From the pain of Happy Together came the pleasure of In the Mood for Love. Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 film is a mass of contradictions. It’s a movie mostly sour on love but filmed as though filtered through the vehement rush of a newfound romanticism. It’s both fragmented and cyclical. It’s stiflingly claustrophobic and also brashly international. And it’s an intimate, interpersonal look at the forces that keep two men simultaneously joined and repelled like whirring magnets, filmed (at least subconsciously) on the cusp of a major national moment.
At its heart, Happy Together details the long and winding (and circular) road taken by lovers Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) from “starting over”—which is essentially Ho’s buzz phrase for having sex, usually at the point when their relationship is at its most sour—to violently ending their arrangement, and starting all over again from there as the two try to figure out how they can make their way back home to Hong Kong while barely breaking even in Buenos Aires. Though Wong opens the film with its most candidly carnal sex scene, it doesn’t take long for it to sink in that the sex between Lai and Ho is less an act of love and much more an expression of pent-up aggression. (Note the spit-lube maneuver later swiped by Brokeback Mountain’s similarly frustrated, nearly angry initial tryst.)
From where does this pugnacity emerge? Both Lai and Ho are quick to point out each other’s faults: Ho has a knack for flaunting his one-nighters in Lai’s face when their relationship is on the skids, and Lai holds Ho directly responsible for their castaway status in Argentina (he apparently blew all their money on, among other, less savory things, a glittering lamp whose shade is painted to resemble the Iguazu waterfalls the two wanted to visit in happier times). But those explicitly stated excuses don’t seem nearly as compelling a reason for their emotional and physical belligerence as the fact that sometimes intimacy, in the sense of sharing your life with another and truly knowing that person, is defined less by romance and respect and more by repulsion and rage.
This being Wong-land, the emotional amplitude is ramped up quite a bit, but how different are Ho and Lai’s arguments about passports, cigarettes, and bedbugs from you and your lover’s spats about dinner or domestic chores? Especially given most of those fights are ever really about passports or taking out the trash? That being said, underpinning Happy Together’s displaced lover-haters and their desire to return home, portrayed in true Wong fashion with insert shots of Hong Kong’s skyline on the other side of the world filmed upside down, is the fact that the movie was shot on the cusp of Hong Kong’s return from British rule to its new status as a sovereign territory under China. The event is never explicitly referred to, but it seems to inform and intensify their inverse wanderlust, and also Lai’s growing attraction to a young Taiwanese man he is able to share a few stolen but chaste moments with before they, too, find their separate ships sailing. Happy Together is a vibrant, colorful, but scarcely Arcadian gay classic.
Kino’s original DVD release of Happy Together was a crime against nature, flattening all of the black-and-white shots, pinching the colors, and (if memory serves) censoring out a few sex sequences in the film’s latter half. Their new Blu-ray, while not necessarily perfect, is a stunning about-face. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s work absolutely shimmers here, with super-saturated colors and evocative monochromatic interludes. The sound is a tad low in spots, but the tango snippets are gorgeously presented.
The process of creating Happy Together was about as frustrating and choppy as the relationship of its two main characters. In one of its earlier cuts, the movie ran about twice as long as the final product, with a number of offshoots and divergences. (The same thing famously happened to his next films, most notably Happy Together’s immediate follow-up In the Mood for Love, which became an entirely different movie over the course of its arduous 16-month shoot.) The main bonus feature on Kino’s Blu-ray release is "Buenos Aires Zero Degree," a look at the movie that wasn’t, featuring clips of scenes left out from the finished film. Also included on the disc is a video of Wong Kar-wai’s interview at the Museum of the Moving Image and a set of still images and trailers.
Thanks to a sumptuous new high-definition transfer from Kino, Happy Together is still bittersweet, but with a little more emphasis on the sweet.