Director: Kar-Wai Wong (Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea). Year of Release: 1997
Lai and Ho are a gay couple who are having problems maintaining their relationship. One of the first scenes shows them having make up sex. As a last desperate push to solve things, they pick up their burgundy British passports (remember them? They were big in Hong Kong in 1997. And in the UK until quite recently), and hop off to Buenos Aries. Soon after they land, they – metaphor ahoy – have to push-start a car which has lost the ability to travel under its own force.
Lai, the sensible one, gets a job as a doorman at a tango club. Ho gets work as a prostitute, and Lai often sees him entering the club accompanied by random men. After a while, the doorman gig gets too much for Lai, and he gets another job in a kitchen. Cue: endless scenes of self-regarding cooks drawing excessive flames from the stove. Lai meets a young man, Chang, who isn’t as flamboyant as Ho, but who is just as boring in his own way.
One day, Ho turns up on Lai’s doorstep having been badly beaten up. His head is bleeding and his hands have been broken. Lai takes him in out of pity, feeds him and bathes his wounds, and offers his bed while he sleeps on the sofa- But he rejects Ho’s attempts to renew their sexual relationship. Nonetheless we witness a continuation of the manipulative relationship, where Ho does everything that Lai asks, although we know that their relationship is heading to hell in a handcart.
My problem is that Lai and Ho are both so unlikeable, and their relationship is so unsalvageable, that it’s really difficult to give a fuck. I just didn’t care whether they stay together or break up. In a sense. They may have an Asian background, but they behave as badly as the worst Ex-Pats, moving to Argentina but having no interest in the country or its people. I wanted them to stay with each other, so that they save two other people from a pointless relationship with a deadbeat partner.
Yes, I’m sure there is an underlying attraction that draws them together, but they are so unsuitable for each other that you just want to bash their heads together. Except you don’t, because that would imply that you want them to succeed in life, whereas my permanent reaction was to hope that they get out of my life as quickly as possible (the first time I looked at the time, only 45 minutes had gone. I must say, it felt much, much longer).
Presumably there’s a keen scheduler out there, as this must be the fourth Kar-Wai Wong film I’ve seen in the last couple of months, and I’m starting to detect a trend:
1. Looks spectacular
2, Doesn’t faff about much with plot (one might even say, all style, no substance). Apparently Kar-Wai Wong made Happy Together after leaving for Argentina with a two page outline of the film’s script. You do wonder what happened to the other page.
3. Idolised by a significant group of fanboys (maybe the odd girl as well, but they’ve not been obvious by their presence)
4. Didn’t do much for me.
And, I must say, it was pretty much par for course. Of course, Happy Together looks great, switching confidently between black and white and vivid colour, but the confidence might be part of the problem. The film seems very pleased with itself, but once you scratch beneath the surface there doesn’t really seem much to be pleased about. I can sort of see what the obsessive fans see in it, but I’m really not moved, either intellectually or emotionally.
I do realise that this is mainly an “its not you, its me” moment. This is a film which is generally loved, at the very least by the people who bother to write about it. And yet I just can’t find a place to start with it. It’s not just that I can’t identify with the characters – I just don’t see anything in them that’s remotely interesting. You can only look at the pretty cinematography so much – or maybe you can’t. Maybe I’m just seeing film wrong (or at least differently).
I’ve seen a review comparing Happy Together to Taxi Driver, which feels just so wrong. Travis Bickle is unlikeable, sure, and pathological, but you can’t say he’s not interesting. I just couldn’t evoke strong feelings about any of the characters in Happy Together. In fact, I feel that I need to write this review now, while I remember who they are. Then again, the same review talks of a story with substance, so maybe we just watched different films.
Maybe you’re a more honourable person than me. Maybe when you see grown men sulking, you want to get to the emotional core of what’s disturbing them rather than wanting to shout at them “Look, could you just GROW UP?” This is a film which seems to indulge people who get enough attention to start with. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether I’m talking about the on-screen characters or the fans who are cheering them on.