“We can start over”
Like Days of Being Wild (1990) and Chungking Express (1994) before it, Wong Kar-Wai’s 1997 film Happy Together tells of the torment of a dysfunctional relationship in decline.
Focusing on the fractious exchanges of Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung), a gay Chinese couple in Argentina trying to save their failing relationship, Happy Together is something of an ironic title; both men seem to be better off with others – be them close friends or promiscuous strangers. They live together in a tiny apartment in Buenos Aires, with Ho, jobless and severely injured following an apparent fight, reliant on Lai for everything: bathing, cooking, buying cigarettes. This coupled with his destructive personality often becomes too much for Lai, causing friction between the two. But when Lai kicks Ho out and tries to move on, he simply cannot resist Ho’s pleas of “we can start over”, and the cycle starts all over again.
Happy Together is a devastatingly beautiful film, visually and thematically. Wong Kar Wai’s hyper-stylised direction has become a staple of his films, and his use of music is almost unrivalled in contemporary cinema – only Paul Thomas Anderson comes close. But it’s in the richness of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography that this story comes alive. The way in which Doyle allows the colours of Happy Together saturate and burst from the screen works wonderfully, layering the film in claustrophobia and placing the audience uncomfortably close to the couple; during both their intimacy and their violence.
Another trait of Wong Kar-Wai’s films is a lack of narrative drive, and this is certainly apparent in Happy Together. Kar-Wai is far more interested in the visuals than the story, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing like many of his critics suggest; his films aren’t about answering questions, they’re about posing them. With Happy Together, he asks what’s best: staying in a relationship where you love the person but constantly fight, or leaving the person you love behind because you can’t hurt them anymore.
Maybe Happy Together isn’t as ironic a title as I first thought.