J. Mark Price
There is an aggressive, intimate scene in the opening frames of Happy Together that serves as our introduction to the two principle characters and their troubled relationship. In the coupling that opens the film, there is the emotional equivalent of frayed and painful nerve endings whipping about like live wires, but somehow bound precariously together. There is passion here, but there is also anger and a sense of underlying and possibly irreparable damage.
Present as well is an obvious, intense desire, but it is not a pure and idealized breed of wanting; it is painfully clear that within the shared intimacy there is an urgent sense of need to reinforce a weakening connection.
There is a desperation established at the very beginning of the film to maintain that connection. Much of the movie's appeal comes from the gradual understanding of why this connection, as painful as it can obviously be, is necessary for Lai Yiu-Fai and Ho Po-Wing, the two gay, Asian men around which this film is based.
Lai and Ho leave Hong Kong for Argentina in an attempt to revitalize their relationship. A favorite saying of Ho's is "we can start all over again." This becomes somewhat of a motif for their relationship and the entire film as well. The phrase becomes increasingly effective as it is used later and later in the film; it becomes a gradient device to demonstrate to what great depths the characters, and especially their relationship, sometimes reach.
Once in Argentina, the troubles in the relationship surface almost immediately, if they were ever even superficially buried. The themes in the relationship are universal and psychologically right on. The film actually deals with the homosexuality of its characters almost in passing. This is refreshing and at the same time allows the film to toss onto the screen a relationship that excludes nobody in its dysfunction.
One of the film's strongest qualities is that, unlike so many American films both in our mainstream and even some of the independents, Happy Together is content to tell the tale of this relationship and its characters. It is enough to deeply probe the idiosyncrasies of these men's personalities and how they fit ominously together without padding the film with car crashes, secret agents or huge special effects. The narration is sparse, compelling and effective, largely because it stays nicely focused on the individual and joint struggles of Lai and Ho.
Ho is the uncontrolled free spirit that keeps ending up back out in the streets. He is incapable of maintaining the emotional consistency needed to effectively work on the relationship and literally flees from the intimate struggle. And while we see stability in Lai's character, we also see him continually set himself up for pain and anguish in accepting Ho back into his life time and time again. Their relationship is complex and interesting to watch.
As Lai, Tony Leung effectively exudes the weariness of living with Ho's escapades and instabilities. We feel his self-directed desperation concerning his own life and his apparent inability to change it. Leslie Cheung does a solid job as Ho, although he is not as strong as Leung. This is due in part to the fact that there is a greater exploration of Lai's character.
The real news here is the direction of Wong Kar-Wai, who picked up the Best Director honor at 1997's Cannes Film Festival. He uses, and with great innovation, all the tricks countless directors employ countless times with poor results; often detracting from the very films they are trying to improve. The numerous shifts between black and white and color film nearly always proved effective. The bizarre camera angles and photography blended well with the deeper goings-on in the film, and the music was used as effectively as any film I've seen recently, with the possible exception of Jackie Brown.
The film loses itself a bit in the last half hour. The overall flow of the film becomes pretty disjointed, and Kar-Wai misses an excellent stopping point about 20 minutes before its end.
If you are looking for big, mainstream entertainment and the embracement of popular, idealistic notions of love, then go see the excellent Titanic again. If you are looking for a unique, thought-provoking movie far left of the mainstream, check out Happy Together. Its a good little film.
Landmark Greenway Theater