A Japanese tourist in Hong Kong has itemised his purchases while on holiday seeking meaning (or something) through some sort of numerological arrangement of receipts all filmed on his new VHS camera. He meets a schoolgirl who has been left behind while the vast majority of the rest of Hong Kong have emigrated prior to the handover in China in 1997. Together they seek to resolve the mysteries that plague them.
The two leads in this film speak different languages, only able to communicate with each other through broken English. They have different ideas about those words as well. Just what is an authentically Hong Kong restaurant? This language barrier persists through the film. It makes the conversation pained and slow, but they persevere. The viewer has to persevere as well. It doesnít help that the lead characters both appear to somewhat stereotypical initially. The Japanese tourist happy to say exactly what he bought and how much he paid, and to treat the women he meets similarly. The Hong Kong school girl coming-of-age, and learning about boys and love. Both characters do develop over the course of the film, but for the first twenty minutes or so, this is a tough watch.
Part of the reason for that is the cinematography. In the absence of characters to get your teeth into, you might hope for something nice to look at. Here though Hong Kong is presented as a bizarrely empty, washed-out, brutalist nightmare of a place. It looks like an abandoned ant nest where all the residents have discovered the picnic of which all ants dream, and disappeared to party. This fits with the ideas that are being developed. Characters who are isolated or abandoned, and the idea of migration. Here it seems as if everyone from Hong Kong has already departed, leaving the two leads behind almost alone. Itís a 1990s Hong Kong preserved in aspic. One of the most crowded places on earth rendered as a deserted maze of pavements, towers and rooms. Itís odd to say then that Hong Kong itself serves as the third main character in this film. In much the same way that Vienna interacts with the leads in ĎBefore Sunriseí in a romantic fug, and Tokyo inspires awe and befuddlement in ĎLost in Translationí, here Hong Kongís austere and impersonal faÁade forces the leads to seek sanctuary inside, or in one case in some sort of sewer or underground water feature, to escape the sense overbearing alienation.
Itís audacious cinematography in such a setting, yet this film is neither as chaste nor romantic as either ĎBefore Sunriseí or ĎLost in Translationí. The audacity continues with the sex scenes and the bulk of the film feels cold and sterile. Emotions are not welcome there and have to be hidden. The sex is similar but given the repression all around, it comes as something as a release for those both on and off-screen. Itís forceful nature, graphic physicality and life-affirming energy contrasts with just about everything else in the film. They shine a light into the turmoil within.
Thereís something else going on here and that I think guides the directorís focus on the brutal architecture and drives the narrative towards its distinctly unsatisfying resolution. Of the two-leads, one is constantly looking at the past, Tokio the tourist, while Wai, the student, is only looking forward to her life away from Hong Kong in the cold of Canada. Neither is reflecting on the past or future with much pleasure or optimism. When they first meet, thereís a connection, but it isnít exactly clear what that might be. In both cases, they are busy repressing the desires and emotions that drive them, and are unable to fully express or know their own fears or sorrows. Both are out of kilter with the world and their lives. All very Koyaanisqatsi. The distinctly Chinese solution to all of this are the Taoist concepts of living in the moment, living harmoniously with the universe and Ďnaturalnessí, that is returning to a state of simplicity.
Both characters reach their quiet epiphanies and the film is all looking set for some sort of resolution, but this doesnít seem to happen. Or at least it didnít in my subtitles. Instead, they share the suddenly revealed connection and their new-found enjoyment of living in the now, having reset their fears in the light of their new perspective, and do so with the traditional cinematic conceit of the silently shared moment of understanding while watching fireworks near a stretch of water. Their concerns are dispelled completely. Itís all a bit ĎAnd they all lived happily ever afterí only with added humility in the light of self-gained knowledge. Maybe itís hard for my non-culturally collinear mind to appreciate. Itís a deliberately quiet resolution, but perhaps too quiet; I found it all a bit too quick, clean and simple. Like the concluding captainís log at the end of an original Star Trek, only with less exposition, but just as much moral certainty.
So, yes, I liked this for lots of reasons, but it left me feeling alienated and a little abandoned by the director. Lots of words there. Probably indicative of how long it took me to process the film.
A pair of lovers has embarked on a quest to find both a waterfall and the thing that keeps them together. In a strange land, how will they both survive their joint journey of discovery? Will there be dancing and sticky rice?
This shares much with Autumn Moon and yet is so different. Again, it's a hard start, but for a different reason. The two leads are both very, very hard to like. They argue. They're childish. They're reckless. Yes, they're in love, or at least they were, but now the embers of that love and a lampshade are all that is holding them together. We are voyeurs of a particularly messy break-up that's pretty much broken up already. There is sex, and there is love with that sex, but it's not enough. The first reel is unpleasant. You really don't want to know these angry, selfish men. I wanted to leave the screen and go home. Going home is exactly what at least one them wants to do as well, only they're in Argentina without enough money for a return ticket and a spontaneously hedonistic lifestyle to maintain. They can't go home nor escape each other. They are aliens in a land that doesn't understand them and in which they don't fit in. They are unwilling immigrants on what might as well be another planet.
Then there are the major differences, starting with the cinematography. Happy Together is occasionally black and white (for remembered events), but mostly a molten kaleidoscope of colour, filmed on DV (I think). There is overexposure, saturation, shooting directly into the sun. A bed-sitting room that is so colourful it may have been production designed to test the colour-resolution limits of the camera technology being used. There is nothing at all austere about the visuals. I get the sense of a director testing a new way of film-making to see if he likes it, although Wong Kar-Wai has always enjoyed a vivid palate.
The resolution is, in my eyes, more authentically human and satisfying than Autumn Moonís. Perhaps itís a more regularly-trodden narrative path. Perhaps itís more rooted in the tango than the Tao. One major stand-out in Happy Together is the acting of both Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung. They breathe life into the characters, their situation, their evolving emotions. Tony Leung spends large chunks of the film staring into space with the look of a dog who's lost his master and has turned up at the same spot every day for the past eight years hoping his for return, before stoically getting on with his job as bouncer at a bar every evening, thinking about how he's going to bite his master's ankle as hard has he can when he gets back.
These two films have a lot in common. Both deal with isolation, the experience of migration, abandonment and dislocation. The main characters are all in turmoil below the surface, unable at least initially, to communicate, identify or even be aware of their turbulent feelings. Those feelings erupt only in elliptical tangents that given a window into the characters. Both of these films are hard starters and have unsympathetic even dislikeable characters as protagonists. I found the first quarter of an hour of both films to be tough-going, with both eventually worth that effort. Both make use of very interesting choices of cinematography and production design that do connect with the action and characters.
A difficult choice between two similar films and as both have already been resurrected, the loser is definitely out of the bracket, no third chances. I have to jump on the Wong-Kar Wai bandwagon; Happy Together progresses with a comforting bowl of sticky rice. Autumn Moon is good, but ultimately itís the acting, direction and writing of the relationship between the two leads in Happy Together and the authenticity of its resolution that wins it. Clara Law is an interesting director who I had previously not been aware of. I look forward to seeing more of her work.