Happy Together (1997 film)
|Cantonese||Ceon1 gwong1 za3 sit4|
|Literally||spring light at first glance|
|Directed by||Wong Kar-wai|
|Written by||Wong Kar-wai|
|Produced by||Wong Kar-wai|
|Music by||Danny Chung|
|Distributed by||Golden Harvest Company|
|Box office||HK$8,600,141 (HK)|
Happy Together (春光乍洩) is a 1997 Hong Kong romantic drama film directed by Wong Kar-wai starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai and depicting their turbulent romance. The English title is inspired by the Turtles' 1967 song, which is covered by Danny Chung on the film's soundtrack; the Chinese title (previously used for Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup) is an idiomatic expression suggesting "the exposure of something intimate".
The film was regarded as one of the best LGBT films in the New Queer Cinema movement and received positive reviews and screened at several film festivals such as the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival; it was nominated for the Palme d'Or and won Best Director at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai are a gay couple from Hong Kong with a tumultuous relationship marked by frequent separations and reconciliations. They travel to Argentina in an attempt to mend their relationship, but break up after they become lost while traveling to visit the Iguazu Falls. Lacking the money to fly home, Lai begins to work as a doorman at a tango bar in Buenos Aires, while Ho begins to prostitute himself. After Ho is severely beaten by a client, Lai allows Ho to live with him in his small rented room. They attempt to resume their relationship, though it is marred by mutual suspicion and jealousy.
Lai begins a new job at a Chinese restaurant where he befriends Chang, a Taiwanese co-worker. Later, Ho and Lai have a final separation after Lai refuses to return Ho's passport. Sometime thereafter, Chang decides to leave Buenos Aires to continue travelling, while Lai visits the Iguazu Falls alone. Having earned enough money to fly home, Lai returns to Hong Kong but has a stopover in Taipei, where he attempts to find Chang. Coincidentally, he ends up eating at a food stall in a night market run by Chang's family. He takes a photo of Chang from the booth, saying that even though he doesn't know if he will ever see Chang again, he knows where to find him.
During its Hong Kong theatrical release, Happy Together made HK$8,600,141 at the box office.
The producers of the film considered censoring the film, specifically the opening sex scene for certain audiences. Posters for the movie featuring the two leads fully clothed with their legs intertwined was banned from public places in Hong Kong and removed all together before the movie's release.
A Hong Kong film review site called it an "elliptical, quicksilver experiment" that is "pure Wong Kar-Wai, which is equal parts longing, regret, and pathetic beauty" and applauding it for its cinematography.
Due to the international recognition that the film received, it was reviewed in several major U.S. publications. Edward Guthmann, of the San Francisco Chronicle, gave the film an ecstatic review, lavishing praise on Wong for his innovative cinematography and directorial approach; whilst naming Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs amongst those who would have been impressed by his film. Stephen Holden, of the New York Times, said it was a more coherent, heartfelt movie than Wong's previous films, without losing the stylism and brashness of his earlier efforts.
Derek Elley for Variety gave an overall positive review despite its lack of plot, calling it Wong's "most linear and mature work for some time". Elley praised the mise-en-scène, music, and William Chang's production design. He emphasized that Christopher Doyle was the "real star" of the film for his grainy and high contrast cinematography. Both Elley and Andrew Thayne for Asian Movie Pulse stated that both Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai excelled as the main characters in the film.
However, Jonathan Rosenbaum gave the film a mixed review in the Chicago Reader. Rosenbaum, in a summary of the film, criticised it for having a vague plotline and chastised Wong's "lurching around". In Box Office Magazine, Wade Major gave the film one of its most negative reviews, saying that it offered "little in the way of stylistic or narrative progress, although it should please his core fans." He deprecated Wong's cinematography, labelling it "random experimentation" and went on to say this was "unbearably tedious" due to the lack of narrative.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 82% based on 38 reviews, with an average rating of 7.30/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Happy Together's strong sense of style complements its slice of life love story, even if the narrative slogs." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 70 out of 100 based on 17 critic reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews."
Awards and nominations
|1997 Cannes Film Festival||Best Director||Wong Kar-wai||Won|
|7th Arizona International Film Festival||Audience Award – Most Popular Foreign Film||Won|
|34th Golden Horse Awards||Best Director||Wong Kar-wai||Nominated|
|Best Actor||Leslie Cheung||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography||Christopher Doyle||Won|
|17th Hong Kong Film Awards||Best Film||Nominated|
|Best Director||Wong Kar-wai||Nominated|
|Best Actor||Tony Leung||Won|
|Best Supporting Actor||Chang Chen||Nominated|
|Best Art Direction||William Chang||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography||Christopher Doyle||Nominated|
|Best Costume and Make-up Design||William Chang||Nominated|
|Best Film Editing||William Chang, Wong Ming-lam||Nominated|
|4th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards||Film of Merit||Won|
|14th Independent Spirit Awards||Best Foreign Film||Nominated|
In 1997, Wong Kar-wai was already well known in the art house Chinese cinema world because of the success of his previous films: Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, and Ashes of Time. However, by winning the Cannes festival award for Best Director for Happy Together, his first major award, Wong was given a spotlight on the international stage.
In this film, Wong Kar-wai moved away from his previous centralization of American and British music, instead, mostly favouring South American music. This transnationalism "decentralizes America" and forms new connections between cultures that are not conventionally linked (Hong Kong and Argentina). The first song of the film, Caetano Veloso's cover of "Cucurrucucú paloma", a sad ballad about a man waiting for his lover to return, plays when the couple breaks up for the first time in the film. Here, the Iguazu Falls are seen for the first time and it is also the first shot of the film that is in colour. The song extends Fai's thoughts, where he is imagining the waterfall, which he associated with Po-Wing. His sadness and lovesickness thereby become apparent in this South American setting.
The Frank Zappa song "Chunga's Revenge" is played throughout the movie "emphasizing [Fai's] difficult relationship with [Po-Wing]." The loud guitar chorus represents Po-Wing's "volatile, flamboyant nature," which contrasts the somber trumpet and slower beat representing Fai's sensitivity and steadiness. This song is also linked to Lai's loneliness and his longing to be "happy together" while showing the difference between the two characters and the increasing emotional distance between them as the film progresses.
Astor Piazzolla's "Prologue (Tango Apasionado)," "Finale (Tango Apasionado)," and "Milonga for Three" and similar bandoneon songs play when the couple is both together and apart, representing their relationship. These songs play during romantic scenes such as the taxi scene and the tango in the kitchen. However, it is also played after Fai and Po-Wing break up for the last time and Po-Wing dances the tango with a random man while thinking about when he danced with Fai. The last time this song is played is when Fai reaches the waterfall and the same shot of the Iguazu Falls at the beginning of the film is seen but this time with the "Finale" song. This "eulogizes that relationship" as Po-Wing breaks down in Fai's old apartment, realizing that he has abandoned their relationship because Fai left behind the lamp while Fai mourns their relationship at the falls. Wong Kar-wai discovered Astor Piazollo's music when he bought his CDs in the Amsterdam airport on his way to Buenos Aires to film this movie.
"Happy Together," the Turtles' song covered by Danny Chung, is the last song to be played in the film, when Fai is on the train in Taipei. This song is used to subvert Western music tropes that use it "to celebrate a budding romance or as an ironic commentary on the lack of such a romance." It also shows that "Lai is at peace with their relationship, making it a crucial narrative device denoting the meaning of the film."
While interpretations vary, Wong Kar-wai has said that:
- "In this film, some audiences will say that the title seems to be very cynical, because it is about two persons living together, and at the end, they are just separate. But to me, happy together can apply to two persons or apply to a person and his past, and I think sometimes when a person is at peace with himself and his past, I think it is the beginning of a relationship which can be happy, and also he can be more open to more possibilities in the future with other people."
Themes and interpretations
Nationality, belonging, and cultural identity
The Handover of Hong Kong
Released in May 1997, intentionally before the handover of Hong Kong from the British to China on 30 June 1997 after 100 years of colonial rule, the film represents the uncertainty of the future felt by Hongkongers at the time. The film's subtitle: "A Story About Reunion" also implies that the film would comment on the handover. The inclusion of the date in the opening and the news broadcast of Deng Xiaoping's death on 20 February 1997 serve to place the audience explicitly in the time period immediately before the Handover of Hong Kong. Some have suggested that the English title of the film is in relation to the uncertainty around if Hong Kong and China would be "happy together" after their reunion.
In one interpretation, Po-Wing and Fai represent two sides of Hong Kong that cannot be reconciled: Po-Wing stays in Buenos Aires without a passport, like Hong Kong Chinese people who don't have a real British passport, representing an "eternal exile and diaspora". Fai, however, is able to see the waterfall and go to Taiwan but it is not shown whether Fai is able to reconcile with his father or not. Since Po-Wing wants his passport, meaning he wants to leave Buenos Aires, both main characters show that they feel uncertain about their place in the diaspora.
A different interpretation stated that Fai, a gay man, represents the social freedoms that Hongkongers possess and the runaway son who travelled to the other side of the world: Buenos Aires in the film and Britain historically. But, this son (Hong Kong and Fai) "must return and reconcile his differences with old-fashioned China," which is represented by Fai's father. Chang here, represents Taiwan, a country with a similar past as Hong Kong with China, who comforts Fai (Hong Kong), showing him that there is hope for the future. This hope is demonstrated through the increasing saturation of the film as Fai's life becomes more and more stable.
Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Buenos Aires
Wong's choice of Buenos Aires is particular because it is the antipode of Hong Kong, meaning it is on the opposite side of the world and in an opposite time. This had been interpreted as a place where Fai and Po-Wing were looking for the opposite of home and Hong Kong. They do not describe this as a political allegory but rather a questioning of cultural identity and the definitions of "home, belonging, and migrancy". Another interpretation viewed the scenes of Hong Kong shot upside down not as a political allegory either, but a way to show how far the characters were from their roots.
Similarly, the theme of displacement from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires interestingly emphasizes their similarities rather than their differences when compared to the shots of Hong Kong in Wong Kar-wai's previous films. Despite being on the other side of the world and far from their "home", the couple experiences the same problems, implying the inevitability of their relationship's deterioration. By emphasizing the similarities between these two places, Wong emphasizes the homelessness and lack of belonging of both Fai and Po-Wing.
Another theme of the film is the sense of confinement and claustrophobia that accompanies the sense of non-belonging of Fai and Po-Wing. This is conveyed through the shaky handheld camera, the small size poor lighting, and dirtiness of Fai's apartment, the kitchen, alleys, the tango bar, the restaurant kitchen, and the public bathroom corridor. This confinement is also manifested through Po-Wing's confinement to Fai's apartment because his injured hands prevent him from taking care of himself. Later, Po-Wing is also confined to Buenos Aires because Fai refuses to return his passport. Yet, the imagery of the Iguazu Falls contrasts the theme of confinement with the symbolic openness of possibility and hope of Po-Wing and Fai's relationship.
One interpretation explained that the lack of a sense of belonging due to a combination of their marginal race, sexuality, and language in Buenos Aires and Hong Kong prevented Po-Wing and Fai from forming a stable relationship. This instability is in part shown through the instability of the camera in some shots, relating to the characters's inability to find their own place in the world. Neither place is welcoming and the couple experiences the same problems in both places.
The marginalization of Fai specifically is demonstrated by the way he visually cannot blend into the crowds and environments in Buenos Aires in comparison to Taipei. It is only in Taipei that Fai smiles, and it is implied that he feels a sense of belonging as he visits the Chang family noodle shop and takes the train. The movie does not definitively show that Fai returns to Hong Kong, making it possible that he stayed in Taipei, where he feels like he belongs and begins to have hope for the future.
The Iguazu Falls and the lamp
The importance of the Iguazu Falls is established early on in the film when it is shown on the lamp that Po-Wing bought for Fai and is said to be the entire reason the couple chose to go to Buenos Aires in the first place. The real waterfall is then shown in Fai's imaginings after the first breakup as the first shot in colour. It is also shot from a bird's-eye view and given unrealistic blue and green coloring, giving it a supernatural visual effect.
One scholar interpreted the representation of the falls as a contemplation on the immensity of mother nature's power and the unpredictable nature of the future since the end of the waterfall is imperceivable. It also evokes a feeling of powerlessness in the face of nature and the future, paralleling the inevitability of the deterioration of Po-Wing and Fai's relationship
Another scholar interpreted the waterfall itself as a symbol of Po-Wing and Fai's relationship because "their passion is indeed torrential, destructive, always pounding away as it falls head forward and spirals downward towards an uncertain end".
The falls are seen throughout the film on the lamp in Fai's apartment, representing the continued hope and investment in his relationship with Po-Wing. However, when Fai finally visits the Iguazu Falls but without Po-Wing, leaving the lamp behind, Po-Wing understands that Fai has finally abandoned their relationship. Both Fai and Po-Wing mourn their relationship by looking at the waterfall, Fai seeing it in reality, and Po-Wing after having fixed the lamp's rotating mechanism.
The queerness of the film is highly contested. On one hand, it is characterized as "one of the best films chronicling gay love ever made" because of the universality of the problems that Fai and Po-Wing face in their relationship that exist in any relationship no matter the gender of the participants. Many scholars and film critics agree that while being gay is not the subject of the film, its portrayal of gay romance is realistic. The film was praised for not casting the characters on gendered lines, questioning their manliness, and showing the complexity of gay men as social beings and individuals.
Wong Kar-wai explained that:
"In fact, I don't like people to see this film as a gay film. It's more like a story about human relationships and somehow the two characters involved are both men. Normally I hate movies with labels like 'gay film,’ 'art film' or 'commercial film.' There is only good film and bad film."
On the other hand, some scholars argue that one of the reasons that Po-Wing and Fai ended up in Buenos Aires is because they are gay and are thus exiled queer men. Jeremy Tambling, an author and critic, noted that the universalization of the gay relationship is not a positive aspect of the film because it erases the specificity of their experiences and the film's theme of marginalization. Furthermore, the film broadly portrays neo-Confucian values of hard work, frugality, and normativity, highlighting its lack of queerness and emphasis of heteronormativity. Fai is rewarded for following these values, as he works constantly, cooks, cares for others, wants to reconcile with his father, and saves his money, while Po-Wing lives in excess through his numerous sexual encounters, spending, lack of traditional work, and flamboyance. At the end of the film, Fai is able to reach his destination, Hong Kong/Taiwan and the Iguazu Falls, while Po-Wing is stuck in Buenos Aires without a passport. Chang also represents these values, as he works hard at the restaurant, saves enough money for his trip to the 'end of the world,' and has a loving family to return to in Taipei. The characters who conform to this normativity are rewarded while others are punished, thus emphasizing a "straight" narrative.
Since its release, Happy Together has been described as the "most acclaimed gay Asian film," remaining in the public conscience.
James Laxton, the cinematographer for the critically acclaimed film Moonlight (2016), explained in a Time article that he was inspired by the colours and lighting of Happy Together and In the Mood for Love (2000) to create a "dream-like sense of reality." More specifically, he cited the scene where Chiron's mother scolds him and pink light emanated from her bedroom as particularly inspired by Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle's work.
At the 2017 Golden Horse Awards, Happy Together was re-screened in celebration of the film's 20th anniversary. The main promotional poster for the award ceremony used a screenshot from the film of the main actors as well as shots of the Iguazu Falls. The film ranked 71st in BBC's 2018 list of the 100 greatest foreign language films voted by 209 film critics from 43 countries around the world.
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