Half of what has made Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai exciting so far are his tangy contradictions. At once flighty and chaste, seductive and skeptical of money's hold on love, Wong's films have synthesized charm and despondency without resorting to a final bemused irony, and his color-coated style makes us taste his dialectic. Wong's films, agile and obsessed with pop, can look like the revolving food display in a convenience mart, but though they may be often set in that kind of establishment, they're far more delicious than what one can find there. Something deeper and existential, about the ephemeralness and frailty of life, courses through them.
But the other reason Wong has been intriguing is the sheer impossibility of pigeonholing his kind of storytelling. While some films have encouraged making strong identification with the leads, particularly Days of Being Wild (1990) and Fallen Angels (1995), others have, without apparent plot motivation, dropped out important characters halfway through, such as Ashes of Time (1994) and Chungking Express (1994). Earlier films like Ashes and Days relied on sensuous, lingering takes to convey atmosphere--and later ones like Chungking and Angels highlighted sensuous bursts of montage. All of them, from the first film, As Tears Go By (1988), had killers and gangsters, yet to widely varying degrees. And one, Ashes, was an epic period film, while all the rest were set in Hong Kong at or near the present. It has seemed as though Wong has deliberately tried to trip up audiences who attempt to follow him by way of stories, settings, scale, and even to some extent style. It is simply the feeling of his films, bright, impulsive and fragile, that we are left to latch onto.
For Happy Together, the director again throws a barrage of new elements at us, including the fact that the film is set outside of Asia. There are no gangsters, no lushly beautiful women, a little less step-framing, a lot more black-and-white footage, and, contrary to a 1996 Sight & Sound article's label of Wong as the 'Last Heterosexual Filmmaker,' it is his first gay film.
Like literally every Wong couple, Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) suffer an acute amount of disconnection from each other. They've come to vacation and maybe stay in Buenos Aires, but their relationship is crumbling fast. Hard-working, responsible Lai is getting tired of the antics of party animal Ho, and when they split, their feelings of rootlessness, over living an ocean away from their homeland, only increase. Lai takes the best job he can find, as a doorman for a chintzy bar, and Ho gets by on whatever tourists he can leech off and pilfer from. A beating brings Ho back into Lai's arms; Lai dutifully agrees to help him recuperate. From there, the film depicts the slow dissolution of a romantic breakup, chronicling every lovers' spat. For Lai, the separation is not only prudent; it also opens him to the friendship of young, idealistic Chang (Chang Chen), whom he meets at a new job at a Chinese restaurant. After so much bitterness between him and Ho, Chang's freshness begins to rejuvenate him.
Happy Together tosses its change-ups at the world of Wong, but in spite of the exotic location, absence of organized crime, and different sexual orientation of the main characters, the film is Wong's first where a trademark structure emerges. The frenetic, cut-and-paste editing of the film follows a form of construction that Wong impressed on his last two movies as well, Chungking and Angels. It also features more of the same loose rock and fragments of world music heard in those films. The world here, in short, is one that the director has already shown us, and Wong seems now to be moving into place a consistent way of perceiving things, rather than practically reinventing one from film to film. Happy Together looks foremost like a display of his professional talent. Relatively speaking, it's casual and easy to follow: No maddening problems of personal identity crop up, as they do in some of his other films.
Making the Wong universe a little more regular has its advantages. Working with a more firmly molded vision than he's had before, he can position himself against some contemporary greats: black-and-white images of a vast, empty highway echo Wenders' disenchanted road pictures; a bleak sex scene recalls a tryst in Akerman's je tu il elle; and an aerial color shot of a toridly smoking volcano, accompanied by plaintive folk music on the soundtrack, sharply brings to mind Herzog's romanticized landscapes. All of these references occur in a single section, early in the film. Wong might have incorporated them as a test for himself, to see how well his sensibility will stand up against those of others.
One of the unpredictable elements that remains is Wong's choice over how to make an ending. Happy Together does end 'happily,' but not in a way one could expect, right up to the moment it is revealed. Working past a romance that burns out, the film affirms other, simple bonds that give strong sustenance.