Happy Together Review

Immediately after making Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle took their improvisational techniques one step further. With the bare minimum of a plot in an outline of the relationship difficulties of two gay Hong Kong men, the filmmakers went over to Argentina in 1996 with Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, filmed various ideas, exploring mood, characterisation, music and lighting - basically making scenes up as they went along - hoping at the end when they ran out of money that they would have enough material to add up to a film. Whether they succeeded or not is a matter of much disagreement.

Happy Together is something of a love it or hate it film. It’s a film that even splits Wong Kar-wai fans into two camps. Leonard Maltin notoriously summed up the film in a single sentence as "a predictable, paper-thin chronicle of a deeply troubled relationship between a constantly bickering Hong Kong gay couple in Buenos Aires". This would be akin to describing In The Mood For Love as being about "two people who aren’t married to each other who don’t have an affair" - an entirely accurate description, but one that also completely misses the point.

Lai Yin-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) are the two tempestuous lovers who can’t live with each other, constantly fighting and breaking-up. It's a relationship going nowhere but in circles. Another failed reconciliation leaves both men stranded on a trip to Argentina with no money and no way of returning to Hong Kong. Lai tries to earn money working as doorman at a tango bar, the Bar Sur, but when Ho turns up one night on the arm of an American tourist, old feelings are resurrected and before long the two men are thrown back together through their mutual need and dependency. Their aim is to reach the magnificent waterfall of Iguazu, a fabulous destination depicted on a lamp they keep in their room – but it doesn’t look like a goal they will ever achieve together.

Happy Together is a superb examination of a relationship that thrives on conflict and the weakness of the respective partners. Ho is weak, craving attention, needing constant looking after and unable to remain faithful to Lai, needing as wide an appreciative audience for his vanity as possible. Lai on the other hand is possessive and controlling. It’s a recipe for disaster, a relationship doomed to self-destruct if one of the partners doesn’t self-destruct first. When Ho gets into trouble and needs looking after, it is the ideal situation for the controlling Lai, who relishes being able to wash, feed and care for the other man and even controls how physically intimate their relationship can be. Ho is happy to go along with this – he is lazy, complacent and needy, but when he is well again he needs to get out of the suffocating environment created by Lai. When he leaves the house dressed-up, Lai suspects he is on the streets of Buenos Aires picking up other men. His jealousy and suspicion lead him to locking Ho in the room and hiding his passport.

Apart from the strength of the characterisation that many critics fail to see in the film, the formal aspects of Happy Together are also notable, innovative and integral to the characterisation - the suffocating closeness of the room where much of the action takes place reflecting a relationship that is going nowhere and has no room to breathe, grow and develop. Similarly, their relationship is also symbolised in their failure to get anywhere whenever they leave the room – the symbolic trip to find the Iguazu waterfall ends in disaster and even crossing an equally symbolic bridge together is abandoned after a few tentative steps.

Quite simply, without the groundbreaking work and improvisational techniques experimented with in Happy Together we wouldn’t have the perfection that is In The Mood For Love and 2046. With In The Mood For Love, Wong Kar-wai knew what he could achieve through improvisational film-making, but it was in Happy Together that he took big chances, breaking every rule of conventional film-making – shooting hours and hours of footage, discarding much in editing, experimenting with light and colour, with black and white sequences and different types of colour film stock, mixing warm and cold colour schemes, using different first person narrators, and all the while trying to intuitively discover and express who the characters are, why they are in Argentina and where their paths and personalities are going to take them. The film could have been a complete disaster, but instead it is a stunning, bold and innovative piece of filmmaking.

The picture quality on the Artificial Eye Region 2 release isn’t particularly good. The image is generally soft with a great deal of marks and scratches, some occasional light flicker and an instance or two of shimmer. It’s a difficult film to judge video quality accurately because there is so much manipulation of colour, with some shots deliberately underexposed and others saturated with colour. I have seen better television prints of the film however and the colour schemes here seem to be way off. The black and white scenes show too much green, and this green also seems to wash-out colours in the colour sequences with no true blacks to be seen anywhere.

Region comparisons
The only comparison I can make is between this and the Hong Kong Region 0 Mei Ah release, which is by no means the most sophisticated DVD release ever made – non-anamorphic, it doesn’t even have menus or scene selection – but there is a better clarity to the image and a warmer tone to the black and white sequences. Artificial Eye R2 to the left, Mei Ah R0 to the right.

The colour fidelity looks much better in the Artificial Eye release, less washed out, but lacking in detail and sharpness. Artificial Eye R2 again to the left, Mei Ah R0 to the right.

I haven’t seen the Region 1 Kino/Image release, which is probably closer to the intended colour schemes, but is non-anamorphic.

2008 UPDATE - Artificial Eye have reissued Happy Together in a new restored edition. A comparison with this release can be found here.

It’s bad enough that the colour doesn’t convey the richness of Christopher Doyle’s photography, but the sound is even more disappointing. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is low, muffled and booming if played at any audible volume. The soundtrack should be in stereo, but there is very little separation on this mix. It is much stronger and clearer on the HK Mei Ah release. The soundtrack is a vital element of this film, conveying much through the superb tango pieces by Astor Piazzolla and the Frank Zappa tracks. It really lets the film down here, as the film doesn’t work as well without the atmosphere of the soundtrack.

Buenos Aires Zero Degree (59:10)
If I can’t convince you that Happy Together is a magnificent film, and the DVD quality also fails to convey its true worth, perhaps the accompanying documentary can. Buenos Aires Zero Degree is one of the best making of documentaries for any film - ever. People are paying a fortune for a Taiwanese DVD of this on eBay, but it is included on this DVD as an extra feature. Rather similar to @In The Mood For Love, it’s a making of that tracks the progress of the film through rehearsals, script development and interview snippets, including so many deleted scenes, abandoned sub-plots and characters that it almost becomes an alternative version of the film. An utterly fascinating insight into the working methods of one of the best film directors in the world today. The documentary is presented in 1.85:1 letterbox.

Trailer (1.21)
The trailer, presented in 1.85:1 letterbox is much more brightly coloured than the DVD print, but it can’t really be used as a comparison as even scenes that are black and white in the film are shown in colour here, so it doesn’t reflect the look of the actual film.

Filmographies of Wong Kar-wai, Christopher Doyle, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung are presented in the form of short biographies. Leslie Chung’s bio notes his tragic death by suicide on the 1st April 2003.

Happy Together remains one of my favourite films and is probably my most watched Wong Kar-wai film. I believe it is a very underrated movie - but I’m afraid this Artificial Eye release won’t make many new converts. It does however include the superb Buenos Aires Zero Degree and extra features don’t come much better than that, so the DVD gets a cautious recommendation just for its inclusion and the fact that this is such a unique film. However, it seems that we will have to wait for the promised definitive Wong Kar-wai supervised edition of this film to appreciate it in all its glory. Just as soon as he finishes 2046.

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Last updated: 27/06/2018 03:04:28

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