Thursday, May 05, 2005

Happy Together

Classes are over for this semester, I've got a few papers to do then I'll be out next Wednesday. It was a good semester, it may sound frivolous to take a course like The Action Film, but I really learned a lot. That course was interesting in the way it used things you wouldn't usually analyze to construct an image of American popular culture throughout the twentieth century. My other classes were pretty good too, probably the best semester yet.

Anyway, I recently rewatched Wong Kar-Wai's film Happy Together. He made Happy Together after Fallen Angels, and this film is an extension of the visual style he was already developing there. The film is about a couple of gay guys from Hong Kong who go to Buenos Aires, and drift apart and together over the course of the film.

This is a film that's at times difficult to watch, because of the relationship between the characters played by Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. I have trouble Leslie constantly take advantage of him, and yet they always get back together. What the film becomes about is the process of Tony asserting his independence and getting the courage to leave Leslie.

I love the parts with Chang Chen. His friendship with Tony is great fun to watch, and this is the only time in Buenos Aires that the character is genuinely happy, excluding the scene where he cries into the tape recorder, which isn't happy, but is still an incredible scene. Another great scene is later in the film where Chang is at the lighthouse talking about his memories. This film has some of WKW's best voiceover.

Most of Wong Kar-Wai's films take place in a glamourous world, where even though people are emotionally upset, they're always remarkably well dressed and move through beautiful environments. Here, everybody seems poor and the main characters' apartment is small and cramped. It's still a gorgeously shot film, but the environments aren't as cool looking as in Fallen Angels or 2046.

This is a really adventurous film, the ultimate exploration of the visual style first seen in Chungking. A lot of the film is in black and white, and the color all seems to be treated in some way to draw out certain visual elements, most notably in the soccer scenes and the scenes with the falls. My favorite shot is early in the film. We start on Tony and seem to dollying away from him, then the camera pulls back and we see we're in the car with Leslie, driving away. Really simple, but it works so well. I also really like the vivid red liquids throughout the film, in the Chinese restaurant and the slaughter house.

The film visually is amazing, really experimental, but it's tough to find the same amount of beauty in the shots as in Fallen Angels because Buenos Aires just isn't as cool looking as Hong Kong. The whole film really is about the longing for home, for Hong Kong. Tony Leung only has one reason to be in Buenos Aires, and that's Leslie, so once they break up, and Chang Chen leaves as well, he feels this ennui and a strong desire to get back home. The last chunk of the film has an impatience about it. He's working in the slaughterhouse to get enough money to go back , and it really feels like you're making this journey with him. What's remarkable about the film is that when he does make it back at the end, you feel the same sense of being home that he does. I've never been to Hong Kong, and I'm sure it would be an absoultely alien world, but in the film, it feels so comfortable and welcoming, and in the absoultely phenomenal final scene, where Tony rides the train around the city at night, with the title song playing, there's such a feeling of peace, after a lot of trauma.

Why is this? I think it's partially because of my knowledge of WKW's other films. It feels odd for his characters to be in Buenos Aires, so when they get back to the site of his other films, it's comforting, that's a part of where the feeling of home comes from. I think it's also from Tony Leung's acting, he always seemed pained when he's in Buenos Aires, but when he makes it back, he seems happy for the first time in the film. Also, I think a lot of the feeling of the people making the film went in to the film itself. I know WKW originally intended to end the film with Tony dying, but instead chose to give him the happy ending of making it back to Hong Kong. It was a long shoot and I think the crew's longing to return home becomes a part of the film. In that afforementioned last chunk you can really feel this.

This film is part of what I would consider a loose stylistic trilogy with Chungking and Fallen Angels. It's interesting that they all end with the same feeling, the sense that happiness won't last forever, but if we can just find happiness in small moments, that's enough. So, the endings aren't exactly ecstatic, but they're upbeat, and you get the sense things are getting better. This is a stark contrast to his 60s trilogy, which ends with emotional ties broken and characters distraught.

One of the reasons I like it when WKW makes films in the present is because of the choices he can make musically. Happy Together has one of his best soundtracks, notably the Frank Zappa songs. The music really helps make the visuals more stylish.

So, the only thing that really hurts the film is my mind is Leslie Cheung, who plays characters that really bother me. This character is a throwback to Yuddy in Days of Being Wild. I guess what annoys me most about his characters is the fact that people are drawn to him even though he's such a mean guy. This may be bringing out my own issues, like, why are women always attracted to these charismatic, but shallow and nasty guys, instead of people who are actually nice and really care about stuff. But, you're not viewing the film in a vacuum, it's all about the personal emotional connection, and what you bring to a film has a large impact on what you get from the film. So, my distaste for people like Leslie may result in a skewed view of his relationship with Tony. But, I feel like I can take an objective enough point of view to recognize that while Leslie may have some redeeming characteristics, the work is ultimately about Tony liberating himself from this emotionally manipulative person, and expressing himself as an individual.

I think Happy Together is an incredible piece of work. It's at once different from everything that WKW has done, and at the same time, contains everything that makes his films great. The stylistic experimentation is his boldest to date, and it's full of really affecting emotional moments. This is the film that really put him on the world map, critically speaking, and with good reason. Watching this is watching the medium used to its full potential in the service of storytelling and visual artistry.

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