by Jay Seaver
I've known people who shied away from a relationship because they worried about what would happen if they broke up. I've always argued that that's a foolish thing to worry about, but, then, what do I know; "what if they so no" has usually been enough to scare me away. You don't have to share this attitude, though, to agree that Happy Together presents a pretty effective nightmare scenario about getting oneself into a situation from which one cannot readily extract oneself.As the film starts, things are good for Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung). They've started a new life together in Argentina, where they would presumably not be as ostracized for their homosexuality as they were in Hong Kong. Every day is exciting and new, the country is beautiful, and they love being with each other. But fairly soon, when their car breaks down on the way to see what they've been told is a beautiful waterfall, everything they don't like about each other comes into sharp relief. Ho is reckless and irresponsible, Lai is cranky and bitter, and damn it, they've had enough. They break up, and Lai takes a menial job as a tango-club doorman to try and save enough money to go back home. He'd be happy if he never saw Ho again. Not going to be the case, though, as Ho is beaten and the only contact number he has is Lai's, and what's Lai going to do, throw this broken-limbed guy who speaks very little Spanish out into the street? No, that wouldn't be right.
"Escaping a bad relationship is hell."
Even though Lai is effectively caught in three traps - he can't afford the airfare to go home; he's got a demanding former lover sharing his apartment, eating his food, and rather unwelcomely trying to climb back into his bed; and the circumstances under which he left Hong Kong make asking his family for help not an option - the audience is only able to sympathize with him reluctantly. He's short-tempered, snotty, and unpleasantly resentful of the burden Ho represents. And yet, his nature is basically decent, even if his life is filled with enough aggravation to smother it. It takes meeting a young man from Taiwan (Chang Chen), also working his way across Argentina, for his more gregarious side to come out.
There doesn't seem to be much of a nice side to Ho. He's not the bully that Lai can be, at least not overtly. Leslie Cheung plays him as being a natural hustler; a guy who has always been able to charm his way into men's beds so that they would look out for him. That doesn't work out for him so well here; Lai has seen his game before. He comes off as something of a brat, really, and when Lai gives him a taste of what it feels like to be trapped, he doesn't get much of the audience's sympathy - Lai's a jerk for what he does, but it's about time Ho heard the word no. Even after he's been attacked for little more than being gay, any good will from the audience is short lived, as he starts trying to manipulate Lai soon after.
Writer/director Wong Kar-Wai's story is relatively simple and straightforward. The title, obviously, is ironic, as Lai spends most of the movie miserable; even after he meets Chang, he doesn't really cheer up or actually gain happiness; it just reassures him that there are states other than misery. Wong doesn't shy away from making Lai, his narrator and protagonist, unpleasant, but doesn't go so far as to make the audience enjoy his bad fortune. The audience might not actually enjoy his pettiness toward the end, but they'll certainly understand it.
Longtime Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle again handles the cinematography, and, as usual, it's beautiful. The movie is primarily shot in black-and-white, with a few cut-aways in color to the waterfall that Ho and Lai never reach. The look highlights Lai's state of mind, as all the joy and color has been sucked from it. Indeed, within most shots, there isn't even very much contrast between light and dark: Everything in the frame comes out the same muddy grey, which makes the composition technically quite impressive, to prevent objects from seeming to run together. It's a bleak look, but manages that while still being clear.Many people, I imagine, may pass on this movie because they have no interest in a gay relationship movie, especially one that shows its characters sharing a bed, well, actively. That's their call, but the themes of this movie are universal enough that they'll be doing themselves a disservice.
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originally posted: 05/20/05 15:39:18