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 Yin-Fai tries to earn money working as doorman at a tango bar, the Bar Sur, but when Ho Po-Wing 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 Po-Wing 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 Yin-Fai 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 Po-Wing 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 Yin-Fai 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.
Happy Together is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It has been released previously by the distributor back in 2003 (reviewed here), but is reissued here with a new catalogue number and a new transfer. The DVD is available separately and also as part of The Wong Kar-wai Collection, a 3-disc set which also includes new restored versions of Chungking Express and Ashes of Time Redux. The latter two titles are also available separately and on Blu-ray, but there is at present no Blu-ray release of Happy Together. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format. The disc is region-free.
The new transfer of Happy Together is a substantial improvement upon the really rather poor earlier Artificial release, and the difference is noticeable in almost every respect. Colours have the full richness and saturation that you would expect from Christopher Doyle’s cinematography in the colourfully lit Buenos Aires locations, with broad definition and detail that was missing on the rather washed-out, faded and scratchy previous edition. Black-and-white sections also show up rather more clarity and detail and have a more natural tone and tint than the previously greenish tones. There is certainly still some graininess and softness to some sequences, but this is entirely down to how the film was shot and how colours were processed and manipulated - it’s how it’s meant to look. Transferred progressively, the image flows smoothly in accordance with the mood and rhythm of the scenes. There are no issues of any kind regarding marks, filtering or digital artefacts – this is a clear, pure transfer and it looks stunning.
The new transfer is the one restored by Wong Kar-wai in 2007 with black opening and closing credits that are different from the bright red screens of the original, a fact that no doubt accounts for the slight difference in running times. The new transfer is presented at 1.85:1 while the previous edition was 1.75:1. Comparisons of the two editions are shown below, the previous transfer above, the new one below.
The audio on the previous edition was truly dreadful for a film that relies heavily on its soundtrack, particularly in the music score, for the evocation of mood and location. Here there are no complaints whatsoever, the original stereo track retained and presented in Dolby Digital 2.0, while a director-approved Dolby Digital 5.1 remix opens the sound out further, giving it extra space, depth and clarity, using the rear speakers perhaps more than necessary. Each mix however has the necessary strength and impact that the film really demands.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. In a clear white font and clearly readable throughout, they are however a little on the large side though placed low enough to not be overly distracting.
Extra features remain identical to the extras on the previous edition. Since this means it still contains the wonderful making of documentary feature Buenos Aires Zero Degree, that’s a good thing. Quite unlike most making of features, in addition to clips of rehearsals, script development and interview snippets, the larger part of the film is given over to so many deleted scenes and excised subplots that it effectively amounts to almost an alternative version of the film, presenting an intriguing insight into Wong Kar-wai’s working methods by following the various processes and paths that were explored and eventually abandoned as he found the true essence of the characters. It remains presented in 1.85:1 letterbox. The same Trailer (1.21) is also included as are updated Filmographies for Wong Kar-Wai, Christopher Doyle, Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung.
On the surface and from a mere recounting of the paper-thin plot, Happy Together’s aimless meandering and tedious bickering would appear to have little to recommend, but as a filmmaker Wong Kar-wai is interested in much more than just telling a story. Through the use of light, colour, music and location he finds something much more compelling in the personalities and motivations of his characters, particularly in the dynamic that is introduced when two people, each carrying personal baggage, get together and find themselves unable to escape from the traps of their deeper natures and darker impulses. This is a theme that Wong Kar-wai would certainly express with a greater degree of subtlety and finesse in subsequent films, but in Happy Together the director finds a unique and entertaining way to express essential truths about the human failings and even suggests that there is hope that we can rise above them. The qualities of the film have never been more evident than in this stunning new transfer of the film from Artificial Eye. It’s time to look at Happy Together in an entirely new light.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 20:59:16