“Turns out, lonely people are all the same” according to the hero of Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy handover romance, Happy Together (春光乍洩). A statement cutting straight to the heart of Wong’s sensibility, it at once casts the individual as the universal as a man is forced to see himself from another direction, mirrored in the eyes of his former lover a man he can neither keep or forget. The title’s all too apparent irony becomes plain as the couple find peace only in incapacity, lovers on the run perpetually in search of but unable to attain the image of idealised romance.
As if to signal his intent, Wong begins with a zoom in on the symbol of the love the two men can never fully realise in the colourful lamp bearing the image of a majestic waterfall they continue to search for but only one of them finds. Switching to a melancholy black and white he shows us for the time at least a semi-explicit sex scene between two men played by two of the biggest stars of the day while the hero, Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), laments in voiceover his tendency to give in when his lover, Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung), utters the phrase “Let’s start over” encapsulating the tempestuous quality of their romance. To do just that, they’ve fled pre-Handover Hong Kong for Argentina in the hope of fixing their relationship but have discovered only more of the same, their contradictory qualities highlighted by their isolation in an unfamiliar environment.
Tellingly Po-Wing first breaks up with Yiu-Fai on the road after they fail to find the waterfall as if in acknowledgment of the impossibility of mutual acceptance. Both ending up in Buenos Aires the pair awkwardly reunite, Yiu-Fai working earnestly as a bouncer at a tango bar while Po-Wing becomes a sex worker, his sharp outfits and sunshades an immediate contrast with Yiu-Fai’s somber workwear. Nevertheless, when his new life implodes leaving him badly beaten it’s to Yiu-Fai that he returns. By turns resentful, Yiu-Fai will later describe these days as their happiest, those in which Po-Wing was in a sense tethered, incapacitated, and dependent, his worst qualities neutered by his present need. Demonstrative and affectionate, he attempts to rekindle his relationship with the reluctant Yiu-Fai but is soon up to his old tricks again as his wounds begin to heal while strangely jealous as Yiu-Fai develops a friendship with an itinerant young man from Taiwan, Chang (Chang Chen), who works at the restaurant he transfers to after getting into a fight avenging Po-Wing at the tango bar.
Like Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing, Chang claims he left Taipei because he was “unhappy” and is currently on a journey to the “end of the world”, looking for a lighthouse where it is said the brokenhearted can leave their sadness behind. It isn’t exactly clear if Chang realises Yiu-Fai is gay, seemingly shocked on picking up the phone to hear a man’s voice where he expected a woman’s but saying nothing of it and continuing to frame his conversation in heteronormative terms, though Yiu-Fai certainly seems worried what the fallout might be of Chang’s accidental discovery. Perhaps in flight from an uncertain future in a Hong Kong on the brink of a “reunion” with an authoritarian regime, the two men live freely bathing in the isolation of being two alone together in an unfamiliar culture, but their paths are always set to diverge. Sobbing into Chang’s Walkman, Yiu-Fai bounces to the end of the world and back again, observing the roaring waters for himself before travelling on echoing the footsteps of Chang, representative of another Sinophone nation, coming to realise that his wandering is possible only because he has a place to which he can return.
Po-Wing, meanwhile, unexpectedly clings to the past, attempting to mend the lamp while living in the apartment he once shared with Yiu-Fai now regretful that they can perhaps never again “start over”. Leaving his sadness at the end of the world, Yiu-Fai extricates himself from a previously toxic relationship in exercising his right to “start over” having accepted the impossibility of his idealised dream of romance. Impassively observing the news of Deng Xiaoping’s death, he travels a nighttime Taipei, apparently resolved to reclaim his home choosing perhaps a kind of rooted independence following Chang’s example as he rides the elevated train into a neon-lit night filled with energy and positivity for the future. Shot with the melancholy greens and woozy ethereality of Wong’s emotional landscape, Happy Together deceptively mines the joys of moving on in a gradual unburdening that spells the end of loneliness.
Transfer: As the original negative was damaged by fire and could not be fully restored, some of Tony Leung’s monologues have unfortunately been trimmed though the presentation is otherwise more faithful to the original than others in the series if also deepening the greenish tint.
Restoration trailer (English subtitles)