Is it just me, or have all of our attention spans been radically
downsized by Hollywood's turn-and-burn movie system? The number
of flicks that get churned out with oh-so-typical plot lines can
dull anyone's senses, but then something like the three-and-a-half
hour epic Titanic comes along to make us all feel better.
Nevertheless, it takes just one artsy foreign film to remind us
of our Americanness. We need snappy dialogue, lotsa action and
plots that begin and end as fast as a one-night stand with the
same sense of (dis)satisfaction such a thing implies. Too often,
films that break the mold leave audiences cranky and feeling that
they didn't quite get off.
Happy Together is one film that inspires such thoughts.
The premise sounds attention-grabbing: Two gay guys from Hong
Kong pack it up and move to Argentina to "start over."
For added tension, the couple doesn't get along that well. Right
from the get-go it's fuck or fight, ball or brawl. The two guys
are either throwing each other out, or getting it on (though there
is only one explicit sex scene at the very beginning of the film).
But amazingly enough, even this becomes almost stultifyingly boring.
For 45 minutes, we watch our characters, Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai,
yell petty imprecations at each other; literally, the level of
discourse is "Fuck you!" and "Get out!" or
"I'm leaving!" One begins to wonder when the film will
come to a close and if this is indeed all the plot we get.
Finally, a new character comes on the scene, the sensitive young
Tiawanese Chang, who works at the same restaurant as Yiu-Fai.
Chang is drawn to Yiu-Fai's voice; he believes that sound more
than sight holds the secrets of the soul. Chang attempts to draw
Yiu-Fai out of his unhappiness, and this more tangible plot line
makes up the last part of the film.
There are other redeeming qualities to Happy Together.
Director Wong Kar-Wai won best director at the Cannes Film Festival
last year for this flick, most likely on the strengths of its
interesting visuals. For instance, the film switches from color
to black and white for no clearly obvious reasons. During some
moments, the film's speed is manipulated--the motion flows like
sticky syrup or briefly stutters like a school kid. Wong also
captures the city of Buenos Aires from a myriad of viewpoints
and conveys a strong sense of the city as an organic whole. Wong
is one of the most prolific and well known of the Hong Kong auteurs
(his résumé includes Chungking Express and
Days of Being Wild), and Happy Together is a strong
testament to his technical skills as a filmmaker.
The actors are all first rate as well. Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai are
played by noted Hong Kong thespians Leslie Cheung (Farewell
My Concubine) and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Hard-Boiled),
respectively, to great effect. Most surprisingly, Cheung was 40
years old at the time of filming, though you'd never guess it.
Chang Chen, who plays Chang, brings a breath of fresh air to the
film as someone who seems truly happy, though alone.
Happy Together is at its heart an experimental film--there
are no subplots, no backstories, merely what we see on the screen,
and that is all viewers are given to make sense of the film. There
are many beautiful moments in Happy Together, but its meaning
seems purposefully elusive. Perhaps it means to say that the exterior
world masks the inherent interiority of individual existence.
Perhaps its lesson is that the ones we love are not the ones we
should be with. Regardless, viewers must have patience to figure
it out. And patience is a gift American audiences are not used