Happy Together. (15.)
Directed by Wong Kar Wai
Starring Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung and Chang Chen. 97 mins
Straight men are doomed to be sexually thwarted in WKW's world unless they are heartless playboys. In contrast, the same-sex couple in Happy Together is happily banging away in the opening scene, entirely without thwart. That's nice for them you think. But that title is entirely ironic (as well as being completely different from the original which translates as "Spring light at first glance," an idiom meaning a glimpse of something intimate.) Actually, this couple has it much worse than all his thwarted straights, those lovelorn policemen and unsullied hitmen. His fifth film is his first grown-up one, the first to deal with love and relationships with any depth. The pain experienced here goes a little deeper than collecting pineapple tins with synchronised expiration dates.
Escaping from the disapproval of Hong Kong, the film finds the pair of them, Leung and Cheung, in Buenos Aires. Immediately we see that this is a new look for WKW. An early scene has the couple setting out on a trip to Iguazu Falls and Doyle shoots it in black and white. It's all very reminiscent of an early Wim Wenders road movie. The dabbling in black and white gets dropped after around fifteen minutes, but the colour images are much less stylised and tightly composed than in most of his other films. Just as Chungking Express felt like it was trying to refresh and reenergize his filmmaking, shaking off the rigid architecture of Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time, Happy Together is him stretching his legs to get the circulation going again after the languorous Fallen Angels.
It still looks amazing. If you are ever in the area I wouldn't bother with Iguazu Falls: it's never going to look as impressive in real life as it does through Doyle's lenses. There are though lots more handheld shots, it's visually kinetic. However bad their situations, most characters in WKW films have the comfort of knowing that at least there will have the tranquility and certainty of Doyle's camera to fall back on: they are unlikely to be disturbed by anything more than a gentle gliding pan. Here they are frequently being jolted around, to express the uncertainty and desperation of their position.
WKW doesn't do raw. He has an exquisitely crafted barge poll to keep it at arm's length, but Happy Together is as rough as he gets. The pair break up and get back together. They are cruel and callous. They know it can't last but they can't quite bring themselves to an acceptance of this. After Cheung's character Ho Po-Wing gets badly beaten up, he spends a great deal of time convalescing with Lai Yui-Fai (Leung) in his cramped apartment and the film doesn't spare you the claustrophobic grimness of that arrangement.
There's a John Cazale quality to Leslie Cheung's performance which is marvellous in the way he embodies a form of preening patheticness. Tony Leung is also formidable but, though he has his wild side, there is an earnestness to him, a straightness. When the film takes its leave of his story you can easily imagine that within a few years he'll have put this behind him, found a nice girl and gotten married, possibly even happily.
Outside of As Tears Go By, it probably has the most straightforward narrative of any of these films. This time he doesn't use the kind of twee little narrative gimmicks he often falls back on. The only one here is a lampshade featuring a picture of two people standing against the Iguaza Falls that becomes a symbol of the loving ideal they can never live up to.
Review of In The Mood For Love