Not rated, but this movie is a hard-R. It's got some pretty graphic sex stuff coupled with nudity (although, not at the same time...). The language is intense and there's some potential normalizing of domestic violence throughout the movie. Tonally, the movie is pretty dour as well. While technically not rated, I would probably give this an R-rating.
DIRECTOR: Wong Kar-Wai
I didn't know much about Happy Together before watching it. I'm kind of glad that I didn't because sometimes going into a movie completely blind is the way to go. I have to admit, splitting up Fallen Angels from Chungking Express may have burned me out on Wong Kar-Wai a little bit. I can't ever deny that he's a genius, but it is nice to see something a little different from him while still sticking to things that are in his wheelhouse. (How noncommittal was that sentence?) I think I've separated Wong Kar-Wai into two different things --which I'll admit is unfair. He's hopeless romantic imbued with a sense of tragedy Wong Kar-Wai and he's cool gangster Wong Kar Wai. I like the romantic Wong Kar-Wai better.
I know that there's a sense of irony behind the title Happy Together. But I wonder if that ironic ending song is forced. Sure, the song is effective as the film plays out, but there's something very hopeless about the movie as a whole. Maybe it is because the time with Ho Po-Wing just seemed so traumatic that I couldn't grasp the notion that it would work out with Chang at all. That's on me. I'm going to talk about Chang later in this blog, hopefully. But I want to focus on Lai Yiu-Fai's time with Ho Po-Wing. The movie starts with this glorious romantic idea (in almost a literary idea of romantic) of two secret lovers fleeing normality to find the majesty of Argentina. They have seen an image of this waterfall and are inspired to see it in real life. Mind you, this isn't the first thing that Wong Kar-Wai shows us in the movie. The movie starts off with a sex act that is fundamentally selfish. It doesn't have any emotion. It is one man treating the other as if an object. There's no talking or romance in this moment. Not for a second is there smiling or joy. The juxtaposition of Lai Yiu-Fai's narration of trying to find this waterfall implies that there is something there that keeps these two together, but it is going to take some work.
But everything that involves Ho Po-Wing seems toxic as heck. I was going to say that there was no domestic abuse, but they do shove each other and physically dominate each other when angry. But it becomes this toxic relationship that we keep see getting worse and worse. Even when they are "happy together", there's a sense of using Lai Yiu-Fai's hospitality. Po-Wing is with Lai Yiu-Fai not out of genuine love for Lai Yiu-Fai, but simply because he is in self-imposed exile, which has unforeseen consequences. Also, Ho Po-Wing is not simply caustic with Lai Yiu-Fai; he rubs other people the wrong way as well. The fact that his hands get destroyed gives the audience an insight into his character that is possibly more fundamental than showing us the nature of that violence. Wong Kar-Wai loves embracing the smallness of their world.
There's something to that. The idea of Argentina being a sense of "otherness" plays a really strong role in the notion of a relationship with these two characters. There's no scenario where either Lai Yiu-Fai or Ho Po-Wing can pass as Argentinians. When they leave the safety of their really crummy apartment, there's nowhere to really go. It's why that first breakup with Ho Po-Wing doesn't really last very long. The world outside the apartment is death. Whether Argentina represents the world in microcosm has a little bit of merit. Remember, this movie was made in 1997. I'm not saying that gay rights have come as far as we'd like to think that they'd come. But there's a very real chance that, for some, a gay couple could mean death, especially for two people that look different. Two men from Hong Kong would garner a bit of attention in any environment in Argentina. Even the Chinese restaurant warrants caution considering how close Lai Yiu-Fai plays it close to the vest when it comes to his relationship with Ho Po-Wing. There are moments where Argentina comes across as quite progressive. We see other gay men in this story, but we don't get many details about them.
I want to focus on 1997 as a setting for the movie. I mean, it was made in 1997, but Wong Kar-Wai almost goes out of his way to stress that it is 1997. Maybe there's something prophetic about the way that he's making this movie, but it gives the film a sense of timeliness to constantly point out the date through the narrator Lai Yiu-Fai. The film both screams 1997 and seems to be a picture outside of time. 1997 is in this era of Miramax filmmaking that is pushing the line. Independent film is pushing boundaries of topics. Contemporary films would be stuff like Boys Don't Cry, Clerks, and Slacker. Happy Together wants to talk about the homosexual experience in a way that challenges audiences. But it also comes across as extremely lonely. As much as I applaud the film for being timely, because Wong Kar-Wai allows us to identify the themes by ourselves, the audience of 2022 might see the idea of being gay as something violent and toxic. This kind of leads me into the inclusion of Chang into the story, so bear with me as I juggle a lot of these ideas.
The only major characters that are confirmed to be gay in this story are Lai Yiu-Fai and Ho Po-Wing. If you take them to be the example of a gay couple, there's major problems to be had. I mean, the second you think about it, they have to be the only gay couple of the film. If being gay is something to be hidden, then there's no scenario where these two guys can go out and find a healthy relationship outside of just pure sex, which the movie talks about. But then there's the issue of Chang. I have to be honest: I'm really bad at identifying gay characters in stories if it isn't made explicit. For many, many watches, I didn't know the characters from Rope, Strangers on a Train, or Diamonds are Forever were gay. Yeah, I'm really bad at identifying it. But I think that Wong Kar-Wai is playing it both ways in the story and letting me struggle with that issues. We know that Chang talks about girls that he likes and the types of girls that he likes. But his interest in Lai Yiu-Fai recontextualizes a lot of those moments.
The frustration of wondering if Chang is gay is probably the same issue that Lai Yiu-Fai deals with in the story. There's a heavy implication that he is gay, as implied with the notion that Lai Yiu-Fai knows where to find Chang if he wants. But Chang also comes across as this healthy element in the story where nothing seems to bode well for a lonely gay man in Argentina. I'm so quick to throw stones at Lai Yiu-Fai as well. Part of me just wonders why Lai Yiu-Fai doesn't just tell Chang how he feels if he's convinced that Chang is gay, but think about how normal it is to not confess a crush in fears that it might ruin a friendship. When Chang listens to the tape recorder at the End of the World and just hears crying, we get that it is all that Lai Yiu-Fai wants to do, to unburden himself of his feelings. It's tragic, which is odd that the movie ends on such a happy song, placed seemingly ironically.
But there is one more read of that ending. While Chang doesn't end up in Lai Yiu-Fai's life, whether through either cowardice on Lai Yiu-Fai's part or Chang's ignorance coupled with his heterosexuality, it could just be that Chang is most happy with himself. The irony of that being, of course, that there isn't any "Together" in the title Happy Together. Going even further with that read, it could have a "No Place Like Home" feeling. The fact that Lai Yiu-Fai starts smiling when he's back in Hong Kong might be telling about the role of isolation in a part of the world. I don't know if Wong Kar-Wai would be condemning world travel. But I think that he is mad at a world so dependent on capitalism that people feel trapped in a country that they don't find home. It's the idea that Lai Yiu-Fai doesn't feel that sense of aloneness and can be found dealing with normal problems, like people arguing about loitering at a lunch counter. That sense of normality allows him to feel literally "Happy Together."
I stress that I think that tragic love is where Wong Kar-Wai shines. The movie is absolutely gorgeous with its mix of hyper color and monochrome plays against the ups and downs of a relationship on the rocks. While I think some of the ideas might be buried, the film works overall. I tend not to like graphic sex scenes, especially when the characters don't seem to like the sex that is happening. But the movie is gorgeous and works overall.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.