Happy Together

(Cheun gwong tsa sit, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1997)


These days, the high-profile international Film Festival circuit can seem as fickle and hype-driven as Hollywood. Young talents emerge, make a couple of dazzling features in rapid succession, and are sometimes denounced within a mere few years as tired, washed-up, repetitive.

For those film buffs in Australia who follow much of this carnival only vicariously, via overseas magazines and gossip, the turn-over rate seems dizzying – not to mention cruel.

Because the local arthouse scene is largely outside the loop of such Festival fever, controversial films and filmmakers occasionally reach us long after the shouting around them has died down. Hong Kong’s brilliant artist Wong Kar-wai is a stunning example of this. Although abroad he has already been feted with numerous awards, retrospectives, a lavish book and a full-blown cult following for his six features since 1988, Wong’s prodigious work has scarcely been noticed here in arthouse cinemas.

This neglect has not stopped some hipper-than-thou pundits murmuring the scuttlebutt from overseas: that Wong is already a spent force, a mere showman, bereft of ideas, unable to evolve. Such world-weary nonsense should not blind us to the fact that Happy Together is one of the best films of its year.

Wong’s work revives the spirit of the French Nouvelle Vague, crossing it with an ultra-modern, ultra-stylish visual sense. The keen atmosphere of risk, precariousness and improvisation that once filled Jean-Luc Godard’s films is all over Happy Together. As usual, Wong jumped in with only the sketch of a script, his usual wizard of cinematography (Australian-born Chris Doyle), his regular actors (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) and a handful of richly fascinating locations (including Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego).

Happy Together crosses a dysfunctional love story with Wong’s fondness for Latin American literature (particularly the novels of Manuel Puig). Lai (Leung) and Po-Wing (Cheung) are a remarkable study in doomed love: they can’t live together and they can’t live alone. Wong focuses more on the intricacies of a central, emotionally sado-masochistic relationship here than he has in earlier work (such as Fallen Angels [1996] and Chungking Express [1995]) which explored the criss-crossings of multiple characters.

Lai and Po-Wing lurch from job to job, from apartment to apartment. The restless, cool, vacant sensibility of the ’90s – which Wong captures with drop-dead accuracy – grapples with a half-hidden, desperate yearning for any kind of interpersonal continuity or soulful contact. Wong’s films are all about the fragility of human connection – how relationships, memories, makeshift families and communities are constantly made and unmade in the blur of modern life.

Happy Together – elliptical, compelling, constantly on the edge of falling apart into mere bits and pieces – has a style and texture to match its poignant themes. The Wong-Doyle bag of tricks is inexhaustibly rich: space is warped and fragmented, colours are altered, familiar tourist-spots suddenly seem like strange, surreal haunts. Overlaying it all is a lush musical collage of tango tracks and pop tunes that captures precisely the tearing mix of irony, longing and ephemeral ecstasy which makes Wong so unique and precious in the contemporary world cinema scene.

MORE Wong: In the Mood for Love, 2046

© Adrian Martin November 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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