Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Happy Together

You know you're in for a unique experience when a film opens with a splash of color before cutting suddenly to a stark, black-and-white depiction of two gay lovers engaging in rigorous sex. Though not as ambitious, nor as aesthetically innovative, as the previous collaborations between director Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Happy Together is no less worthy an entry in Wong's canon, as well as that of modern world cinema, as Chungking Express or Fallen Angels.

Wong and Doyle's aesthetic across their '90s output is nearly indescribable in its allure. The camera placement has the ability to be intensely off-putting -- using canted angles, various filters that stretch and contort the image, and offbeat color palettes -- yet perversely engaging; no one can see the world this way, as a fish-eye distortion, yet Doyle and Wong can trick you into thinking we do. They turn cinema, despite the loft poetics of their aesthetic, into a physical act, not an assault on the audience but certainly something that breaks a few lines that separates them from the film. Thus, when Wong opens the film on an act that remains fairly taboo even in current American cinema, whatever alienation the act, and its exhibition on black-and-white film, dissipates almost immediately as the director bursts through the dividing wall and involves the audience.

As one of the lovers, the calm, reserved Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), speaks in a voiceover, the reasons for the use of black-and-white film soon become apparent. Despite the passion and romance of their first shown interaction, Lai and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) are in the last stages of their romance, or of its latest incarnation, anyway. Lai confides in the audience that he and Ho have broken up and reconciled repeatedly; each time Lai convinces himself he's through with the more coquettish, unhinged Ho, the more volatile lover coaxes him back with the promise that they "could start over." Happy Together opens in monochrome because it captures the couple in the middle of their break-up. Having traveled to Argentina in an attempt to get away and save their relationship, they instead drift further apart, and Lai ends one argument by walking away from Ho while the two are pulled over on a highway and does not return.

Deciding to stay in Buenos Aires, Lai subsequently gets a job as a doorman for a tango club, the black-and-white that starkly captured the sadness of the break-up now a symbol for the ennui of such a dead-end job. Then, Ho returns, dressed to the nines like a Chinese Belmondo in one of Godard's early, faux-gangster pictures as the properly attired Lai can only try, and fail, to suppress his surprise. Arriving with new flame in hand, Ho appears not to notice Lai as he and his entourage sashay into the club, but we see him look in the rear window of his limo when he departs, leering at the heartbroken Lai with an evil smirk. He continues to bring different men to the club to torment Lai, who teeters on madness when he returns every night to his cramped hotel room. Just as he nears the breaking point, Ho shows up at his doorstep, battered, bloodied and barely conscious.

Color appeared in snippets of the film to this point -- most memorably a leitmotif shot of the Iguazu Falls, Lai's reason for wanting to visit Argentina and a metaphor for the film's conflicts that becomes decreasingly obvious as the narrative progresses -- but Wong switches entirely to color as Lai drives Ho home from the hospital. His badly injured hands entirely bandaged, Ho cannot fend for himself, so Lai takes him in to help his ex recuperate.

The reversion to full color clearly reflects Lai's excitement, despite his better judgment, at the prospect of nursing Ho back to health and possibly reigniting their relationship, the monochrome of his depression replaced by the vivid spectrum of hope. What it instead captures is the vibrant effrontery and the complexity of Ho's manipulation of Lai's crippling codependency. Wong's precise casting allows the audience to better understand the divide between these two characters. Cheung, who of course appeared in Wong's Days of Being Wild, where he also toyed with his image as a founding member of Cantopop, plays Ho like a rock star without the stardom, a balls-out loon with thirsts incapable of being slaked. Leung, on the other hand, is one of the most subdued and affecting of any actor of any nationality (or generation, for that mater). His strength lies not in the explosive movements that Cheung brilliantly unleashes but in the internalization of his feelings and thoughts until they bubble into his eyes, where they become unmistakable and devastating. To see Lai hurt is to see Leung hurt, which only compounds the effect of the poor man's tribulations on the audience. Lai attempts to shield himself, resisting Ho's physical and emotional teases, but his desires get the best of himself and he reenters into a romance with Ho, restarting the cycle.

Though the situation rapidly deteriorates, Wong maintains the use of color stock, forcing us to experience this even more searingly than before. Yet the director softens Lai's misery when he has the protagonist leave the nightclub to get work at a Chinese restaurant. There he meets Chang (Chang Chen), a Chinese ex-pat whom he befriends. Chang is everything that Ho isn't: like Lai, he is calm and measured, a placid individual just looking for normalcy. So tuned to Lai's frequency is he that Chang gets his own voiceover lines, in which he discusses his life and his budding friendship with Lai. He might even be gay: an attractive female co-worker makes a pass at him, but Chang lightly rebuffs her, explaining his actions to Lai with the excuse that he dislikes her voice. Chang prefers women's voices to be "deep and low," and when Lai sets down the phone to quickly perform and errand, Chang sees this and rushes to the phone as if checking the line just so Lai can brush against him when he returns to grab the receiver.

As Ho continues to push his relationship with Lai to its latest breaking point, Lai's bond with Chang strengthens. Chang relates how he got exceptional hearing from an eye problem he suffered as a child that strengthened his other senses. ""I couldn't see," he says, "so I listened." Thus, he is more empathetic and understanding of Lai, who'd long ago been blinded by the supernova of Ho's diva-like radiance. Though their relationship never progresses to the romantic stage -- at least so far as Wong shows us -- the intimacy between the two, at last fully reciprocated for Lai, gives the beleaguered lover the courage to finally break from Ho for the last time. Once he does, however, he finds that Chang has left Buenos Aires, off to see another Argentine landmark.

Now alone after closing one door and having the other closed on him, Lai spirals into his darkest depression yet, stooping to meaningless sex in bathrooms and theaters to dull the pain. The sex in Happy Together constantly degenerates, from the passionate intercourse that opens the film to the loathing -- much of it self-directed -- in Lai's later tryst with Ho. Finally, it becomes anonymous, something that Lai, once the person who longed for love, engages in for the visceral kick. The like-minded Chang's "rejection" of him edges Lai closer to Ho's characteristics, and his usage of cheap sex without stakes gives Lai an insight into Ho's behavior. Lai's shift toward Ho's mannerisms is contrasted with Ho himself, who rails against his ex for the break-up but, secreted away from prying eyes, bursts into uncontrollable sobs of regret. Perhaps Ho's flaw was not Machiavellian evil but an inability to properly express his feelings, which we can plainly see in private hem much closer to Lai's typical mindset.

It's tempting, and oh-so facile, to compare the film to Midnight Cowboy, that other story of the perils of gay love in society. Yet that film relied on naturalistic acting to tell an otherwise oversimplified and unrealistic story, while Wong uses poetic aestheticism to spin a believable tale. Too, Midnight Cowboy forced one of its characters to die for the film's homoeroticism, a sort of false redemption that spoke more to its pulled punches and attempt to play to more conservative audiences. Wong, on the other hand, uses the physical pain inflicted upon one his gay characters to examine the emotional, even existential, plights of the pair. Furthermore, Wong presents this tumultuous love affair as the sort of turbulent romance that couples of any sexual preference could experience. Schlesinger condemned his latent homosexuals for their sin, while Wong, without ever breaking out a soapbox, demonstrates how gay love should not be separated from what some obsolete members of society consider to be "true" love. Ho and Chang could easily be two ladies vying, whether they know it or not, for Lai's attention -- in fact, the structure of an exploding, id-driven hedonist and the supportive, empathetic emotional rock standing at polar ends from a confused but ultimately affable protagonist somewhat prefigures an equally devastating account of broken love, Two Lovers.

However, as enthralling as the narrative is, Wong uses his characters for more than a mere love story. One of the film's first shots, of Lai and Ho heading out to Argentina, shows a customs official stamping a passport. The dated stamps recall the expiration dates used in Chungking Express; in my review of that film, I noted the connection some critics established between the usage of expiration dates to the planned transfer of ownership of Hong Kong from England to China and called it a tenuous point. That was poor phrasing: the date stamps clearly reflected the Hong Kong handover date, but I objected to using those fleeting images as a basing for reading the rest of the film. Here, however, the characters openly come to symbolize Hong Kong's transition. Lai and Ho represent the relationship between Hong Kong and the British power that once controlled it. British rule had its benefits -- Wong, after all, is working with considerably more freedom than his contemporaries in the rest of China received -- but the crown also exploited and manipulated the colony. It's possible, then, that the Chang, less adventurous and inspirational but sturdier and more relatable to Lai, represents the China that would reacquisition Hong Kong in the same year. On the flip side is Chang, whose Taiwanese heritage reveals that he has his own unexamined issues dealing with colonization and cultural appropriation, in his case stemming from Chinese aggression.

This subtext might explain why the central idea of Happy Together is displacement, as Hong Kong fits neither with England nor, with its use of Cantonese over Mandarin, much of the rest of China. Lai, the clearest representative of an uncertain Hong Kong, wanders between two partners, weighing his pros and cons when with one and feeling utterly alone when completely separated from both. Lai says that his "happiest days" with Ho occurred when the more careless man got himself attacked and had to rely on Lai, thus forcing the volatile lover to calm down. Following World War II, Hong Kong recovered almost instantly from Japanese occupation as Mao's Cultural Revolution led many of China's businesses to relocate their industries to Hong Kong. While Britain was busy waging battles in India to delay the inevitable, Hong Kong enjoyed prosperity and development. But the desire to be a part of their own people must have weighed on the denizens of Hong Kong, and for all the fear of change there is an anxiousness to get away from Britain (Ho) to be with the more similar China (Chang). Hong Kong was one of the last British colonies that the once-mighty empire retained, and its transfer affected both. No wonder, then, that Ho breaks down so completely; he's crying not only for his own loss but the end of the final chapter of British imperialism as that nation's avatar.

Though the story occurs in Argentina, Lai's actions bring him closer and closer to a return to Hong Kong to set aside his feelings of displacement and anomie: first he works as the doorman of the nightclub, always standing outside the club looking in, before moving to the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant and, finally, to a slaughterhouse, where he notes that the odd hours re-tune his body to Hong Kong time. His time with Chang, beside prompting the final split with Ho, also inspire Lai to return home, where he must face penance for stealing his father's money to finance his trip. The film's original Chinese title, Chun gwong cha sit, is an idiomatic expression meaning "to expose something indecent," less a reference to its display of homosexuality and more to its demonstration that indecent love is far more complex and harmful a situation than which genders are involved. The English title, taken from the Turtles hit that appears in the film as a cover by Danny Chung, is more germane to portraying the actual depths of the love story. At first it is a bitter ironic headline above the acrimony between partners, but Lai's infatuation with Chang and their compatibility suggest that the title really applies more to their relationship. By traveling to the waterfalls before returning to Hong Kong and subsequently stopping in Taipei to take a photo of Chang from his family's shop, Lai sets up a pursuit of Chang and the possibility for stable love between the two as they reenter China. Lai and Chang, the symbols of Hong Kong and China, respectively, may indeed find happiness together, forming a symbiotic bond that advances them both. Who'd a thunk this emotional gut-punch could end with such a hopeful implication?

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