(Hong Kong, 1997 | drama, romance, LGBTQ+)
Let’s start with Happy Together (1997). Why? Because, firstly, it’s gay, and this is Pride Month. And it’s one in Wong Kar-Wai’s filmography that I haven’t watched and rewatched many times already. It’s a first in my marathon of his films. It can serve as fresh material to think about, and see with new eyes. Secondly, 1997 is a special year for Hong Kong: it’s the year of the handover of Hong Kong from British rule to China, and Wong’s films have been dealing with the anxiety surrounding the event since Days of Being Wild (1990). To think about it, I was two years old in 1997, when the British empire was finally ending across the world. Thirdly, most of Happy Together takes place in Argentina, for a film that’s very much about Hong Kong. Isn’t that funny? The Wong Kar-Wai film that comes out in 1997 of all years isn’t one that happens in Hong Kong at all.
At first glance, setting the film in Argentina might seem like an effort to seem apolitical in art, defying exceedingly politically sensitive circumstances. But it’s also a way to resist being read as a direct allegory of what is happening in Hong Kong. One telling example of this effort is that the plot of Happy Together takes place several months before the handover of Hong Kong. A very obvious way of reading the film is mentioned in Jeremy Tambling’s excellent book on the film:
One view of Happy Together as an allegory ought to be mentioned straight away: that the two lovers stand for China and for Hong Kong, with Taiwan an important other, third presence. The film allegorizes the relationship together of two figures who cannot be happy together, even though they try to start over again. This reading, in my view, hardly takes the film seriously, or the situation of China and Hong Kong. … It can be conceded that the change of power is an issue in the film. But it is also true that the film is not nearly so determinate in what it says or in the way it can be read. Nor does the reading do much for the concept of allegory that has been raised. If allegory means anything, it requires delving more deeply than this.Jeremy Tambling, Happy Together (Hong Kong University Press, 2003)
This is important, because it keeps coming up in Wong Kar-Wai’s films, how he deals with politics in an abstract way. This is something I want to study more in it’s mechanics; simply put, how does Wong Kar-Wai do it? How does he filter something as visceral as the politics of a postcolonial city into something as rarefied as, say, In the Mood for Love?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s do a brief summary of Happy Together first. That’s easy, because the plot isn’t a complex one (again, at first glance). Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) are gay lovers who have come to Argentina looking for a fresh start to their relationship. They buy a lamp with an image of the Iguazu Falls on it, and intend to see it together one day. However, theirs is a love-hate relationship: Wing and Fai are polar opposites in terms of character, and they can’t trust each other. Wing is extroverted and flighty, even promiscuous by Fai’s standards. Fai is restrained and pragmatic, and provides most of the physical and emotional labour for the two of them. They keep fighting and breaking up, and getting back together whenever Wing suggests to Fai that they “start over again”. Their bond suffers more due to the suspicion of infidelity — better-founded on Fai’s part since Wing, it’s implied, routinely cheats on Fai, but eventually fair on Wing’s part too, because of Fai’s charged friendship with Chang (Chang Chen), a colleague.
This summary isn’t doing the film any justice at all, although I hope it doesn’t so that you will decide to watch the film yourself. But the film has two major themes that I find interesting because they are repeated in his 2000 film In the Mood for Love, a film that is as heterosexual a romance as can be (again, again, at first glance): infidelity, and gender roles.
Regarding infidelity in In the Mood for Love, Jeremy Tambling writes,
… the question of what to do and how to behave, where there is the awareness of the possibility of behaviour becoming scandalous, is paramount. Danger springs from betrayals by people with whom trust cannot be broken. Such betrayal threatens the very sense of identity that the betrayed person has painfully built up for themselves in relation to their betrayer.
This applies to Wing and Fai in Happy Together, too. They came to Argentina for the sake of each other as much as themselves, and this leap of faith comes from a place of, what the acclaimed film critic and writer Rey Chow called in her book Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films, nostalgia. Regarding the opening scene of the film, a black-and-white scene showing Wing and Fai passionately making love, after Wing suggests to Fai that they “start over again”, she writes:
The series of black-and-white shots featuring the physical entanglement of the lovers is, in terms of effects, quite distinct from other scenes in the film. It is, to be sure, a moment of erotic passion, but it is also what we may call a moment of indifferentiation, a condition of perfect unity that was not only chronologically past (perhaps) but also seemingly before difference and separation. A moment like this, placed at the beginning of the film, cannot help being evocative. It brings to mind myths of origins such as that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Are these images of passionate togetherness, then, indeed a recollection of something that actually happened, or are they part of a fantasy, a conjuring of something that never took place? We do not know. In terms of narrative structure, therefore, these images of copulation constitute not merely a remembered incident but, more important, an enigmatic beginning in the form of an other time, an otherworldly existence. The images are unforgettable because their ontological status is, strictly speaking, indeterminable.
But whether or not this series of “primal scenes” actually took place, both men apparently desire to return to the reality they conjure. This desire to return to some other life, imagined as a union that existed once upon a time, is, I believe, the most important dimension of the nostalgia projected by this film. Nostalgia in this case is no longer an emotion attached to a concretely experienced, chronological past: rather, it is attached to a fantasized state of oneness, to a time of absolute coupling and indifferentiation that may nonetheless appear in the guise of an intense, indeed delirious, memory.Rey Chow, Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films: Attachment in the Age of Global Visibility (Columbia University Press, 2007)
In Argentina, both Wing and Fai are rendered as immigrant Chinese men, with all its attendant socio-economic instability, and Wing and Fai’s frequent breakups, along with Wing’s infidelity, kills their nostalgic desire for each other, their myth of union, that is so integral to their identity. Their relationship reaches its point of no return when Wing realises that, while he had been recuperating in Fai’s flat from being beaten up, Fai had quietly stolen his passport. Fai had done so because he couldn’t be sure that Wing wouldn’t leave him again after getting better. For Wing, it’s a particularly destabilising moment because a crucial documentation of his identity is now lost to him. Jeremy Tambling writes, “The passport (Hong Kong is a port, as is Buenos Aires, and, in some ways, the men never get beyond being part of a port culture) … is suggestive of cosmopolitanism but also of the idea of a fixed identity.” And with this loss and gain of the passport, an almost magical transfiguration takes place: the two men switch their respective presentations of masculinity.
Wing and Fai embody two different modes of masculinity. If we go by the traditional model of heterosexual relationships, Wing fits the role of the typical polyamorous ‘husband’, who lives by the world outside the home, has a number of sexual relationships outside the one he has more or less committed to with Fai, is the most disappointed by Fai’s threadbare and monotonous life as the doorman to a bar, and refuses to commit to a single relationship. (‘Single relationship’ sounds like an oxymoron, but consider: they are one person, they are two alone, they are three together, they are fo[u]r each other…) Fai plays the steadfast, long-suffering ‘wife’, the caregiver in the relationship, the home-maker, the one who constantly provides paid and unpaid labour, who is repeatedly put upon by the ‘husband’ and his changing demands on their physical and psychological boundaries. However, Fai struggles to fit this womanly role, too: he is rather harsh when it comes to washing Wing when he’s ill, for example, as if he can’t quite bring himself to express his caring, nurturing side fully. Neither does Wing fully abide by the ‘manly’ role: he is the one who repeatedly suggests “start[ing] over again”, who returns to Fai for the home he symbolises to him, who expresses his need for physical and emotional nurture. Fai stealing Wing’s passport marks a decisive moment when Fai, wanting more than what he’s currently getting from Wing in the role of the ‘wife’, takes a concrete step to keep Wing to himself. He makes a claim on Wing’s gender and personhood that he doesn’t want to see refuted. Wing had previously submitted to Fai’s care on being beaten up; the loss of his own passport effectively emasculates him.
At the same time, Fai begins to act more typically ‘manly’: he attacks the man in the bar for possibly beating up Wing, the man Fai feels like he has the right to act on behalf of (because they’re romantically and sexually a couple), and he slowly warms up to Chang and his overt interest in Fai’s life. He refuses to entertain Wing’s ‘feminine’ display of jealousy as he suspects that Fai is leaving him alone for long hours in the flat only to have romantic escapades of his own (the first instance of Wing and Fai mirroring each other — Wing sees in Fai behaviour that he would have enacted himself if given the chance, and feels sharply the innate inequality of their positions in the relationship). Wing resists Fai’s attempts to keep him in the flat by buying him cigarettes so that he doesn’t have to go out at night; therefore, resisting the ‘feminine’ role that Fai wants to assign to Wing now. Eventually, Wing discovers the loss of his passport, they fight (in one of the biggest displays of masculine-coded violence in the film), and Wing leaves Fai, much like a wife who has had enough of a husband trying to corner her into a domestic setting. Fai then spirals in his solitary lifestyle: going out at night with Chang, randomly picking up men in public toilets, having public sex in a theatre showing gay pornography. What happens to Wing during this time is only cursorily hinted at: more of Wing’s promiscuity, picking up men in public toilets.
Ultimately, both Wing and Fai recognise the futility of their lives, and after Chang leaves him in Buenos Aires to continue travelling, Fai decides to go home to Hong Kong and make amends with his father. Wing tries to contact Fai again, but Fai deliberately avoids meeting Wing again. It remains unclear whether Wing’s passport ever finds its way back to Wing or not. The last we see of Wing, we find that he has returned to the flat that Fai has abandoned, is cleaning and fixing up the place and the lamp of Iguazu Falls like Fai used to do, and lamenting the loss of Fai. As for Fai, Fai goes to see the Iguazu Falls, then goes to Taipei on his way to Hong Kong, and sees Chang again in a photograph. Rey Chow writes:
At the metanarrative level of the film as a whole, what is conjured by these at first alternating but ultimately amalgamating image orders is, I propose, a kind of superhuman agency. In the case of the lovers, this superhuman agency lies precisely in its ability to yoke together — to render as one unity — entirely incompatible or incommensurate domains (such as promiscuity and fidelity, flanerie and domesticity), so that what begins as difference eventually turns into sameness. By the end of the film, precisely the kinds of (visual) details that used to distinguish the two men — having casual sex with strangers and performing tedious domestic chores — have become instead the means of visually conflating them. Each man has, it seems, internalized the other to the point of changing places with him.
But what I’m really trying to get at by highlighting the gender roles that Wing and Fai inhabit is that a different kind of dynamics surfaces through this experimentation with fidelity and gender roles. Apart from infidelity and gender roles, the third and most important theme of this film is, for me, memory. Forget the male-female gender binary — the only two genders that matter here are: the one who, driven by nostalgia and the urge to repeat and preserve things as they once were, and thus, in repetition, become the loved one lost, stays back at the abandoned home; and the one who, driven by the same nostalgia but reacting differently to it, enters an ambivalent relation with his past and leaves home. What’s more, the one who leaves home doesn’t begin travelling in order to seek a new home. He does so because he recognises that there is no home for him, or at least, no home where he can reconstruct the home of his memory, and restore the union with the loved one that he lost. The desire for home is, in a word, impossible: it’s essential to the person, but there’s no way to achieve it in reality. Jeremy Tambling dips into psychoanalytic theory to explain something like this:
When he [Lai] reaches the Falls and is not happy, it is a crystallizing moment when he knows he can either be with Ho and not at the Falls or he can be at the Falls and not with Ho, and neither state would produce happiness, the fulfilment of desire. The gap that desire opens up makes sense of the emphases on distance… and it also makes sense of Lai’s relationship with Chang which again only works by distance. …
Learning to be women, as referred to earlier, then, would mean not men giving way to an ideological view of women as carers and learning to behave as such (this the men do already, anyway) but rather learning to accept the otherness of desire, and the double nature of any subject position; the recognition that no gender positioning can be stable because of the doubleness of inscription within the symbolic order.
Going by this dynamic of memory, the one who stays behind at home symbolically dies, reaching a form of stasis in the narrative: there’s nothing more to be said about what happens to Wing, beyond his grief for the home he has lost in Fai. The one who leaves home is favoured by the narrative, although the film says little more about what Fai will do to find happiness. Fai isn’t, strictly speaking, happy by the end of the film, but he has reached this bittersweet white light within himself that compensates for the strongly romantically-coloured happiness that is described by Danny Chung’s Cantopop song accompanying the ending sequence of the film. Wong Kar-Wai offers closure in the open-ended, transitory way of life that Fai has discovered with the Iguazu Falls, Chang, and Taipei, where Fai is his own moving home. This, however, doesn’t resolve the tension between the home that Fai has left, and it’s specific values, and the new individualistic principle that Fai adopts on meeting Chang again in a photograph in Taipei. This tension, and the heartbreak that comes from it, is better explored in Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love, which I’ll rewatch and write about this July.
A big thank you to my $5 and above patron(s): Radiolaires
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