Happy Together (1997)

In spirit of support for Hong Kong’s recent and on-going social struggle, I decided to review one Cantonese work that had the vastest artistic influence over myself and my own creative method, and that work is, without an inkling of doubt, Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, made in 1997. This film proved to be the deserved consolidation of Wai’s directorial style and, simultaneously, a unique insight into Hong Kong’s LGBTQ+ dynamics as well as the specific emotional axioms of abusive relationships in a profound state of isolation. The film, armed with a minimalist cast of only three actors and an even more parsimonious and unfinished script that weaves itself together by means of image and sound, is a sprawling exploration about the coalescence of masculinity and the tumultuous and abashing treatment of LGBTQ+ communities in certain countries, a mixture that exacerbates a type of emotional mutism and reinforces the role of violence, both emotional and physical, in replacing the lack of communication and expressive clarity that should lie at the heart of any interpersonal relationship.

The relationship between Ho Po-wing, an airy and infantile man whose volatility proves highly obliterative, and Lai Yiu-fai, a depressive and internally unstable individual who finds himself in a perpetual performance of silent self-destruction, serves as the machine-of-war for the film’s dark existence; Ho Po-wing recurrent malediction, «Let’s start over.», made whenever the relationship felt most strenuous, was further engraved by his purchase of a lamp that resembled the Iguazu Falls, which the couple had planned to visit. This lamp acts as the central nervous system of a relatively diaphanous narrative. Both Ho’s infatuation with it and Lai’s attachment to what it represents seems to tether them both to a sense of eventual romantic actuation: as long as the luminous waters of the lamp cascade, so does the blood of the conjoined and corrupting heart of their relationship.
The film then shifts its focus to the exploration of Lai’s convalescence from this deeply abusive relationship, one that left him with the sorrow of survival and confusion thereof, to survive outside and beyond a mechanism of abuse that slowly became his raison-d’être, one that left him felt alone, lost, ashamed, betrayed and obliterated, trapped in a country which wasn’t his own and unable to return.

Wong Kar Wai’s lavishly dim cinematographic aesthetics, after gaining emboss in Chungking Express (1996), are further consolidated in Happy Together; the recurrent chromatic shifts that play upon the levels of narrative magnitude, the derelict and harsh environments reverberated by a sanitised, dry usage of light that appear as a signature of both his thematic emotional acuity and as a replication of Hong Kong’s own neon-spent frigid and synthetic streets, and the instrumentation of visual punctuations, chiefly exemplified by the films opening scene, a sanguine and heaving sexual encounter whose aggressiveness is found in both the actors and the corner-angled, gradually more intimate shots; the aesthetic interludes of the film also serve as vibrant expository conveyors, and such is the case with the bird’s eye shot of Iguazu Falls which is overlaid with a low-saturation filter and backgrounded by Caetano Veloso’s Cucurrucucú paloma, a pensive song about the destructive motions of lovesickness; shots like the kitchen tango scene, or the culmination of Lai’s emotional devastation in the voice recorder scene, are made with a level of artistic direction that, as far as my experience with film goes, has no parallel in how effectively it translates the most profound and vicious elements of emotional abuse in romantic relationships.

With a soundtrack that includes Astor Piazzolla’s Tangos, Frank Zappa’s I Have Been In You, and a cover of Happy Together by The Turtles (which inspired the English name of the film), Wai assures not only that every scene receives and apposite sound, but also that all the themes intertwine seamlessly, something he was already famed for after the release of Chungking Express and its memorable usage of California Dreamin’.

Lastly, I would like to express my support for the Cantonese people; their culture and heritage is not only thronged with beautiful works, it also had a magnificent impact on the cultural productions of today, on and beyond Cinema. One such example is Nicholas Wong’s Crevasse, a guttural poetry collection about growing up LGBTQ+ in Hong Kong that I could not recommend more.

Published by João-Maria

A tick clinging to the bristles of a purple boar.

11 thoughts on “Happy Together (1997)

    1. Indeed it does, Robert. It was once the third highest film industry in the world, after Hollywood and Bollywood, and it still commands great respect. I’m so glad you loved it!


  1. Thanks for following my vlog, João-Maria.

    I haven’t seen “Happy Together”, but as a hopeless romantic, I really dig “In the Mood for Love” and “2046”. I love Wong’s visual æsthetic, which you capture so well in these photographs. There are so many good photos on your website, by the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Dean!
      I absolutely recommend giving a chance to Happy Together. I’m equally entranced by In The Mood for Love and 2046, and, of course, Chungking Express (which, if you’re a hopeless romantic, I recommend even more fervently).

      I don’t take most of the photographs displayed in my Website, although I do obtain permission and credit every creator that I do showcase. Since I’m not talented in the photographic arts, I’ll take your compliment as one concerning my taste, compliment I return, both in your beautiful blog and the aforementioned photographic talent you possess and I don’t.

      Thank you for hopping by! I will continue to support your endeavors as best I can, Dean.


      1. Thanks very much, João-Maria. It looks like we have similar taste in photography: the moody, poetic scene devoid of people.

        Wong also has exquisite taste in photography: the last few minutes of “In the Mood for Love”, where the camera is travelling through the ruins of Angkor-Wat always seems to me like a beautiful poem on film.


      2. Oh, what I would give to visit Angkor-Wat. I’m afraid distance is a true enemy for such travels, time and distance, and how often we find ourselves trapped in velocities. It’s true that our taste seems to pair well: I rarely enjoy photography where a person is the object being photographed, however, I do enjoy photography where people are but another element, another adornment of the vista. Wideness, not perhaps of the lens, but of sensibility, is what magnetises me the most.

        Liked by 1 person

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