Many of Wong Kar-wai’s films has to do with an “attitude” conveyed through his films, and the moment one tries to rationalize it through words, it ceases to have the same impact. Happy Together is no exception to this. Which is to say, excuse me for my writing, it will hardly do the film’s brilliance any justice.
Quite contrary to its title, this film tells a depressing story of Yiu-Fai and Po-Win, and their road trip to Argentina, where things go wrong in their relationship and they gradually drift apart from each other. Yiu-Fai, ready to settle down, started working at a Tango bar to save money for his trip home. Yet Po-Win had other plans in mind, as they become more and more distant from one another.
While watching the film, one might find that the themes of Happy Together are oddly universal, despite working with niche materials like a gay Asian couple in Europe. I suppose it resonates a lot with contemporary viewers today because it expresses larger themes of exile, loneliness, and suffocation in an urban environment that feels far from home. This could be the case for any migrant workers, immigrant workers, or college students studying abroad, to name a few social categories. And rather than provide some sort of consolation, this film seems to send a darker message that life moves on regardless of how you feel or where you may be emotionally, to deal with the crap it throws at you.
Being far from home is not easy. And this film shows just how difficult it is to “make it” in a foreign environment — we see cigarettes represent boredom, as chainsmoking become a pass time for the two to cope with life itself. This also means that boredom literally kills them, as the blandness and monotonicity of life sets in.
The two are not just in exile from their home country, with no means of returning just yet. But the two are also in exile from their environment as they settle into lower-class Argentinian society, unable to enjoy the lively nightlife as the “masses” do, in order to work a night shift earn enough money. The two also are in exile from their sexual orientation, as their sexuality is largely repressed throughout the film, a topic hardly discussed openly. But that’s hardly the point — Wong Kar-wai did not set out to revolutionize queer cinema. He’s more interested in the individual than politics.
We all deal with loneliness in our own ways. Sometimes it makes us overemotional, as Po feels as he collapses on the floor at the end of the dances, from exhaustion at work, but also from his separation from Yiu-fai. It becomes a common theme that as Po is away from Yiu-fai, something bad happens to him. There’s also the theme of nostalgia for sure, as Po clings onto the blanket that belongs to his partner, probably for his smell. And then there’s the non-stop cleaning, perhaps metaphorically scrubbing away the past, as Po distracts himself from Yiu-fai, which doesn’t really work as the room is never clean no matter how hard he tries.
Then, there’s the absence of emotion, which we sometimes feel when emotions go past a certain threshold, and a fuse kicks in. First is the use of black and white film stock to separate between the old and the new, but also to show a desaturation and draining of color from life. There’s also the Tango itself, a motif used throughout the film, and the dance is used to channel emotions into something more “productive” — art and entertainment perhaps, but it’s emotionally straining for everyone involved after each dance.
And finally, the most lethal — suffocation. Wong Kar-wai’s most telling traits is his overall “aesthetic,” often associated with melodrama and nostalgia of Hong Kong cinema, but hardly anyone discusses the color theory to support his artistic choices. Yellow is an “urban” color, associated with urban living and diseases. Throughout literary history, it has been used differently by Dickens, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, Bely, and more to symbolizes a kind of madness that arises from urbanization. The studio apartment in Happy Together is where a large bulk of this film is set, and a lens into the couple’s private life. From the multitude of different angles that were used, the room is always yellow and never fails to look cramped and irregularly shaped. It is also where a lot of fears like boredom and paranoia set in for the characters. Even the outdoor scenes were somehow tinted yellow, and not the natural kind that comes from a warmer film stock — the shots felt sickly. Perhaps directly or indirectly, the unbalanced color temperature of the film and Wong Kar-wai’s choice of film stock impacts our viewing experience and our perception of the characters’ reality.
How this bleak, soft-focused, highly saturated color palette became the auteur’s recognizable aesthetic is unclear to me, but definitely worth investigating. But I would chime in and say that a lot of his films deal with similar themes of nostalgia, urbanization, suffocation, exile, and more, with a similar tone. I’m thinking specifically of In the Mood for Love, which is also one of my favorite Wong Kar-wai films.
All things considered, this is definitely one of my top “sad ending” movies — unlike the usual tearjerking rom-coms or star-crossed-lover Hollywood tropes, the bleakness from Happy Together doesn’t come from the sad ending itself, but from the fact that the main characters are lonely together, but also lonely apart. Similarly, the characters are broken apart but are even more broken together. There is no closure, just uncertainty.
It’s also worth noting that starting a film off with a graphic and highly audible sex scene is a bold way to begin the film for sure, and it sets the audience expectation up for something different to the usual. It pushes the boundaries of our “comfort zone” at the very beginning, so if we made it past the opening sequence, we’re porous and accepting of all the other information that’s thrown our way later on in the film, without our prejudices carrying through, which is why it’s able to make such bold yet agreeable statements.
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