PTAbro’s review published on Letterboxd:
And the award for most ironic film title is....
After a brief foray into what could almost be described as 'feel-good' movies, Wong Kar-Wai strikes back with a brutal, vicious look into the breakdown of a relationship in Happy Together. It's difficult to center on a rating for the film, as it was, in turns, unbearable to watch due to the abhorrent way both of the men treated each other and also one of WKW's brightest and slickest films to date. In the end, the point of the film is the devastating relationship, and since I somehow marginally regained sympathy for the characters by the end, it simply looks too good and is too emotionally powerful not to love.
But I have to talk about the second act. At this point Po-Wing and Fai have tentatively 'reconciled' from their breakup to start the film, both of them being stranded in Argentine with not enough money to make it back to Hong Kong. I use reconciled loosely, as the more I watched, the more I started to doubt there was any emotional reason for Po-Wing to come back to Fai aside from a basic human fear of loneliness and survival instinct. So, without the real possibility of an honest relationship blooming, the pressure of two former lovers who can never forgive each other starts to cascade into an full blown war. Po-Wing taunts Fai by going out to (Fai can only assume) meet other men and bombards Fai with passive-aggresive taunting, and Fai literally keeps Po-Wing a prisoner there, having taken his passport so Po-Wing cannot go home even when he's saved up the cash.
It's horrific to watch both parties engage in such verbal, emotional, and physical abuse towards one another, and WKW does not shy away from the tense, quiet, simmering moments that make the anticipation for the outbursts even more unpleasant. Any sort of sympathy for the characters, past, present, and future is wiped out as they take turns tormenting each other when the victim is already scared, lonely, and stuck here in a strange land. I suppose that's where the briefest hint of sympathy later on comes from, as even in each of their roles as tormenter, they're being guided by those emotions. Nevertheless, as brutal as each of them were, I did have to ask myself if the unseen, happier portion of their relationship was even a conceptual possibility. I suppose this type of thing happens in real life, I'm just not familiar with such an extreme evaporation of love that transforms into such unyielding hate. I'm not sure if flashbacks or a more emotionally involving prologue showing some of the good times would have run counter to the point of the film, but it would have been nice to see that these two did love each other, once.
Happy Together is a feast for the eyes and a pitchfork to the soul. In typical fashion, WKW closes the film phenomenally, from waterfalls to lighthouses to the familiar streets of Hong Kong. There's little optimism here - this film is more the elegy for a failed relationship (or, more precisely, a snuff film) - but a few brief moments at the end at least bend the emotional arc somewhat back to level ground. Leslie Cheung is great as Po-Wing, putting on a show that annoyed and sickened me, which is precisely what his character is meant to do, but also refrained from being a stereotype, or at least as much so as possible with his limited screen time in the first and third acts. And, good god, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as Fai is phenomenal. It might be because he's able to be more outwardly emotive here, more forceful, and more varied in those emotions, but I think I might even prefer him here to his role in In the Mood for Love. He's that good. And as emotionally conflicting as the film itself is, it's also that good. What a pretty looking train-wreck this is.