Happy Together

Wong clearly links romantic love and national identity in his last pre-hand-over film, the ironically titled Happy Together, a fragmented story of two gay men from Hong Kong—Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung)—who take their troubled relationship to Argentina. The episodic narrative seems to ramble without a clear sense of direction, but a closer look reveals a discernable logic. In an effort to renew their endangered romance, Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing leave Hong Kong and begin the film in Argentina. They plan a romantic trip to the Iguazu Falls but lose their way. The temperamental Po-Wing impulsively breaks up with Yiu-Fai, and the two begin scraping out separate existences in Buenos Aires. Po-Wing appears to make his living as a gay gigolo, and when he turns up battered at Yiu-Fai’s apartment, his former lover takes him in. No longer sleeping together, the two resume their tempestuous relationship, punctuating their vociferous bickering with moments of serene tenderness. However, Yiu-Fai grows jealous of Po-Wing, who gets restless being cooped up in the flat. When Yiu-Fai strikes up a platonic but deeply felt friendship with Chang (Chang Chen), a young Taiwanese man at work, Po-Wing leaves him. Only when he comes to terms with himself and his relationships to others does Yiu-Fai feel ready to return to Hong Kong.

By transplanting two Hong Kong characters into an incongruous Latin American setting on the eve of the hand-over, Wong puts problems of nationalism in the forefront. This is, after all, the story of two people who feel the need to leave their homeland in order to “start over” with each other. Wong observes this relationship even more dispassionately than those of his other films: by focusing on a dysfunctional same-sex romance, the director estranges heterosexual identification and advises the viewer to be critical of the characters’ rapport.27 Doyle’s eye-arresting camerawork aids in distancing the audience from the characters with its ostentatious use of harsh lighting, saturated colors intercut with black & white, non-naturalistic color filters, wide-angle lenses, and varying camera speeds. Colluding with Wong’s disjointed storyline, Doyle’s cinematography deliberately disavows a cohesive visual field, and this undermines a solid sense of setting. The visual strategy reinforces the film’s narrative concerns, however, because Happy Together questions nationalism by problematizing the very concept of place.

The issue of nationalism is introduced in the very first shot: a close-up shows anonymous fingers (presumably those of an Argentine immigration officer) flipping through Yiu-Fai’s and Po-Wing’s passports. The photographs of their distinctly Asian faces are glimpsed inside. The fingers then point to the lines that read “British national (overseas)” before stamping them with an immigration seal bearing a prominent date (12 May 1995). Afterwards comes the film’s main title, “Happy Together,” followed by a shot of Po-Wing next to a night table. On the table (among some garbage) are a lamp of Iguazu Falls and some pictures of Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai together. From the outset, Wong stresses the issue and problem of nationality. The passport is a supreme signifier of both nationalism and personal identity. Wong literally underlines these issues by having the officer’s finger point out the document’s claim that these two Asian men are “British national[s].” And the date on the stamp (like the expiry dates on Chungking Express’ pineapple tins) indirectly hints at the countdown to the hand-over. In the context of 1997, the year of Happy Together’s release, the question is implicit: To what extent are Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing “British nationals”?

In the next scene, the problem of nationalism segues into the problem of relationships. The juxtaposition of the painted Iguazu Falls lamp and the photos of the two lovers link their relationship to the waterfalls—or at least to a mediated image of the actual geographic location. Lying in a shabby bed in a shabby room, Po-Wing tells Yiu-Fai that they could “start over.” Until now, all the images have been in color. But the film cuts to black & white when Yiu-Fai gets into bed with Po-Wing and the two men renew their relationship with vigorous lovemaking. We hear Yiu-Fai’s voice-over say that he and Po-Wing have broken up many times but get back together every time Po-Wing wants to “start over.” As the two men “start over,” the film itself seems to “start over” by going back to the monochromatic origins of the moving image. The sex between the two men plays as an alternate act of conception—a renewal of the relationship, of the film, of cinema itself.

The importance of the Iguazu Falls lamp becomes clearer in the next sequence. Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing drive aimlessly around Argentina’s rural highways. The flat landscapes stretch out in endless monotony. Yiu-Fai’s voice-over tells us that after Po-Wing bought the lamp, the couple decided to visit Iguazu Falls. “We wanted to go home after it,” Yiu-Fai says, “but we lost our way.” The two men quarrel, and we can see how stormy their romance is. As Yiu-Fai studies a map on the hood of their beaten-up car, Po-Wing angrily walks away. “I never did find out where we were that day,” the voice-over admits. In a long shot—against a vast, nondescript, Antonioni-like setting—Yiu-Fai tries to coax Po-Wing back, but the two split up, ending their relationship (again). A large truck passes by, ruffling the map on the car. After a quick close-up of a sad, frustrated Yiu-Fai, the film cuts from black & white to a helicopter shot in color of the sought-after waterfall. Lingering on the screen for a minute and a half, the shot is lyrical and ethereal. A slow, haunting Argentine song drifts from the soundtrack. We gradually realize that what we are seeing is not so much Iguazu Falls (though that is indeed the image on the film) but Yiu-Fai’s mindscreen: his idealized fantasy of his and Po-Wing’s dream destination—and an idealized signifier of the relationship itself (cf. Stokes and Hoover, 276). After this shot, the film returns to black & white, chronicling Yiu-Fai’s lonely life as a doorman for a Buenos Aires tango bar.

Already, Happy Together has established its most crucial concerns: love, nationalism, geography, and the intermingling of the three. By leaving their homeland, Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing’s dissatisfaction with their romance bespeaks a dissatisfaction with their national identity. But their passports instantly call attention to the disparity between their homeland, Hong Kong, and their official standing as “British nationals.” Apparently, Yiu-Fai imagines that upon reaching Iguazu Falls, the two lovers will reconcile their problems. But more than a romantic vacation will be needed to calm this stormy relationship because the two men have incompatible personalities: the brash, boyish Po-Wing is always looking for excitement, while the more sensible but somewhat uptight Yiu-Fai seeks security. Po-Wing expects others to do things for him and acts in a passive-aggressive manner to get his way. Yiu-Fai grudgingly obliges him but breaks under the strain when his good deeds are taken for granted.

This imperfect relationship reaches its most suitable arrangement when the battered Po-Wing convalesces at Yiu-Fai’s cozy apartment. There, Po-Wing acts the part of the needy, demanding child, and Yiu-Fai indulges him like an attendant parent. Even when Yiu-Fai comes down with a fever, Po-Wing convinces him to get out of bed and cook a meal for them both. Later in the film, Yiu-Fai reflects that this time was their “happiest together.” As if to underscore this sentiment, the cinematography returns to color when the two men are reunited and Po-Wing again asks if they can “start over.” But even in this relatively amicable arrangement, the two still quarrel. Yiu-Fai now wants their relationship to be non-sexual, but Po-Wing keeps contriving for them to sleep together. When he is well enough to go outside the apartment, Po-Wing vanishes for hours at a time, so Yiu-Fai encourages him to stay inside (buying an entire carton of cigarettes, so he won’t have to go out for a pack). This leads to more tension. Yiu-Fai tries to maintain Po-Wing’s dependence on him—which also suggests Yiu-Fai’s dependence on Po-Wing. In short, the love relationship in Happy Together is in a constant state of negotiation.

The film uses “place” as an indicator of the couple’s relationship. The emptiness of the monochromatic Argentine landscape early in the movie signals the emptiness of the two men’s ability to communicate, as the colorful image of the bountiful, overflowing waterfall promises Yiu-Fai a happier union with his lover. Also, the uncertainty of the relationship is marked by the uncertainty of the setting. In contrast to dominant cinema, Wong and Doyle don’t give us a clear establishing shot to anchor the environment. Instead, the locations are nondescript (the anonymous room, the indistinct highway, the near-abstract waterfall), as though they could exist anywhere. Doyle’s hand-held photography, wide-angle lenses, and frequent close-ups further inhibit a clear sense of setting. These visuals mirror Yiu-Fai’s loneliness and confusion. For example, when Po-Wing calls Yiu-Fai and asks to see him, the black & white cuts to quick, barely intelligible color shots of the city, which only add to our disorientation. However, after the end of the black & white segment, when Po-Wing comes to live with Yiu-Fai, the film displays its first extended long shot of a distinctive landscape: a time-lapse image of bustling downtown Buenos Aires. This is as close to an “establishing” shot as we get. The comfort of this traditional filmic device echoes Yiu-Fai’s newfound comfort in being back together with Po-Wing, and Yiu-Fai now works as a doorman with fresh energy and contentment.

All along, Yiu-Fai has invested the places he inhabits and imagines with a value seen in terms of his relationship with Po-Wing. For him, places seem to possess intrinsic meaning and power. This is particularly noticeable in his arranging the apartment as an exclusive “home” for himself and Po-Wing, and in his coveting of the Iguazu lamp, which he sees as an emblem of their love. But at the same time, Wong hints that such an investment is illusory. When the two lovers set out for the falls, they get lost, which suggests that their “destination” isn’t geographical and therefore doesn’t really exist. The flimsiness of their map as the truck rushes by implies the flimsiness of their hopes to repair their relationship. And since the map is not “geography” itself but merely a representation of geography, the image calls into question all constructs of place and the investments we make in them. Like the map, the Iguazu lamp is another representation of geography. As an image of an unseen place which Yiu-Fai idealizes as a stand-in for his affair with Po-Wing, the lamp is merely a fetish of a fetish. Gradually, Happy Together’s insinuation becomes comprehensible: place has no intrinsic meaning, only the meanings we give it.

This idea has profound implications for the concept of the nation. After all, nations are closely associated with geographical locations and boundaries, and appeals to nationalism have frequently called upon a people’s emotional attachments to localities, real or imagined. (Remember the Alamo?) How can one have a “homeland” without the land? By questioning and problematizing emotional investments in “place,” Happy Together implicitly questions and problematizes the very concept of nation, and with it, national identity. Although the gay couple obviously does not allegorize Hong Kong’s relation to mainland China,28 their constant state of negotiation dramatizes the difficulties and uncertainties of interpersonal affiliation on a microcosmic level.

Appropriately, it’s a crisis of nationality that finally breaks up Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing for good. As Po-Wing recuperates in the flat, Yiu-Fai swipes his passport to prevent him from leaving. Once he’s fully recovered, Po-Wing demands the document back, and Yiu-Fai refuses to turn it over. Of all the scenes in the film, the editing in this moment is the most fragmentary and disorienting: the uncertainty of the cinematic space reflects both the uncertainty of Po-Wing’s national standing and Yiu-Fai’s uneasiness over the possibility of losing his lover. Furthermore, Yiu-Fai’s refusal raises the issue of one individual holding power over another by withholding the conferral of national identity. And Po-Wing’s later search for his elusive passport suggests the elusiveness of nationality itself. Finally, the two men come to blows, and Po-Wing storms out of the apartment and out of the relationship, leaving Yiu-Fai depressed.

Yiu-Fai is helped out of his depression by Chang when the two men strike up a friendship at the Chinese restaurant where they work (Yiu-Fai having quit his doorman job). Although the film presents Chang as sexually ambiguous (he turns down a Chinese woman who asks him out), his relationship with Yiu-Fai never becomes overtly sexual, and Yiu-Fai doesn’t even come out to him. Indeed, it isn’t entirely clear what draws these two men together, except perhaps a shared sense of exile and a need for mutual compassion. Nevertheless, Chang first helps Yiu-Fai out of his funk by challenging his fethishization of Iguazu Falls. Chang tells Yiu-Fai that the falls are fun, even though he’s never been there. “Haven’t been there is fun,” read the subtitles. Chang distinguishes a feeling held for a place from the geographical location itself. He expresses a desire to travel to Ushuaia, a desolate region of Argentina nicknamed “the end of the world,” suggesting the end of “place.” Later, at a bar, Chang impresses Yiu-Fai with his talent for hearing sounds at a distance, a talent he acquired from having poor eyesight as a child. “You know, I think ears are more important than eyes,” Chang tells Yiu-Fai. “You ‘see’ better with your ears.” At first, it seems strange that a character in such a visual—and beautifully shot—film would, without irony, value hearing over sight. However, Chang’s words (like Doyle’s cinematography) invite us to re-evaluate our senses and take stock of what they tell us. The point of this otherwise uneventful and inconclusive scene seems to be that overcoming our attachment to things of misplaced importance begins with altering our perception.

After spending a few more humdrum but peaceful moments with Chang, Yiu-Fai gradually emerges from his depression. One cathartic event comes when Chang offers to record Yiu-Fai’s troubles on a cassette recorder so that they can be exorcised when Chang plays back the tape in Ushuaia. Chang steps away, and Yiu-Fai merely weeps into the tape recorder. After Chang leaves for Ushuaia, Yiu-Fai regains a sense of contentment, only this time, he seems to be satisfied with himself, not investing all of his self-esteem in his relationship with someone else. At this point in the film, the time-lapse “establishing” shot of downtown Buenos Aires returns, again marking Yiu-Fai’s return to solace and contentment. Yiu-Fai agrees to return Po-Wing’s passport to him, but he leaves for Iguazu before seeing his former lover again. Now abandoned and dejected, Po-Wing goes to live in Yiu-Fai’s empty apartment. Unable to move forward with his own life, it is now Po-Wing who keeps up the flat and fetishizes the Iguazu lamp while he woefully waits for Yiu-Fai’s return—which never comes.

At last, Yiu-Fai visits Iguazu Falls. Drenched by its spray, he says to himself: “I finally reached Iguazu. Suddenly, I think of Ho Po-Wing. I feel very sad. I believe there should be two of us standing here.” Despite his sadness, Yiu-Fai now realizes that the falls were secondary to his relationship; they weren’t what he was really seeking. The film cuts to a second helicopter shot of the ethereal waterfall, which is virtually identical to the earlier one reflecting Yiu-Fai’s mindscreen. However, Wong has now contextualized this image of the falls as a geographic space, rather than as an idealized stand-in for a relationship that seemed doomed from the start. The falls are no longer fetishized, so we can absorb their image free from Yiu-Fai’s emotional investment in them. Although this shot of the falls is almost exactly the same as the earlier one, its effect is noticeably different.

Noting that the year is now 1997, Chang makes it to Ushuaia, “the end of the world,” and in another helicopter shot, the camera endlessly circles around the vast, barren-looking landscape, a mountainous cousin to the empty, flat highways of the film’s beginning. By playing the recording of Yiu-Fai’s crying, Chang is able to “leave” his friend’s sadness at the end of the world, and by coming to terms with his emotions for his family, Chang feels happy himself. Although this setting is a source of solace, the camera never shows us a comprehensive vista of the mountains: our view keeps shifting. Once again, our sense of place is unstable and uncertain. However, where the film’s visual freneticism was earlier associated with Yiu-Fai’s loneliness and uncertainty, it’s now associated with more positive feelings. This “end of the world” scene is soon followed by Yiu-Fai stopping over in Taiwan on his way back to Hong Kong. The first image is of a T.V. news report announcing the death of Deng Xiaoping, Wong’s most direct acknowledgement of the 1997 issue. So, Happy Together follows “the end of the world [in/as geography]” and the leaving of sadness with the death of an authoritarian political figure. However, Yiu-Fai ignores the T.V. report and doesn’t seem affected by it.

Although the news of Deng’s death is played as brief and inconsequential, it nevertheless comes as a momentous event in the film, a political intrusion into Yiu-Fai’s insular self-obsession, and perhaps an awakening out of his solipsistic introspection and into a greater engagement with the world (he sees the report while waking up—late in the day— from a long sleep). But this only comes after the film’s relentless troubling of the concept of “place” and the character’s letting-go of his disempowering associations with various localities.

To be sure, relationships still have meaning: before going back to Hong Kong, Yiu-Fai visits the outdoor food stall run by Chang’s parents. As he leaves, Yiu-Fai steals a snapshot of Chang in Ushuaia from them. He says to himself : “I don’t know when I’ll see Chang again. What I know is, if I want to, I know where I can find him.” Yiu-Fai is still collecting fetishes, but his attitude towards place has changed: it’s no longer obsessive. Happy Together’s closing images are undercranked shots of Taipei at night. Riding on an elevated train, Yiu-Fai looks content as he listens to a cover version of the Turtles’ song, “Happy Together.” Ironically, Yiu-Fai finally looks happy to be by himself. The final shot displays the track of the train as it moves forward—an image of advancement and possibility. After having “lost [his] way” at the beginning of the film (with his ill-advised relationship to Po-Wing and his over-investment in the concept of “place”), Yiu-Fai has now found himself and therefore can “go home.”29 However, we never see him get back to Hong Kong. In fact, the only images we see of the colony are in the middle of the movie: street scenes filmed upside-down and presented as another of Yiu-Fai’s mindscreens. Yiu-Fai is now poised to bring his new perception of “place”—and with it, nationality—back with him to Hong Kong. How this might transform the settlement has yet to be imagined, yet to be envisioned, yet to come alive.


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