Directed by: WONG KAR-WAI
1997, TSPDT Rank #343
By the time he got to Happy Together, his sixth feature film, Wong Kar-Wai had the mystical epic Ashes of Time, the internationally successful Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, its darkly comic companion piece, behind him. Viewed alongside these other films, Happy Together seems to have been Wong's attempt to reset his stylistic agenda and move away from these previous works. Although it continued his collaboration with virtuoso cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film's look is initially rough and unpolished, even amateur at times - especially compared to the visual grandeur of Wong and Doyle's previous collaborations. But as the film unfolds, this grimy visual style gives way to a psychological intensity that had not been so nakedly present in any of Wong's previous films - even Days of Being Wild. The story, with Wong's typically loose touch, follows two men (played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) who cycle through variations on their mutually destructive relationship over the course of an extended trip to Argentina. The feelings here are raw and intimate, and also instantly relatable.
Like Days of Being Wild, Happy Together features one haunting central image which exists outside of the characters and represents something larger than them. The image in Days of Being Wild was that of a thick, overpowering jungle in the Philippines - lush green in color and symbolic of the characters' imprisonment by their respective desires. In that film, this crucial image is shown in an extended shot following the opening sequence, and again in the final section of the film. In Happy Together, the same technique is used, but this time the image is a distorted vision of the Iguazu waterfall on the border between Argentina and Brazil, the lovers' original destination upon their arrival in the country. For the characters, it is a dream kept alive by a lamp with the waterfall's image, which Tony Leung's character keeps in his Buenos Aires apartment.
The image of the falls, shown once early in the film and in another extended shot at the end of the film, takes the viewer away from the central storyline and magnifies the scope of the characters' feelings. This technique creates a meditative atmosphere in which the story and themes expressed in the film become symbolic and universal. In this way, the falls are a classic Wong Kar-Wai image. Simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, this image is perfect for a film about a torrential relationship which destroys both participants while simultaneously providing them with the companionship they crave in each other's absence.