copyright 2013, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 55, fall 2013

"We lost our way":
the time and space of alienation
in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

by Caroline Guo

“We lost our way,” recounts Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) in his voice-over at the beginning of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997). A gust of wind passes through, flipping a road map over in slow motion. The native Hong Kong characters Lai and his soon-to-be-ex-lover Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) find themselves irrevocably lost on the way to the Iguazu Falls from Buenos Aires, Argentina. The film has been notably cited as Wong’s first work involving a homosexual romance and shot entirely outside of Hong Kong. As a result, the film’s political nature, theme of exile, and transnational production processes have been examined in detail by Peter Brunette, Stephen Teo, and in Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover’s City on Fire.[1] [open endnotes in new window] However, the shot that seems to pass by largely unnoticed is the reversal of the map. With its elongated motion, placement in the initial moments of the film, and Lai’s voice pouring through the imagery, a significant break is declared. Indeed, Lai suggests that they are not simply unfamiliar with the foreign land, but also, and perhaps even more so, incapable of mapping themselves onto the surroundings. That is, they experience a disjuncture from Argentina’s space—its geography and sheer expansiveness.

As a result, I would like to rethink Ho and Lai’s sense of alienation through spatial and geographical factors more so than through social aspects such as cultural or linguistic differences. Wong’s films have continuously explored the idea of alienation, especially in the urban setting of Hong Kong. Melancholia shrouds his characters in 1960s Hong Kong in Days of Being Wild (1990) while missed encounters and solitude abound in past, present, and future depictions of the city in In the Mood for Love (2000), Chungking Express (1994) and 2046 (2004) respectively. However, as Ackbar Abbas suggests,

“In Happy Together …even more centrally than in Wong’s other films, spatial experiences parallel and counterpoint affective experience.”[2]

In this case, the characters’ relationship to their surrounding spaces, more than any other factor, determines their emotional state and subjective experience. Thus, what I look to explore is not just the sensual or social side of alienation but instead how this alienation forms with respect to the external world.

Indeed, I intend to delve beyond Abbas’ claim to discover what it is about the city of Buenos Aires and its outlying streets that have made them so impossible to connect to for Lai and Ho. The specificities of Buenos Aires’ history of modernization, suburban barrios, and access to natural spaces such as the Falls prove essential in uncovering the significance of this on-location shooting as well as the roots of the characters’ alienation. Jeremy Tambling in his book Happy Together effectively details several of the locations and their importance. While I look to draw upon his conclusions, I will also expand on the particularities of these spaces and how they contribute to an overarching sense of displacement.[3] It is thus within the framework of Buenos Aires’ urban history, especially that outlined in Jason Wilson’s Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary History, as well as literal framework of its city map that I will trace out the varying levels of space—from the monumental to the suburban and the natural.[4]

Furthermore, in examining the city’s spatial components and their effects on the individual experience, I must inevitably consider the temporal aspects of this environment as well. As Mikhail Bakhtin claims in his definition of the “chronotope,” there exists

“the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed.”[5]

This means that the spatial as well as temporal dimensions of lived experience—the chronotope of a genre or situation—come to define the individual condition as depicted in a work. Consequently, despite being originally intended for literature, Bakhtin’s theories will prove crucial in revealing not only how the characters’ malaise emerges from their experience of time and space, but also how the filmmakers simultaneously express their own circumstances in exile. After all, Lai’s words announcing the characters’ disorientation may imply more than just their own disconnectedness from the external world. Instead, he may be voicing a general difficulty, both on- and off-screen, in coming to terms with the collective time at hand: that is, the critical period preceding Hong Kong’s July 1st, 1997, handover to China.

Tellingly, our sole glimpses of Hong Kong come at the very beginning when we see Lai and Ho’s passports being stamped to leave and near the end in brief, upside down shots of the city’s streets. It is as if, in choosing to leave behind their national identity and the impending watershed moment, Lai, Ho, and Wong Kar-wai have purposely loosened their grasp on their roots. As a result, they have fallen through the skies of home in order to land on the other side of the Earth—the other extreme of the space-time spectrum. Far from the definitive status of Lai and Ho’s passports or the smooth, steady speed of Hong Kong traffic (as it is depicted), the space and time of their new home in Buenos Aires are defined by oversized avenues and obstructed streets, liminal spaces and marginal lifestyles, and their own suspended state of existence as they drift through the maze of their relationship and surroundings. Indeed, through the labyrinth Lai and Ho go, and I follow as well. I embark on a search to reveal not only how the incongruity between human and environmental forms functions, but also, in the same (faint) vein of hope that encourages Lai and Ho, to see if we could still remap ourselves into the world—or, at least, if there remains a landscape kind enough to reorient us.

Monumental shock

In the close quarters of their apartment, Lai watches over a sound asleep Ho; the next moment, Ho watches Lai. As they are captured in still positions, time is lulled to a certain rest in this sleepy, fluid exchange of roles—until a time-lapsed shot of Buenos Aires’ Avenida 9 de Julio and the Obelisco (obelisk) follows immediately after. Cars zoom through the streets to create a blurred stream of lights as a digital clock displays time passing at full speed. A cut separates Lai and Ho from the view of the city, forcing calm to collide against speed, private against public, and human against monumental. As this floating perspective cast by the camera seems to inhabit an entirely different world from the space occupied by Lai and Ho, this point of view, cityscape, and time exist not only outside the limits of their physical space, but also, most likely, outside the limits of their perception.

Tambling notes the incongruity that emerges through this juxtaposition:

“The flat…does not relate to the image of the public Buenos Aires which has just been offered as a public metonym for the whole cityscape. Outside its range, its existence questions the possibility of seeing the city in this panoramic way.”[6]

In other words, this view of Buenos Aires appears incongruous both to the intimacy of Lai and Ho’s apartment and to the frames of their vision. Indeed, with the close shots of Lai and Ho watching over one another, we see how their relationship, each other’s company, and the modest dimensions of their living space not only fill up their line of sight, as Tambling suggests, but also compose their immediate experience of the present. The deliberate time-lapse filming therefore emphasizes the idea that such a (filmic) urban pace exists above human capacities of sight and thought. In effect, only the machine eye of the camera can take in the speed of the traffic while Lai and Ho remain physically and emotionally removed from this city center. However, beyond the sequence’s quickened pace, what is it about Buenos Aires’ cityscape that throws into doubt their “possibility of seeing” and perceiving?

The history behind the construction of Buenos Aires proves crucial in revealing the particularities of its space. The Intendente (mayor) Torcuato de Alvear led the movement in paving and expanding streets from 1880 to 1887, and this process of urban renewal continued throughout the 1900s.[7] The extent of this regularization resembles the reconstruction of Paris that took place under Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. Indeed, Wilson writes about the avenue:

“It is hell to cross as a pedestrian, but it does give a post-Haussmann perspective to the city, with the obelisk in the centre.”[8]

Thus, the scale of the avenue threatens to upset human efforts in traversing it and links it to the city of Paris as well as its European past and colonial history. With Lai and Ho’s minimal movements in their apartment and their origins from the more compact city space of Hong Kong, Buenos Aires thus demonstrates a scale and history that is out of their depths, out of sight, and, as a result, out of mind.

Moreover, not only does the downtown space prove inaccessible, but the mechanical stream of time that reigns over the city also escapes their notice. According to Wilson, the city “demolishes its past in the rush to modernize.”[9] The hurried clock time in the foreground certainly appears to epitomize the pace of extreme modernization: the fast-forwarded minutes advance relentlessly, showing no ties to the instants that preceded them. In contrast, the time that defines Lai and Ho’s relationship moves forth less swiftly, undeniably linked to their past—their original dream of reaching the Iguazu Falls and their previous life in Hong Kong—as well as the unhurried pace that characterizes their present shared moments . Perhaps, then, their alienation from the downtown space also stems from their incapacity to connect to the time kept by the city, operating in a world apart from the temporality of their personal preoccupations.

In elaborating on the alienating effects of Buenos Aires’ modernization, Tambling asserts that “the process of Haussmann-like urban renewal…tore out the heart of the old city.”[10] Tellingly, Tambling’s mention of urban renewal as akin to tearing out a certain “heart” suggests that something else has been lost—something more subjective and emotional, perhaps. Indeed, the insertion of the cityscape creates a certain staccato that clashes with the sleepy melody of the lovers looking after one another. Especially with the straight lines of the north-south Avenida 9 de Julio on display, the imagery of a grid city emerges.

While this structuring may increase clarity for navigational purposes, such regularity could account for a certain loss of heart as well as the emotional disjuncture that Lai and Ho experience from their surroundings. The film’s cinematographer Christopher Doyle states in his shooting journal:

“The streets all run north-south/east-west: grids of boredom and artificial restraint imposed upon every town in the country.”[11]

Although Doyle makes a significant link between the urban layout and affect while announcing his personal lack of connection with the location, it would be too simple to say that evenness translates to monotony and ennui. However, juxtaposed with the exchanges and irregular nature of Lai and Ho’s relationship, the city streets certainly appear incompatible with the ebb and flow of their emotions.

In effect, Lai and Ho undergo a particularly tumultuous relationship. If we were to map the space and time associated with their moments together, they would register more as spirals or waves—a sharp contrast from the straight lines of the city map and hyper-advancing of digitized time. There is seemingly no correspondence, then, between the regularity of the city’s structures and the couple’s heartaches as well as their fleeting moments of being happy together. This incongruity culminates in an overwhelming sense of alienation. That is, a mutual process of deflection and dissociation takes place between the spatial-temporal make-up of the external world and the individuals’ consciousness.

Even when Lai and Ho do take it upon themselves to navigate through the expansive urban structures, they find themselves incapable of doing so. In another display of Buenos Aires’ monumental structures, Ho forces Lai to go for a jog with him over the Puente Transbordador (Old Ferry Bridge) of the outlying barrio La Boca. Lai declares his inability to continue as they are forced to go back home, jacket over Lai’s head and pained expression etched on Ho’s face:

Afterwards, due to this (failed) attempt, Lai falls ill. He partly suffers against the forces of nature as he exclaims how cold the weather is, but I find that he is also reacting viscerally against the forces of infrastructure. The merciless iron of the bridge is heightened by the frosty, bluish tints of twilight and the small size of the human figures brings its magnitude to light. What could have been a moment of (re)union turns into a dispute, consequent illness, and a lack of advancement in their relationship. Hence, atop the bridge that connects the city to its suburbs, during the twilight hours between night and morning, Lai and Ho can only exist in a suspended state of being, finding it impossible to advance both physically and emotionally in space and time.

Similarly, Doyle expresses the film crew’s incapacities to navigate forward or back whilst caught in this new space:

“We came to Argentina to ‘defamiliarize’ ourselves by moving away from the spaces—and we hope the preoccupations—of the world we knew so well. But we’re out of our space and depth here. We don’t even know the city well. So why do we still tend towards bars, barbershops, fast-food joints and trains? What happened to the inspiration from Manuel Puig’s novels and Julio Cortazar’s conceits? We’re stuck with our own concerns and preconceptions.”[12]

Hong Kong now exists as a dream that they have purposely distanced themselves from, just as Lai and Ho have. At the same time, their dreams of Latin America—the fictional, romanticized accounts and distinctly Latin aura—remain just as elusive. As a result, the individuals both on- and offscreen are forced to retreat and confine themselves to what they know: the apartment and each other’s company for Lai and Ho; fast-food joints and bars for Doyle and the crew. In this case, what Bart Keunen describes as Bakhtin’s “chronotope of the threshold” reflects this incapacity of moving forward or back in time and space:

“At the heart of this temporal-spatial construction [of the threshold]…[t]he subject, in an agony of doubt, freezes in the face of the new experiential data, compares these with previous, older experiences and is paralyzed by his or her inability to attune the two.”[13]

Indeed, as characters and filmmakers alike find themselves caught on an unforgiving bridge between two dreams, unable to advance yet inextricably tied to their home and past, their paralyzed state of exile takes the chronotopic form of the threshold. Consequently, in addition to presenting an unfamiliar setting for the characters and filmmakers, the filmic depiction of Buenos Aires also brings it to resemble, in a way, a spatial and temporal threshold—one that promises a new experience yet cripples the subject due to its difficulty to grasp and navigate through. Here, though, on the Puente Transbordador, it is no longer the sheen of downtown but instead the skeleton of the suburban bridge that comes into the foreground. As the bridge leads us out of the city center and into the barrio La Boca, this outlying space to where they retreat is where I look next—to see if the suburbs prove any more accommodating to human desires.

The margins of home

The southeastern barrio (neighborhood) La Boca bordering the Río de la Plata is where Lai and Ho call home. According to Wilson,

“Barrios are a kind of beautus ille, a salutary counterpoint to the ever-changing, sordid city.”[14]

Indeed, while the dynamism of downtown Buenos Aires is highlighted in the aforementioned shots of the city, it is the quiet stillness of the barrio that comes into view:

As the shot resembles a still image, time in La Boca seems to slow to a stop. The sense of stasis and halted time can be adequately expressed through Bakhtin’s chronotope of a provincial town, in which

“[t]ime here has no advancing historical movement . . . and therefore almost seems to stand still.”[15]

Indeed, a variety of chronotopes will appear suitable to defining and shedding light on Lai and Ho’s situation. Evidently, then, their disorientation cannot be defined by a single, limited experience of space and time. Rather, as they find themselves living in a continual state of flux, their circumstances are defined by a mélange of chronotopes—that is, a constantly shifting experience of time and space in relation to their surroundings.

In this case, while the suburb is not the equivalent of a provincial town, it is inarguably a space that has been relegated to the margins with respect to the city center: as the downtown remains “ever-changing,” the time of the barrio operates in direct opposition. Thus, at the margins of the city’s industrial glory lies the residue of industrial immobility. Although this imagery scales down from the monumental dimensions of the city center with the camera now placed at eye level, the deadened road also excludes the presence of human figures. Tellingly, as the only accents of color, the caution tapes in the foreground forbid the treading of footsteps.

This therefore begs the question of why the space of the barrio, too, has become so hostile to receiving human inhabitants. The faded colors and view of the ships docked at the left provide a glimpse into the layers of La Boca’s past. As Wilson describes, “More than elsewhere it was the port that reflected this leap in modernization,” with “ships docked in La Boca . . . to give Buenos Aires its grand (and decaying) port look.”[16] In contrast to the rapid, on-going modernization that has reconstructed downtown, this suburban space presents us with the “decaying” effects of development. That is, unlike the lights and speed of the city center, herein remain the discarded, forgotten pieces of industry that have lingered for too long and ultimately congealed.

Indeed, now existing as one of the “unchanging” parts of the city where time “seems to stand still,” the barrio has been left behind vis-à-vis the rapid development of the city. Furthermore, not only has the space itself become marginalized, but such results have also marginalized its residents, as the road and port appear unfit to receive human visitors. Doyle describes the space as a “stinking oil-slicked port,” as its smell and surfaces prove unwelcoming to those who come across it. [17] Thus, Lai and Ho find themselves not only residing in the spatial and industrial margins of Buenos Aires, but also banned from frequenting the environment of their home.

At the same time, beyond revealing La Boca’s industrial past, the dilapidated image of the port also hints at its socio-political background. Tambling describes how

“one of Buenos Aires’ poorest barrios, La Boca, [was] originally one inhabited by Genoese and other Italian immigrants.”[18]

Thus, La Boca has historically been home to those living in the economic and social margins of Argentinian society—down-and-out immigrants who have, similar to Lai and Ho, uprooted themselves from their origins in order to seek a new life in Buenos Aires. By settling in this barrio defined as much by its port as by its immigrant history and impoverished status, the characters’ residence in La Boca thus reinforces the degree to which they are both geographically and socially alienated from the rest of Buenos Aires. Furthermore, with limited economic means, Lai and Ho are forced to relegate themselves to such an area.

Wilson summarizes the barrio’s history as

“the immigrant, essentially Genovese, area, associated with tango and lunfardo, the dockside, underworld idiom of Buenos Aires.”[19]

In effect, in the shot preceding that of the decaying port, we see Lai and Ho echoing La Boca’s past as they attempt to dance the Argentinian tango. In close-up, Ho tenderly guides Lai to carry out the steps in their apartment whilst the Astor Piazzolla tune begins. It is a rare, tranquil moment that they share in their increasingly fragmented relationship. Whether they are calmly watching each other sleep or dancing in sync, the nuances of their shared present are visibly and audibly conveyed through intimate, fluid exchanges. Consequently, I find that the spatial-temporal realm occupied by the tango proves particularly enlightening in contemplating Lai and Ho’s situation. That is to say, in contrast to the dimensions and tempo of the city center and suburb, the tempo kept by their dance, relationship, and the intimate quarters of their personal lives appear to reside largely in the realm of the tango.

Meaning, Lai and Ho’s experience is not only exemplified through the tango’s intimacy and fluidity, but also tied to the time and space occupied by the dance’s social history. Stokes and Hoover provide further insight into the tango’s past:

“The origins of tango were in the multicultural working-class slums and docks of Buenos Aires along the La Plata river in the late nineteenth century. The history of the music and its dance conveys suffering, sadness, and displacement.”[20]

As the tango originated within the immigrant community, it has long been associated with resettlement as well as its accompanying difficulties . Thus, when the external environment proves incompatible with Lai and Ho’s subjective experience, they seek a momentary respite in their re-creation of the tango, shadowing the steps and sorrow of past immigrants. While this instant appears to provide a glimmer of calm, the shot ultimately reverberates with a sense of despondency, marking one of the last instants of harmony between Lai and Ho.

Thus, it is the dimensions of their own sadness that they must reside in, as their present rapport—their tango—hardly follows the rhythm dictated by the outside world. Doyle reinforces this notion of a distinct temporality created through the lovers’ personal space, stating,

“Our interiors are consciously ‘timeless’, they’re not ‘logically’ lit. Time of day is not a concern in this film. Tony and Leslie’s world is outside time and space.”[21]

Instead, their experience is conveyed through the 1-2 of their steps that follow the tunes of the dance, whose sounds flow beyond the shot to envelop the view of La Boca’s port.

Indeed, the first locations that we see Lai and Ho frequent are the late night tango clubs. Here, Lai works as a doorman as they both pass their nights alongside unfamiliar company: unruly customers for Lai, short-term affairs for Ho. At the same time, although satisfying the Latin aura that Doyle claims the filmmakers wished to access as well as providing a temporary home and occupation for the characters, the tango may have been foregrounded due to lack of choice. In other words, while coming to grips with their exile, the dance may be one of the only means of survival and expression for past immigrants as well as Lai and Ho. For instance, Lai declares how he only works as a doorman at the club since

“I want to go back to Hong Kong, but I don’t have any money.”

Wong, too, seems to have found the tango mainly in his beginning attempts to understand his newfound filming experience. Brunette describes how the director only came across Piazzolla’s work through buying a CD in the airport on the way to Buenos Aires.[22] As a result, the tango ’s  history, tune, rhythm, and steps also offer a way to approach this new environment and home.

Moreover, while mention of the queer aspects of the film would deserve an entirely different discussion, it is necessary to remember that, most likely, Lai and Ho find themselves displaced from mainstream society not only due to their immigrant status and financial struggles, but also as a result of their sexual orientation. Queer, too, for Lai and Ho becomes intrinsically linked with marginal, obscured spaces. For instance, Ho follows his wealthy lovers to the club under the cover of nightfall; Lai has a sexual encounter with a stranger in the darkness of a movie theater; and, in a kitchen behind a restaurant, Lai comes across fellow “exile” Chang from Taiwan (whose sexual orientation is unclear but suggested to be queer).[23] Similar to the “timeless” sense of their apartment, these spaces become just as atemporal, lacking any light or windows that could provide some indication of the outside world. In a way, then, Lai and Ho are resorting to spaces that form the underbelly of the city—shrouded interiors that defy the spatial-temporal constructions of the external environment.

Thus, as Wilson describes La Boca as the “underworld” in the aforementioned citation, Lai and Ho’s home and mode of existence indeed resemble living in a certain “underworld.” Lai’s last job in Buenos Aires has him working laboriously in a slaughterhouse, carrying out night shifts while the rest of the city is asleep. He is not only handling the beef carcasses normally hidden from public view, but also removed from the time and space regulating the world above. Indeed, Lai and Ho’s escape has always been about escaping to the other end of space and time: Buenos Aires’ night is Hong Kong’s day, and the former’s summer is the latter’s winter. Furthermore, in being hidden and hiding from the outside, Lai and Ho are removed and removing themselves from the issues that are taking place in their present reality. As Teo argues, the film is really about

“depicting two Hong Kong men consciously escaping from the contemporary time-reality of Hong Kong by depositing themselves in another time, another place.”[24]

That is, they not only isolate themselves from the external reality of Buenos Aires, but also, and even more so, that of Hong Kong and the impending political changes that will affect their cultural identities.

At the same time, I diverge from Teo’s opinion that the film is purely about an escape: instead, I find that Lai is largely attempting to place himself back in sync with Hong Kong. By working mostly at night and distancing himself from his new surroundings, he is, in a way, resituating himself into the rhythm of his hometown. Indeed, in his voice-over during a nighttime shift, he admits:

“The hours suit me fine. Work all day, sleep all night. I’m back on Hong Kong time.”

Thus, he deliberately turns away from the components of the city and suburb in order to come closer to himself, his own desires, and to the other side of the world where he originally came from. After all, Buenos Aires is only ever meant to be an interim period in his life.

Thus, the spaces that Lai frequents, works in, and calls a temporary “home” become, in a way, shadows of the home Lai seeks to eventually head back to. Indeed, the choice to film La Boca’s port not only reflects a significant element of Buenos Aires’ history, but also echoes Hong Kong’s port status. Ackbar Abbas describes Hong Kong as “a port in the most literal sense”—meaning, a space of transit and ad hoc residence to those passing through.[25] Similarly, La Boca’s multicultural, immigrant population and history as a receiving port to newcomers provides a mirror, reflecting as well as rendering Hong Kong’s contemporary space and history even more distinct from the opposite side of the world. Finally, according to Tambling, the imagery of the abattoir represents the role that Buenos Aires plays in “the production of food for a global market,” situating the city within the world economy.[26] Thus, from cooking at a Chinese restaurant alongside Chang to working in the abattoir, Lai’s seemingly random job changes may not be entirely without direction and purpose. In fact, his spatial, occupational trajectory leads him from seeking the company and tastes reminiscent of his hometown to repositioning himself within the transnational trade and processes that define the global economy, time, and space.

Both Lai and Ho thus wander through various occupations—from doorman to beef handler for Lai, from pimp to pimp for Ho—just as they drift through time and space, forced to create their own moments of calm and shelter when incapable of handling the extent of their surroundings. Indeed, in contemplating their existence through this underworld labyrinth of various jobs and encounters, a certain drifting comes to depict their alienation and primary sense of movement. This is not to say that this movement is necessarily an inadequate mode of navigation, but an alternative one, and potentially a means of beginning to grasp the surroundings.

In effect, this motion culminates in another glimpse of La Boca’s port when Lai, having just been hit by Ho and reaching a definitive break in their rapport, floats around the harbor of the Río de la Plata.

This two-minute sequence is, according to Tambling, a “ghost-like sequence,” highlighting the drifting mode of existence that Lai has come to occupy in exile. Unable to set his roots down, he must glide and tango his way through the slippery surroundings that can only provide a temporary shelter for his worries. Accompanied by the soothing tones of Astor Piazzolla’s “Milonga for Three,” he floats along this river that takes him nowhere in particular, confined to the boundaries of the industrial structures that reign in the background. Leopold Marechal, a twentieth century Argentinian writer, describes the Río de la Plata:

“He who has never heard the River Plate’s voice will never understand the sadness of Buenos Aires. It’s the sadness of mud pleading for a soul.”[28]

Strikingly, this description echoes Tambling’s aforementioned claim of the downtown having had its heart torn out: here, too, something has been lost as a result of modernization. Perhaps, with the concrete avenues having torn out the heart and the mud having buried the soul, such “heart” and “soul” refers to the sights and sounds of previous organic life—green space, free-flowing water, and human presence.

Noticeably, although the steel structures remain in this sequence, they grow blurred and are pushed towards the background. The camera is visibly caught between the pull of steel and that of the river; at times, the river occupies the majority of the onscreen space. In those brief instants when the water fills the screen, it offers a cradle to the saddened Lai as a faint pulse of empathy sloshes through its muddied ripples. With Ho no longer there to tango with Lai, the stirrings of the music continue, perhaps indicating the debut of a certain dance and exchange with the landscape. The flowing time and space of the Río de la Plata thus begins to provide a potential partner to and mirror of the fluidity of his subjective experience—his time-as-lived.

At the edge

Henri Bergson, in defining the notions of subjective time (time-as-lived) and external (numeric, spatialized) representations of time, describes the former as a melody and the latter as sheet music. By depending on the sheet music, the melodic tune at the heart of lived experienced grows fainter.[29] The fixity of lined music and measured time is, in a way, akin to how Buenos Aires’ grid-like streets as well as rapidly passing minutes on the city center’s clock prove unsympathetic to the pace and path of Lai and Ho’s existence. Indeed, as the original title of the film was The Buenos Aires Affair (based on the Marcel Puig novel), this could refer not only to the affair that Lai and Ho have in Buenos Aires, but also to the (failed) affair that they have with Buenos Aires.[30]

The search for a relatable space in this world—one potentially with its heart and soul still intact—could thus come down to finding a place that simply reflects the melody at the depths of subjective experience. That is, a location that reflects the fluctuations and vibrations of our emotions and inner temporality. Perhaps, this is why the Río de la Plata and the flow of its waters appear capable of partnering Lai, at least for a moment. However, it flows in a limited direction, permanently bound to its industrial borders as Lai continues to appear emotionally disconnected from these surroundings. Consequently, he has yet to come across a place that can truly provide him with the calm and solace he yearns for.

Here, it is necessary to clarify the difference between my intentional use of the terms space and place. Deleuze’s writing on contemporary space suggests the following:

“[We are] trying to come to grips with a new generation of spaces that do not confer the sense or feeling of being in a place, either because they are frictionless passageways designed as conduits or simply so vast or alien they have lost contact with human proportion.”[31]

This notion of space as vast, alien passageways proves remarkably fitting in describing the shots of the Avenida 9 de Julio and La Boca, either filled with the speed of gliding, frictionless traffic or devoid of human presence. Thus, the city and suburb are both made up of spaces that thwart personal connections to the landscape and deny a true sense of belonging. Place therefore implies not only a more specific geographical location, but also somewhere that allows for the formation of strong, affective ties (thoughts, memories, dreams) with it. The notion of place thus emerges at the beginning of the film, in Lai and Ho’s quest to reach the Iguazu Falls and attempt to fulfill their dreams of starting anew as a couple. A full color, aerial glimpse of the Falls also breaks through the initial black-and-white imagery, carving out its distinct place in the film amidst the vast and disorienting space of the roads.

The Iguazu Falls, bordering Brazil and Argentina, is over 1000 kilometers away from Buenos Aires:

Having just arrived in Latin America, Lai is forced to admit that “We lost our way” somewhere along these 1000 kilometers, as the lovers grow increasingly disenchanted with their romantic ideals. Doyle describes the scene:

“Leslie leaves Tony in a fog both real and metaphorical—across a vast, grassy space dissected by approach roads to the Patagonia Highway. The distances are huge.”[32]

This loss in a geographical sense thus translates to a simultaneous emotional loss, as they begin to realize that their dreams of reaching the Falls and staying together prove impossible.

In a way, then, the Iguazu Falls come to represent Lai and Ho’s “promised land,” or the utopic point of their entire quest: it is a place that motivates their journey yet one that they can never seem to reach. Indeed, their desired experience of such a place, just like their past dreams of being happy together, exists as an illusion. Ganser, Pühringer, and Rheindorf expand on Bakhtin’s theories to delineate the chronotope of the promised land:

“Somehow, time is out of joint and the characters are out of place; consequently, their projected destination is one where they hope to find a home (also within themselves), some illusionary place where space-time relations are perceived to be still unharmed.”[33]

Indeed, the Iguazu Falls are this “projected destination” that drive Lai and Ho’s lives as well as overall experience of time and space. This definition also proves telling as it suggests that the characters’ sense of alienation is not only due to their disjuncture from the spatial-temporal dimensions of Buenos Aires. Instead, they are “out of joint” and “out of place” as a result of their preoccupation with this idealized land that embodies their fantasy of a harmonious rapport. In effect, their escape has always been for something more, something beyond just removing themselves from Hong Kong, the city, and the outside world. What they also wish to find, then, is a place that reflects rather than deflects their subjectivities.

It is only towards the end of the film, when Lai begins to recover from his break from Ho and attempts to navigate the landscape by himself (first drifting along the river and then taking to the roads again), that reaching the elusive experience of the Falls becomes a possibility. When he arrives, Lai stares up at the natural wonder, his face filmed in close-up:

Looking up at the Falls and standing at the edge of all things—the last frontier of his relationship, the final moments of his time in Buenos Aires, and the borders of two countries—Lai is finally engaged with his surroundings. Transcending national boundaries, the location of the Falls echoes the core of Lai’s transnational, borderless positioning and the multiplicity of his personal identity. At the most basic and visceral level, though, Lai’s identification with the landscape stems from the rushing water: it immerses him, touches his skin, and, above all, comes to reflect the flowing depths of his individual experience that has been repressed by the views of the cityscape and barrio.

After all, as his trek has necessitated a return to nature, it also calls forth a return of the repressed. Wilson describes how Buenos Aires is “one of the world’s cities with the lowest proportion of green spaces,” with nature having been largely abolished by urban construction.[34] Thus, the journey to the Falls indicates a certain return to the natural past that the urban and suburban spaces have so long sought to repress. From the postmodern pastiche of Buenos Aires’ downtown to the industrial remnants of the port, here we come to a pre-modern and pre-industrial site. Consequently, these waters could also come to represent the subjective time described by Bergson that has been largely suppressed due to modern emphases on rationalized time and organization. Teo emphasizes how “[t]he Falls are essentially the carrier of real time in the film”: indeed, this location is shot in real time as opposed to the time-lapse of the avenue.[35] However, his claim could also be extended to the notion that the Falls carry a sense of lived time in its waters—the tumult that best portrays Lai’s time-as-lived and the organicity of “real time” at the heart of natural life.

Simultaneously, it may be too simple and hopeful to consider the Falls a perfect mirror of Lai’s subjectivity. Indeed, Tambling compares the Falls to

“a vast hole, a vast gap… an image of absence.”[36]

Certainly, their vastness could be seen as even more dwarfing than the city structures, failing to console Lai as he declares: “I feel very sad. I feel like there should be two of us standing here.” This could signify his continued alienation from the environment—the ideal human-place tango remains unattainable. While I admit that the perfect partner, whether in a lover or a landscape, may continue to remain elusive, what proves significant is the filmic inflection of this experience. After all, Lai is shown facing forward in close-up: no longer displaced, no longer dwarfed or drifting outside the frame. Certainly, he remains sad; however, contrary to his previous indifference to his surroundings, this place manages to make him feel.

Furthermore, the beginning glimmers of happiness start to emerge from the admission of his sadness, as he finally learns to love Ho from a distance and can now end his sojourn in Buenos Aires to find his way back home to Hong Kong. As Wong claims in an interview, the film ultimately indicates that

“being happy together could also mean being happy with yourself.”[37]

The Falls, then, help provoke the debut of this solitary happiness and a renaissance of direction for Lai. Thus, instead of a vast gap, I find that the waters resemble more of a receptacle—a place that receives rather than repels, and re-orients rather than disorients.

Finally, just as Lai journeys to the edge of the Falls in his attempt to come to peace with himself, Chang, who comes into Lai’s life when Ho is on the brink of leaving it, also looks towards a projected destination before heading back to Taiwan. He wishes to go to where he calls “the end of the world”: Ushuaia, the provincial capital of Tierra del Fuego located at the southernmost tip of South America.

Tierra del Fuego may not only be geographically located on the edges of South America, but may also visually appear to teeter on the end of the world. Stokes and Hoover remark how Doyle’s filming of Tierra del Fuego brings it to

“[look] like the edge of the world, with random pans of sky, sea, Chang, and the lighthouse.”[38]

Similar to Lai’s experience of the Falls, Chang has not only reached the promised land and final frontier he has longed for, but also the repressed landscape of nature—the “sky” and “sea” that now accompany his solitude.

After all, Chang, too, comes here alone. Although he plays a tape recording that Lai left for him, he admits that despite his acute sense of hearing, he is barely able to discern anything except for some faint crying. Thus, it is the mountainous landscape and waters that partner him, allow him to stand at the edge of the continent, and bring him to realize that it is the end of his time abroad. By reaching what appears to be the end of the world for them, especially in relation to their origins in East Asia, the trajectory of Lai and Chang’s exile can be encapsulated through Bakhtin’s chronotope of escape as described by Ganser et al.: the individual’s experience “seems to lead to the end of all roads, some sort of ‘land’s end.’”[39] Indeed, perched atop the rocks and standing beneath the Falls, Chang and Lai’s journeys have led them to the edge, forcing them to recognize that the only place left to go is back to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Hence, it is this very escape to a place at the end of all roads, where space is built organically and time measured subjectively, that has the potential to bring us back to where we started from. As Chang realizes,

“Suddenly I feel like going home.”

Home is where the film begins and where it must end: Lai and Chang both head back to the opposite hemisphere. However, one individual has been left behind in the process. The last shot we see of Ho shows him sobbing and clasping Lai’s blanket to his chest, alone in their old apartment. Indeed, Ho has never left his suspended state of being, metaphorically still caught atop the Puente Transbordador and drifting without direction in his underworld existence. Contrary to Ho, Lai actively attempts not only to tackle the landscape, but also to redirect himself, ultimately managing to face the world above the surface. He eventually takes to navigating through the downtown streets of Buenos Aires, immersing himself in the buzz and energy of the city and matching the rapid, jagged pace of the camera that moves alongside him.

In other words, Lai can begin to confront the speed of the external world and, in turn, that of Hong Kong. This notion of speed defines the unfolding of Hong Kong’s contemporary reality, the imminent redefinition of Lai’s national identity, and the collective stream of time that governs the increasingly rapid pace of our world. As a result, although Lai does not return to Hong Kong yet by the time the film ends, he begins to shed his underworld, obscured existence: in his hotel room in Taipei, he watches a news program that, for the first time, offers a window into the contemporary events unfolding close to home (Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s death on February 20th, 1997). Finally, he strolls with ease through the Taiwanese night market on Liaoning Street, potentially reflecting a certain acknowledgment of his homeland’s increasing ties to mainland China as Liaoning is the name of a Chinese province.[40] Here, just as he allowed himself to be showered by the Falls, he throws himself into his surroundings as the film ends, hurtling through the space and time of his present as he takes a ride aboard Taiwan’s high-speed mass transit train. According to Teo,

“it is as if time, in the shape of the moving train, has caught up with Lai Yiu-fai and hence with Hong Kong.”[41]

Escape, after all, is temporary; time can only be suspended for so long. Thus, his transnational quest becomes just as much a personal pursuit to resituate himself within the waves of his present and accept his impending future.

At the same time, this is not merely a journey about the present: the voyage that Wong, Lai, and I as the spectator embark on is one that traverses not only thousands of kilometers in space but also countless years in time. Indeed, it is simultaneously a nostalgic search for a land before time. With the Falls as a representation of a long lost nature, the landmark could indeed serve as the ultimate, albeit imperfect, tango partner for Lai whilst Ho has abandoned him. As the Falls weep on him to the strains of “Cucurrucucu Paloma,” we witness a fleeting, harmonious dance between human and environment. Furthermore, as Lai describes Ushuaia to Chang as a place where “heartbroken people go…and leave their unhappiness behind,” we can only hope that Chang, too, has managed to shed some of his sadness on the nature that surrounds him.

Finally, as I believe that the trip to the Falls is just as much a search to find a place and receptacle for human emotions, I look to the continuum of Wong’s works in search of more support for this claim. In In the Mood for Love, Tony Leung’s character Chow Mo-wan, unable to fulfill his love for his neighbor Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) due to their social obligations (both are married), travels to the 12th century Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia to whisper his secrets into a hole in the wall. The vortex thus shrinks…only to open up again in the first scene of 2046, on an image of a hole that ripples outwards, which is used by the android (Faye Wong) as a safe place to keep her thoughts in the faraway future after a forbidden affair. Both films thus indicate a constant search for a place capable of receiving these displaced individuals’ feelings. Hence, while the confluence of love and time has been the focus of much of the study around Wong’s works and justifiably so, the particular spatial and temporal geography of love remains an area that has yet to be explored to its fullest potential.

Maybe, though, this is for the best, as unexplored terrain implies that we still have somewhere to go. Indeed, it is the dream of unreached destinations that motivates such transnational and transtemporal journeys, whether in taking the car to the Iguazu Falls or the train to the year 2046. These lost lovers are thus not only in search of someone, but somewhere to whom they can whisper their secrets and shed their sorrows; or, at the very least, next to whom they can share a rare moment of solace.


1. Stephen Teo, Wong Kar-Wai (London: BFI, 2005); Peter Brunette, Wong Kar-wai (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005); Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover, City on Fire (London and New York: Verso, 1999).

2. Ackbar Abbas, Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 81.

3. Jeremy Tambling, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (Hong Kong: HKU Press, 2003).

4. Jason Wilson, Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary History (Oxford: Signal Books, 2007).

5. Holquist, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 84.

6. Tambling, 47.

7. Wilson, 26.

8. Wilson, 226.

9. Wilson, 7.

10. Tambling, 50.

11. Christopher Doyle, “To the End of the World,” Sight and Sound 7, no. 5 (May 1997): 14.

12. Doyle, 16.

13. Bart Keunen, “The Chronotopic Imagination in Literature and Film: Bakhtin, Bergson and Deleuze on Forms of Time” in Bakhtin’s Theory of the Literary Chronotope: Reflections, Applications, Perspectives, edited by Neil Bemong, Pieter Borghart, Michel De Dobbeleer, Kristoffel Demoen, Koen De Temmerman & Bart Keunen (Gent: Academia Press, 2010), 45.

14. Wilson, 255.

15. Bakhtin, 247.

16. Wilson, 21.

17. Doyle, 14.

18. Tambling, 48.

19. Wilson, 213.

20. Stokes and Hoover, 273.

21. Doyle, 17.

22. Brunette, 83.

23. As Chang turns down the advances of a girl (although claiming that he simply did not like her voice), he and Lai grow close and keep each other company especially as Ho begins to break from Lai’s life.

24. Teo, 100.

25. Abbas, 4.

26. Tambling, 25.

27. Tambling, 54.

28. Wilson, 62.

29. Henri Bergson, La pensée et le mouvant: Essais et conférences (Paris: Quadridge/Puf, 1938), 164. Translation by me.

30. Tambling, 26. Tambling cites the original title.

31. Ian Buchanan and Gregg Lambert, Deleuze and Space (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 7.

32. Doyle, 16.

33. Alexandra Ganser, Julia Pühringer, and Markus Rheindorf, “Bakhtin’s Chronotope on the Road: Space, Time, and Place in Road Movies Since the 1970s,” Linguistics and Literature, vol. 4, no. 1 (2006): 11.

34. Wilson, 10.

35. Teo, 110.

36. Tambling, 60.

37. Joan Dupont, “Remaking Hong Kong – In Buenos Aires,” International Herald Tribune (17 May 1997): 20.

38. Stokes and Hoover, 278.

39. Ganser, Pühringer, and Rheindorf, 7.

40. Brunette, 75. Brunette identifies the street name and province.

41. Teo, 112.

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