar-wai was nominated for a Golden Palm award and won the Best Director award from the Cannes Film Festival (1997) for directing Happy Together, which also received numerous awards from the Hong Kong International Film Festival (1998).

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