This week’s Last Words (Last Shots? Last Frames?) comes from Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, one of my favorite films of all time (“of all time!”).
I knew that next week I wanted to feature the end of another film, and this month (year?) I’d set myself the somewhat vague goal of trying to watch more films, and in particular to take advantage of all the free ones available either online (illegally and gloriously), or at my local BFI Mediatheque—and, perhaps, to actually make use of my languishing LOVEFiLM (the UK equivalent to Netflix) subscription. So I thought one way of making sure I watch more films would be to make all of my Last Words features this January about film endings.
That said, this week has nothing to do with the goal of watching new films, because it’s a film that I’ve loved for a long, long time. I don’t remember the first time I watched Happy Together; I don’t even think it’s the first Wong Kar-wai movie I ever saw. It’s an early work, though not as popular as his earlier others, like Chungking Express or Fallen Angels, and definitely not as well-known as his noughties successes In the Mood for Love and 2046. I haven’t seen My Blueberry Nights, but I do look forward to his upcoming Ip Man movie, The Grandmasters. Tony Leung is one of those actors (along with Tadanobu Asano), where, if he’s in something, I’ll watch it. Actually, no, not one of those actors. That actor.
But Happy Together has always been special to me; I even wrote a story about it. (Actually I sort of wrote a whole novel in homage to it.) Recently I told a friend that I was unable to think of it critically; that I’d come to love it stupidly, half-blindly, like a person. I do still try to be measured, to find its imperfections, of which I’m sure there are many, I’ve even written academic essays about the film, like how are the Frank Zappa songs being employed in the film, is it ironic, I don’t know—but frankly, all my attempts at criticism have felt like failures. (And I already know these elliptical notes are also going to constitute a failure, considering I only decided today that I was going to write about this film. Maybe it’s better that way; if I had decided earlier, I would have had too much time to think about it and probably changed my mind.) And not even the interesting kind of failure, in which the unsaid reads as revelatory by virtue of its own pregnant silence, or suggestive context, or whatever. No; just failure kind of failure. I realize, it’s still too close to me. I haven’t even watched the film that often; I don’t want it to be any closer than it already is.
(I have a habit of obsessively watching or listening to the same piece of film or music over and over until I wear out its mystery for me—right now it’s Rihanna’s “What’s My Name”Â—but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do that to Happy Together. And thus I’ve ended up not really knowing, all that well, this film that has lived in my heart longer and more sharply than any other.)
(I don’t know how I feel about these gestures of chastity, sacrality. I can’t say I like them. I make a point to be exhaustive and irreverent in so many other things, ways, but when I actually am reverent, I am so to the point of being ridiculous.)
What happens in Happy Together? Two lovers, played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, go to Argentina on vacation. Their relationship falls apart, comes back together, falls apart again. They try to see the famed Igazu Falls. They fail. They get lost. They fight, they fuck. They run out of money. Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) finds work to scrape by: welcoming Chinese tourist buses, at a local tango bar, in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, in a slaughterhouse. Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) takes up with wealthy men, gets badly beaten up, probably by a particularly vicious john. He returns to Lai Yiu-fai’s apartment to be nursed back to health in a brief period of happiness, only for the two of them to fall back into their mutually abusive patterns. They break up again.
Chang Chen (who played the desert bandit in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) has his first acting role in this film. Chen’s character (also named Chang) is of a piece with the characters played by Takeshi Kaneshiro in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels: a little naive, inscrutable, attracted to the more broken-seeming characters, with a kind of autistic sweetness. Chang appears about halfway through the film, as a dishwasher of ambiguous (not really) sexuality at the Chinese restaurant where Tony Leung works. Tony Leung, now brokenhearted and stranded in Buenos Aires, regards, then tentatively befriends Chang, with a wistful mix of envy, tenderness and longing.
Those places that are in friendship, without being of friendship, where friendship is still (perhaps forever) the placeholder for a future (or not future; fantasized) passion. That tense place just before or beyond intimacy, revelation. I’m always reading about the erotic tension between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, their so-called epic chemistry. Well, yes. But I’m more destroyed by what Tony Leung and Chang Chen do here, with comparatively less to work with. Less screen time together, at least.
Not to mention Leslie Cheung as the bad charismatic boyfriend. Leslie Cheung, whom I wanted to be, a little bit. Leslie Cheung, who in 2003, jumped out of the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. April 1, 2003. That day I was in love, I had been having insane amounts of sex, I was miserably happy. Leslie Cheung’s back as he walks away from his estranged Filipina aristocrat mother’s house and into the jungle, in Days of Being Wild. For a while I used to think: Because he did that, I won’t have to.
Was Happy Together the first film I saw that depicted same sex relationships? It probably wasn’t, but it was the one that stayed with me the most. There was another one, Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu, but I don’t remember it too well anymore, I should watch it again. And there was that one, also with Leslie Cheung, where he plays a record producer who falls in love with a girl when she is disguised as a boy. I remember watching that one when I was in middle school. Which one was that? I just looked: He’s a Woman, She’s a Man.
Wong Kar-wai is often described as a romantic filmmaker, and I would probably agree with that, but I think that this description is often used dismissively, to suggest that what he does is stylish fluff (not an insult, in my opinion), whereas to me his films have always felt romantic in a radical, infectious way. With love, or to be more precise, the love story, as a kind of viral presence, inhabiting everything, sucking everything into its perspective. Illegal migrants in love. Space travelers in love. Housewives in love. Assassins in love. Detectives in love. Police officers in love. Deng Xiaoping dies when I’m in love. General De Gaulle visits Cambodia when I’m in love.
A Wong Kar-wai film is never too far from genre, or fetish, or indeed artifice (the ghost of stylish fluff, again), but always taken to a hyper-emotional place, specific but dispersed, where the detective story or the science fiction story or the melodrama can’t contain itself, is compromised, becomes distracted by “minor”Â details (everything becomes as important as everything else, isn’t that one definition of a fetish?, everything is unstable, not discontinuous but hyper-continuous, mingled, cans of pineapple and shooting a guy in the head and stalking). Obsessiveness as a style or form (obsession with finding or reproducing copies of people, usually lost or unattainable women; or with producing fictions of their own lives, fictions within fictions, an excessive proliferation of versions, plots, subplots; Wong says Tony Leung’s character could have been Leslie Cheung’s, and vice versa; scenes in 2046 that reproduce scenes from Days of Being Wild, and so on—and on and on); where the story devours or dissolves or exceeds its own genre, world. A collapsed universe. Indiscreet. Time that shakes, has fits: repeats, hiccups, starts and stops, slow motion. Memory not a souvenir, but a possession (as in, of bodies). All those men looking into mirrors and fixing their laquered hair. All those girls named Li Zhen.
Additionally, Wong is pretty famous for his epic, grueling film shoots: for shooting several films within a film and deciding how it will end up only during editing; jettisoning whole plots, characters. For the fiction of the film and the lived lives of the actors to bleed into each other. (The In The Mood for Love shoot alone lasted fifteen months; Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung were rumoured to have had an affair; in any case Cheung announced the end of her marriage to director Olivier Assayas shortly after filming ended.)
In Buenos Aires Degree Zero, the short documentary about the making of the film Happy Together, various crew members talk about the long (five months, originally meant to be three weeks!) shoot; how making a film about homesick emigrants produced a bunch of homesick emigrants.
Tony Leung remarks that maybe Wong did it deliberately. “Maybe he wanted us all to feel as if we were dying.”Â
I remember also loving the fact that here was a film about migrants that was not a triumph or success narrative. Nearly everyone in the film is miserable and poor and horny and lonely. Tony Leung looks like he hasn’t slept in ages. Washing cow blood down with a hose, pushing carcasses around. Trying to eat or have a phone conversation while people scream in another language behind you. Getting fired from your demeaning job because you couldn’t take it anymore, broke a bottle and went fucking crazy (off-screen). Using the kitchen at work to make dinner because your own place is a shithole. Winning petty cash with soccer games during breaks. Tangoing in the kitchen. Trying, failing, trying again, to visit known “tourist spots.”Â Not knowing how to read a map.
Apparently there were multiple other subplots in the film, to do with characters who were (and were played by, I believe) actual Chinese immigrants who had made their lives in Argentina. Those scenes might have added a feeling of optimism, rootedness, to the film. Tellingly perhaps, they were not included in the final cut. No one belongs here. No one makes a home. No one you know, anyway.
I seem to remember once reading a criticism by Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar-wai’s cinematographer, saying that the film failed to really engage with the city, that Wong ended up abandoning the Manuel Puig novel that had inspired the film’s original title, Buenos Aires Affair. But I love that interloper quality: how narrow the film’s vision of Buenos Aires is, how claustrophobic (claustrophilic?) the film feels. How there is no attempt to “engage,”Â to be “part of.”Â Failure to be a good visitor.
Wong shows, multiple times, with the same postcard-like shot, the obelisk at Plaza de la Republica. Every time it feels like looking at Big Ben, or the Eiffel Tower; that martial-national imposing of/ordering of civic time, space. Contrasted to the film’s own time and space (or hovering over/lurking beneath it, not without some menace; during the Peron years, the words “El silencio es salud” were displayed on the obelisk): the Buenos Aires of bus travel, back alleys where Chinese kitchen workers play soccer, bathrooms to cruise in, outdoor porn theatres, bars. Queer space, migrant space, transitory space, working-class space. Christopher Doyle mentioned (I think this was in his shooting diary), also frustratedly, that despite filming in Buenos Aires, Wong’s spatial preoccupations remained the same: same old bars, fast food shops, and trains as ever. But I like this, too. How Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong writes over Buenos Aires.
And how the United Kingdom has written over Hong Kong; in the first few seconds of the film, we see rapid shots of both Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing’s passports as they enter Argentina: both are “British nationals (overseas).”Â How to be a citizen, who is the citizen. Of what, where. Later, in an attempt to hold onto his lover, Lai Yiu-fai hides Ho Po-wing’s passport. Mobility, immobility.
How not to be at home. How to be a migrant. An immigrant or an emigrant. I was born the daughter of one immigrant and one emigrant. What is the difference between the two, anyway? For me the difference has always been between someone who wanted to go someplace, and someone who had to leave someplace. Though I realize that may be an entirely arbitrary and fanciful distinction.
Now I’m one myself, though I haven’t figured out which one yet. The UK government is holding onto my passport, too. They’ve had it for over a year. Mobility, immobility. The only documents I possess, proving who I am and where I’m from (do they indeed prove these things), are copies now.
But: at the end of the film, Tony Leung has managed to scrape together enough money to go “home.”Â Back to Hong Kong. The film began in 1995 (so says the stamp on those passports in the beginning of the film) and ends in 1997, just a few months before the official handover from the United Kingdom to Chinese control.
I’ve read reviews that described this part of the film as finally delivering the “happy”Â part of Happy Together: the happiness of nostos, homecoming. The happiness of being in one’s place. The happiness of a finally Chinese Hong Kong. And it’s true that for perhaps the first time in the film, Tony Leung doesn’t look totally ill. But I’ve always felt a deep wariness and uncertainty in these scenes. For one, we never see Tony Leung in Hong Kong proper; he makes a stopover in Taipei, which is Chang’s hometown, not his. Taiwan, which has had its own issues with being, or not being, a part of China.
Tony Leung wandering the Taipei night market, stereophones in his ear. The market bustles around him. People yell, eat, chat; are in their places. Tony Leung takes his jacket off. He’s wearing a bright orange-patterned shirt. No one else is dressed like him. Everything about him reads young, probably urban, queer, separate. He asks what’s good to eat. “Our home-made noodles,” the woman says.
He observes a heated argument between locals with the polite amusement of an outsider. He’s happy to be in a more familiar place; but the familiar can hurt, too. How it feels to approach “home”Â and realize you’ll have to use quotation marks around that word from now on.
The food stand where he is eating turns out to belong to Chang’s parents. He sees a photograph of Chang posted in a mirror. He steals it. “At last I can see why he (Chang) can afford to run around so freely,”Â the voiceover says. “There’s a place where he can always return.”Â Does Lai Yiu-fai have such a place? “Soon we’ll know,”Â he says. But we don’t.
After he takes the photograph, he says he doesn’t know if he’ll see Chang again, but he now at least he knows where to find him if he wants to. It’s unclear if the place he means is Taipei, or the photograph.
The film famously ends with Tony Leung in the clean, fast, modern Taipei Rapid Transit system, with the song “Happy Together”Â playing. Yet this isn’t the original “Happy Together”Â by the Turtles, but a live cover, by, I think, a Cantopop singer (Sam Hui?). (Remember Faye Wong’s cover of The Cranberries “Dreams,”Â renamed “Dream Person,” at the end of Chungking Express?)
Covers, live versions, reproductions. Dispersals, migrations, translations, adoptions, appropriations, remakes. Where things go, where things end up. Much is made of the last scene: Tony Leung in the MRT, hurtling towards a destination. The picture of progress, movement, hopefulness, modernity. Homeward bound. To someone’s home, at least. The colors and tones of these shots are similar to the previous shots of Buenos Aires’ obelisk.
But the very, very last shot in the film isn’t of the train moving forward. The train halts, at a stop. As it slows we can hear people cheering, elsewhere, at a concert we can’t see. Then the credits start to roll.