davidehrlich’s review published on Letterboxd:
“It turns out lonely people are all the same.”
“We’re going to shoot a road movie in Argentina,” Wong Kar Wai told his cast and crew before they boarded the plane that would take them to the next year or two of their lives. “From where to where I don’t know yet.”
While the film world was still recovering from the one-two punch of “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels,” Wong sought to make something that would recapture the magic while keeping his audience on their heels. The result is a movie that’s as much the flipside to that couplet as “Chungking Express” and “Fallen Angels” were to each other — an antipodean love story that cemented Wong’s auteur status by turning the world upside down and seeing his signature tropes in a sun-baked new light.
Everything about “Happy Together” is familiar to fans of Wong’s earlier films, and yet everything is also different. The day-dreaming Lai Yiu-Fai and the more volatile Ho Po-Wing are typical Wong archetypes; the actors who embody them (Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung) are as synonymous with his work as step-printing and “California Dreamin’;” and the way they’re both desperately alone save for their moments of shared collision is true to Wong’s stance that love is better remembered than kept.
Here, however, the lovers are both men, their relationship is carnal rather than coquettish (the film opens with the most explicit sex scene that Wong has ever permitted Christopher Doyle to shoot), and the story of how they repeatedly break up and careen back into each other is as straightforward as “Ashes of Time” was non-linear. Wong wanted to make a gay romance that was as raw and grounded as hetero love stories were allowed to be lighter than air, and it remains fascinating to watch him bend his poetic flourishes in service of something so bitter and physical. Certain moments feel as if they could’ve been adopted from Fassbinder.
And then there’s the Argentina of it all, which allows Wong to explore the personal nature of exile and the parts of themselves that people can’t help but bring with them wherever they go. “To me,” Wong has said, “‘Happy Together’ applies not only to the relationship between two persons, but also the relationship between one person and his past. If people are at peace with themselves and their past, this is the start of being able to be happy with somebody else.” Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing are so determined to run away from themselves that they can’t help but collide into each other over and over again, each “new start” actually betraying their mutual inability to begin anew. It’s only when Yiu-Fai is able to peel his memories away like the bark from a tree and transmute his love for Po-Wing into something tactile — say, a tchotchke-sized lamp embossed with an image of the Iguazu Falls — that he’s able to reconcile himself to his home and achieve the same freedom he once tried to find by leaving it behind.
Like the couple it depicts, “Happy Together” is a film that works best during individual moments; it burns with a frustrated, implosive energy that can make the chatty interstitial stretches feel like Wong is just waiting for the inevitable detonation. While there’s something transcendent about how it crystallizes the searching nature of its own conception, the movie also finds Wong hitting upon ideas that find more poignant homes in his later work (e.g. the lighthouse where Chang Chen leaves his sadness behind as a first draft for the tree hole at the end of “In the Mood for Love”). But Cheung and Leung are magnificently combustible from start to finish, and those individual moments are the stuff that other filmmakers would be lucky to have in their best films. The kitchen tango, Hong Kong literally turned on its head, the climactic submersion into the Falls… we may never see anything so beautiful again, but at least we know where to go looking for it.