Happy Together

Fai and Bo-wing’s passports mark their arrival in Argentina …

… but also refer obliquely to questions of citizenship and identity in the lead-up to Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China.

An aborted trip: the car breaks down en route to the Iguaçu Falls.

The mixture of confinement and intimacy in this scene is reminiscent of the two prisoners in Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman.

The lamp, a cheap symbol of the Iguaçu Falls, highlights the gap between the Argentina the lovers had hoped to find and the one they inhabit.

Fai and Bo-wing together alone in Buenos Aires.

This shot is played at double-speed, giving Buenos Aires an alien, unfathomable quality …

… and Hong Kong seems no less alien when Fai, musing that he’s on the other side of the world, imagines it upside down.

In the shared kitchen of his apartment building, Fai prepares his meal in virtual solitude, as the locals conduct their social business without him.

The kitchen becomes the venue for Fai and Bo-wing’s halting version of the tango.

Chang appears to be a potential partner for Fai, but their relationship never fully develops.

Fai finally makes it to the Iguaçu Falls on his own, triggering memories of his relationship with Bo-wing …

… who gazes in turn at the lamp, missing Fai.

Chang conducts his own solitary journey to the lighthouse at “the end of the world.” Returning to Buenos Aires, he finds that Fai has left…

… while Fai, after arriving in Taipei, “borrows” a photograph of the lighthouse from Chang’s parents.

A news item on Taiwanese TV marks the death of Deng Xiao-ping, a reminder of Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s ambivalent connections with mainland China.

Another journey (this time by rail) sets an open-ended tone at the end of the film. Where is Fai going? What is to become of Hong Kong in the wake of the 1997 handover?

In the Mood for Love

Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan are betrayed by their respective spouses …

… and respond by acting out the affair, setting up a fluid relationship between their performance and the genuine romance that runs beneath it.

Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg: condensing nostalgia in Catherine Deneuve’s hairstyle and costume, the wallpaper and props …

… and a similar approach in In the Mood for Love.

Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small City: a key example of the wenyi pian (Chinese melodrama).

The neighbours admire the rice cooker, a symbol of Japanese design and technological know-how.

Dinner for two: consuming nostalgia.

Love in transit: another taxi-ride.

Mr. Chow and Ah Ping in Singapore.

The timeless ruins, and the monk … 

… who watches over Mr. Chow as he whispers his secret into the hole.

Colonial rupture: General de Gaulle arrives in Cambodia.


Happy Together:
delays and reroutings

If Chungking Express shows Hong Kong as the site of a “new localism,” where U.S. global culture is acknowledged and indigenized, then Happy Together shows what happens when Hong Kong culture goes travelling. In this case, Argentina becomes the ground for the film’s negotiation of transcultural possibilities. The film follows a gay couple from Hong Kong, Ho Bo-wing and Lai Yiu-fai, who are travelling in Argentina. After an aborted trip to see the famed Iguaçu Falls, the two lovers settle in Buenos Aires. The film charts the serial breakdown and reconstruction of the relationship, driven by Bo-wing’s flighty and selfish behaviour. He finds work as a rent-boy, while the more loyal Fai becomes a doorman at a tango club. Eventually Fai throws out Bo-wing, and takes a job at a Chinese restaurant, where he meets Chang, an optimistic young man from Taiwan. Finally, however, Fai decides to return home, rejecting another attempt by Bo-wing to “start over.” In Taipei, Fai visits the food stall run by Chang’s parents, surreptitiously removing a photograph of Chang, and travels on Taipei’s rapid transit system, to the accompaniment of Danny Chung’s energetic cover of the British song “Happy Together.”

Again, “foreign” cultural referents are a significant textual element. French New Wave aesthetics are once more evident in the privileging of contemplation and stylistic manoeuvres over narrative construction, as well as the extensive use of handheld cameras. One is also reminded of Haruki Murakami’s stories by the film’s tendency to find oddness in domestic situations. The film’s working title, Buenos Aires Affair, was borrowed from a novel by Argentinian writer Manuel Puig, although the plot bears few similarities.[19] [open notes in new window] There are, arguably, some limited connections with other Argentinian novels. Stephen Teo comments that Happy Together recalls Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman in its “depiction of a relationship between two men in enclosed circumstances along the theme that love is free of gender,” and Julio Cortazar’s experimental novel Hopscotch, which focuses on an Argentinian writer living in Paris, his feelings of exile and his disharmonious relationship with a fellow (female) expatriate.[20]

Yet these connections are tenuous at best. In his production diary, cinematographer Christopher Doyle laments the filmmakers’ inability to engage directly with the Argentinian setting, and asks:

“What happened to the inspiration from Manuel Puig’s structures and Julio Cortazar’s conceits? We’re stuck with our own concerns and perceptions.” [21]

In Happy Together, the physical voyage to Argentina is parallelled by a virtual voyage of the literary kind, conducted as a kind of homage to Puig and Cortazar. Yet in both senses, the physical and the virtual, this voyage is figured as a disappointment. Abandoning their broken-down car, Bo-wing and Fai are forced to return to Buenos Aires without seeing Argentina’s most famous tourist attraction, the Iguaçu Falls. In Fai’s apartment, a cheap lamp bearing a tacky reproduction of the Falls becomes a mocking reminder of the Argentina they had hoped to visit, as opposed to the squalid and alienating spaces they actually experience. If Chungking Express suggests that identity (in particular Hong Kong identity) can never be fixed in some pure, authentic state, Happy Together shows, on the other hand, that identity is not disconnected from locale. Failing to arrive in the Argentina of Puig and Cortazar, the characters end up inhabiting interior spaces reminiscent of those in Hong Kong.

However, the characters themselves do not display a strong drive for transcultural identification. Fai and Bo-wing’s journey is motivated by the touristic impulse, an impulse characterized by a deliberate separation between the Self and the Other, rather than a desire for identification. Argentinian identity is repressed or ignored in the film, while the characters have brought their own assumptions and customs with them, like any First-World tourist. This type of behaviour, writes Nick Kaldis, is usually seen exclusively in Western cinema.

“As such, this film represents a new shared imaginary world where America, Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan are now more alike than different, at least in terms of development and modernization.”[22]

Yet Happy Together also emphasizes the gap between U.S. and Hong Kong characters, if only through Bo-wing’s offhand transactions with his American trick. At the same time as they confirm Hong Kong’s affinity with other modernized countries, both Happy Together and Chungking Express emphasize the limits of identification. Temporal identification (based around a common investment in modernization and progress) is insufficient to overcome the disjunctures of transcultural identification.

Queerness is another field of identification that cuts across questions of nationality. Could this be an alternative to territorial affiliation? Marc Siegel emphasizes the sense of freedom in the characters’ fleeting relationships, created by the disjunctures of global culture and travel:

“If globalism generates the possibilities for new kinds of looking, does it not also offer the potential for new kinds of feeling, new kinds of intimacy?”[23]

The problem with this utopian reading is that Fai is manifestly unhappy with the intimacy generated by globalism, insofar as it is represented by Bo-wing’s promiscuity. Perhaps Fai’s ambiguous friendship with Chang constitutes a new kind of feeling, but this is far removed from intimacy. Indeed, the ultimate dispersal of the three main characters indicates a certain failure in terms of the constitution of a queer community. Just as Argentina proves not to be a unifying ground for cultural identification, the queer “scene” in Buenos Aires fails as a rallying point for sexual identification. As in Chungking Express, relationships are characterized by evanescence and a sense of missed opportunities. Factors that might serve as unifying forces (nationality, modernity, sexual orientation) constantly prove inadequate to the task of bringing the characters together.

Yet the film ends with a gesture towards regional identification. After Fai leaves Buenos Aires, he flies to Taipei (en route to Hong Kong), where he visits the food stall run by Chang’s parents. There, he surreptitiously removes a photograph of Chang from the wall. The photograph shows Chang standing by the lighthouse at Argentina’s southern tip (it was Chang’s aim to visit “the end of the world”). Ultimately, the three young men at the centre of the film are all in a transitory state, caught between places: Fai is riding a train in Taipei, Bo-wing may or may not have remained in Buenos Aires and Chang has surely moved on but his photograph freezes him in time at “the end of the world”. Of the three, only Fai’s return home is certain: he wants to see his father. Yet the film never completes this process of reunification. Instead, almost perversely, it abandons him in Taiwan.

Here, I would argue that Taiwan functions to disrupt the unity of the Hong Kong-Argentina binary. Just as Chang presents Fai with an alternative to the overbearing Bo-wing, Fai’s arrival in Taiwan institutes another transcultural axis. Despite the fact that most Hong Kong and Taiwanese residents speak different Chinese dialects, the trip to Argentina has, for Fai, emphasized what he has in common with his Taiwanese neigbours. The bond he formed with Chang while working together in the Chinese restaurant in Buenos Aires is gently reinforced when he takes the photograph from Chang’s parents’ food stall.

Yet the film does not go so far as to suggest a complete identification with Taiwanese culture. Fai’s brief sojourn there is characterized by transitory moments: the visit to the food stall, where he keeps his identity secret; the trip on the rapid transit line. The film suggests that Fai is en route to a homecoming, but at the same time delays or prevents its full and immediate attainment. We are left with an unfinished vector of movement.

As in Chungking Express, identity is an elusive property which moves between people, objects and cultures rather than being vested in them. The process of identification can be imagined as a trajectory that never arrives at its end point, but is constantly finding new targets, new itineraries. For Wong Kar-wai and his collaborators, the limits of transcultural identification are found in a Buenos Aires that is not present in the pages of Puig or Cortazar, but instead becomes the staging ground for a re-imagination of Hong Kong spaces.

For Fai, his foreign experience triggers a return home – but significantly, to a home that is already different from the one he left. By suspending his return journey in Taiwan, the film leaves us in doubt as to what Fai might encounter in Hong Kong. Is the reunion with his father possible? Fai tries to telephone him from Taipei, but his father hangs up. The film itself was completed in 1997, the year of Hong Kong’s handover to China. While Fai has been away, what changes have already altered Hong Kong forever? And what else will change after July 1997? Just as the fantasy of literary or touristic Argentina has always already departed (for characters and filmmakers alike), the notion of Hong Kong as “home” is an unstable one. Rejecting complete identification with both the completely foreign (Argentina) and the completely familiar (Hong Kong), the film points tentatively towards a third possibility: regional identification.

In the Mood for Love:
nostalgia and regional identification

In the Mood for Love sees Wong Kar-wai returning to a Hong Kong setting, and further exploring the boundaries of regional identification. Set in the 1960s, the film follows the odd friendship which develops between two neighbours whose spouses are engaged in an affair. Trying to understand how the affair developed, Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) enact the romance of the adulterers (whose faces we never see) – and begin to fall in love themselves. Their neighbours soon suspect that the pair’s platonic relationship is anything but chaste, a social pressure which forces them to part. In the following years, they almost cross paths a number of times. Finally, Chow finds himself in Cambodia in 1966 during De Gaulle’s state visit. Wandering amongst the ruined temples of Angkor Wat, Chow whispers a secret into a hole in an old stone wall.

As with the earlier films, foreign literary references are again prominent. According to Wong, the enacting of the adulterers’ liaisons by Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan represents

“a technique I learned from Julio Cortazar, who always has this kind of structure. It’s like a circle, the head and tail of a snake meeting.”[24]

However, In the Mood for Love displays more manifestly its connections with Chinese literature, particularly through the use of intertitles excerpted from Intersection, a novella written in 1972 by Liu Yichang. The plot of the novella, about two strangers brought together by life in the city, is reminiscent of many of Wong Kar-wai’s films. Wong has used Chinese literary antecedents before – Ashes of Time (1994) is based upon the martial arts book The Eagle-Shooting Heroes by Jin Yong. Intersection is significant, however, because it is by a diasporic writer (like Wong, Liu was born in Shanghai, and moved to Hong Kong at a young age). Accordingly, I will be arguing that In the Mood for Love registers a heightened consciousness of Hong Kong in relation to the nations and territories that surround it.

The film’s basic narrative formula (a couple’s love is pitted against the institutions of society, and is thwarted) is familiar from U.S. melodrama, and its precedents in European theatre. In the Mood for Love is also indebted to the U.S. nostalgia film, a genre which approaches “the ‘past’ through stylistic connotation” rather than historicity.[25] Accordingly, the film foregrounds period details (the wallpaper, Nat King Cole’s Spanish songs, Mrs. Chan’s Chinese print dresses or cheongsams, and Mr. Chow’s brilliantined hair), pushing history to the margins.

This blending of nostalgia and melodrama is also reminiscent of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964), a French film which, as Dana Polan comments, was “one of the decisive influences” on In the Mood for Love.[26] Like Wong’s film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg shows the intrusion of history (the Algerian war) into the romantic world of the characters, while presenting the the past nostalgically: the 1950s is recreated as an array of candy-pink and yellow fashions and décors, while everyday life is juxtaposed with dream-like musical sequences. In the Mood for Love also showcases Wong’s avowed nostalgia for the films of Alfred Hitchcock in its claustrophobic atmosphere and creation of suspense through ellipsis.[27]

Conversely, Stephen Teo points out the importance of Chinese references when examining In the Mood for Love’s deployment of melodrama and nostalgia. First of all, Wong’s film draws upon the tradition of Chinese melodrama (or wenyi pian). Teo notes Fei Mu’s 1948 film Spring in a Small City as a significant example of this genre within mainland Chinese cinema. It tells the story of a woman who stands beside her sick husband, sacrificing the opportunity to be with her former lover. Like In the Mood for Love, it emphasizes qualities of honour and restraint.[28]

Furthermore, the nostalgic evocation of Western culture in In the Mood for Love is matched by a profusion of Chinese references harking back to earlier periods such as the 1940s and 1950s and recalling in particular “the glories of Shanghai” through references to music, fashion, and martial arts serials.[29] Finally, the claustrophobic atmosphere in the film can be traced not only to Hitchcock but also to 1960s Hong Kong soap operas, many of which dealt with “just such housing problems and families living under the same roof as Wong speaks of.”[30]

In the Mood for Love, then, foregrounds Chinese cultures in a more direct way than either Chungking Express or Happy Together. This distinction can be related to the recent development of what Chu Yiu-wai describes as “a new transnational Chineseness,” a form of identification that blurs the boundaries between the local and the global, but retains a focus on the regional.[31]As Audrey Yue comments, In the Mood for Love

“returns to Hong Kong via the mobility of transnational routes engendered by Asian popular media, only to preoduce a space of regionality.”[32]

Yet while Yue emphasizes the way the film “reterritorialises the space between Hong Kong and China,” by showing the contribution of Shanghainese immigration and culture to Hong Kong modernity, it should be pointed out that the film does not mark a “return” to some all-encompassing Chinese identity.[33] Rather, In the Mood for Love invokes regional identification and then goes on to explore its limits. Accordingly, Sheldon Lu remarks that the appeal to an authentic, pre-historic notion of “Chineseness” is not a reliable option for Hong Kongers because

“they have lived a life without a proper nationality, being neither Chinese nor British.”[34]

Against this cultural backdrop, In the Mood for Love conducts its exploration of Asian regional spaces. First of all, it refers beyond China to Japan (the location of the affair and an endless source of consumer items). Secondly, the characters themselves travel physically beyond Hong Kong, visiting Singapore (where Mr Chow accepts a job) and Cambodia (where he goes to see the spectacular ruins at Angkor Wat). The film ends with Mr Chow wandering reflectively among the ruins. At the core of this enigmatic denouement, we might suggest, is a determination to avoid framing Hong Kong identity directly.

In fact, each of the films discussed here shows characters attempting to find solace and permanence in an iconic site outside of Hong Kong. In Chungking Express, Faye follows her American dream to California. In Happy Together, Fai and Chang seek out, respectively, the Iguaçu Falls and the lighthouse at Argentina’s southern tip. Regarded in the context of Hong Kong’s ambiguous political status both preceding and following the 1997 handover, these journeys can be read as attempts to cope with the resultant sense of uncertainty.[35] Similarly, Mr. Chow responds to the vagaries of love and missed appointments by seeking out something which will apparently always be there: the ruins.

Unlike Chungking Express and Happy Together, however, which configure cross-cultural exchange largely as a long-distance relationship, In the Mood for Love emphasizes Hong Kong’s relation to geographically and historically proximate territories such as Singapore and Cambodia. Yet this relationship is not one of equivalence. Mr. Chow, like Fai and Bo-wing but unlike the residents of Cambodia, has a certain freedom of movement as a result of his socio-economic status. With this freedom comes a freedom of identification.

This sense of inequality comes into sharp relief when we regard the film’s discourse of identification in temporal terms. Rey Chow points out that nostalgia as presented in recent Hong Kong films “is the product of a materially well-endowed world.” Despite conveying

“a sense of loss and melancholy, nostalgia also works by concealing and excluding the dirty and unpleasant elements of social hardships.”[36]

Similarly, Blanche Chu frames the growing phenomenon of nostalgic sentiment in Hong Kong culture as

“about the making of use of a less ‘desirable’, i.e. less modernized and advanced, past — as an antithetical counterpart to reaffirm the ‘prosperous and stable’ present.”[37]

In this way, Mr. Chow’s journey to Singapore and Cambodia can be reframed as a voyage into the “past,” a movement of identification conducted along a temporal axis. Singapore as represented in the film resembles a premodern Hong Kong: the interiors seem like shabbier and more spartan versions of the Hong Kong locations. Cambodia is located even further in the past. As Mr. Chow walks among the ruins of Angkor Wat, he is observed by an enigmatic young monk — a figure of mysterious religiosity, but also of timelessness. From the “pre-developed” temporality of Singapore, we have moved to the “ancient” temporality of Cambodia. The characters’ journeys to other territories therefore become journeys in time: the spatial expresses the temporal. As Blanche Chu argues, In the Mood for Love’s deployment of nostalgia affirms the distance between “modernized” Hong Kong and its less developed neighbours. The separation of territories on temporal grounds therefore disrupts the discourse of regionalism.

History, however, enters the frame and limits our complete investment in the nostalgic reverie. First of all, the film deploys nostalgic references in a subtle and historicized sense. The consumer items which Mrs. Chan’s husband brings back from Japan (the handbags, the ties, the rice cooker) are acknowledged as commodities with a particular origin and history. This can be constrasted with consumer items in Chungking Express (the compact disc, the mysterious woman’s trenchcoat) that occupy the mise-en-scene as signifiers disconnected from their source. These items serve as catalysts for identification, but seem to refer only obliquely to their own provenance. In In the Mood for Love, on the other hand, the importing of foreign commodities is contextualized as an historical moment, and the power of commodities to incite adulation and hysteria (exemplified by Faye’s determination to get to California in Chungking Express) is limited.

More significantly, one might argue that Wong Kar-wai has tampered with the form of the nostalgia film. Once the lovers have parted, there is a series of missed meetings, followed by Mr. Chow’s Cambodian sojourn. At this point, we see footage of De Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia, and then Chow wanders among the ruins of Angkor Wat, whispering his secret into a hole in the stone. The film ends with a series of tracking shots among the ruins, with Chow nowhere to be seen. The characters’ ultimate fate is uncertain, although it seems all hope of reuniting the romantic leads has disappeared. Even more disconcertingly, the characters themselves seem to disappear. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, by comparison, ends with an agonizing parting between the two lovers, the onscreen union reinforcing the sense that these characters belong together.

In the Mood for Love offers a certain sadness at the separation of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, but ultimately turns its back on the characters, finding nothing transcendent in the relationship that might fill the final frames. This sense of dislocation is reminiscent of Antonioni’s film L’éclisse (1962), which documents a low-key relationship between two young people (played by Monica Vitti and Alain Delon), and ends it by showing in a series of static shots the places they once frequented together. In both films, there is the disconcerting sense that history has somehow entered the frame, erasing the characters. The tracking shots through the ruins are also reminiscent of the opening moments of Alain Resnais and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), in which the camera drifts like a disembodied presence along the hallways of an opulent building.

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Angkor Wat's mysterious ruins are filmed in a way that recalls the aesthetics of... ... European modernist cinema, haunted by the absence of characters, as in Antonioni’s L’éclisse ...
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…and traversed by tracking shots reminiscent of … ... Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad.

Thus, in In the Mood for Love we can identify a splicing of the nostalgia film with the aesthetics of European modernist cinema, a technique that disrupts our investment in the narrative’s nostalgic temporality. The limit of identification surfaces in our very relationship with the characters, as Mr. Chow recedes from the frame, disappearing among the ancient ruins.

The ending of the film therefore represents a kind of narrative rupture, in which the possibilities for identification (both in terms of transglobal modernity and pan-Asian regionalism) are curtailed. Yet within this disruptive conclusion lies a final possibility for identification. For the political disruption of colonialism is one element that these nations have in common (Cambodia and Singapore, as well as Hong Kong). The clip showing De Gaulle’s visit to Cambodia hints at the fact that although Cambodia and Hong Kong may have distinctly different histories, it is nonetheless true that both have been drastically affected by the intervention of a European colonial power.

In this sense, the disruption serves as the grounds for a tentative gesture towards unity — dislocation, in other words — is what they have in common. This is a unity that is by its nature ambivalent and lacking in real power, practically and politically. As with the failed romantic relationships in all of Wong’s films, we are witness to the melancholy of the impossible union. The ambivalent gesture at the end of In the Mood for Love is a reminder of this — if we have nothing else in common, the film seems to indicate, we have our melancholy.

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