This is one of several movie suggestions written by students in the Chinese-Language Cinemas class of Winter 2019 (CHIN 3050/FILM 3350). For this “Playlist Project,” students looked for a film of interest not seen in class, watched and researched it, and wrote up their recommendation. More viewing suggestions will be posted each day leading up to the beginning of the new term.
Review written by Kelly Li
Nominated for a Palme d’Or and winning Cannes’ ‘Best Director’ award, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) is amongst the Hong Kong auteur’s most internationally recognized films, but also carries tremendous sociopolitical significance in Chinese-language and Asian cinemas. Made at the midpoint of Wong’s career, the film is considered a part of the Hong Kong Second Wave, successors to the New Wave that catalyzed a surge of international attention. Starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Leslie Cheung—regular collaborators of Wong’s as well as two of Hong Kong’s most acclaimed and beloved actors—as a young gay couple, the film follows their volatile romance as they travel away from Hong Kong to Argentina in an attempt to salvage their relationship. Early on in their trip, Lai Yiu-fai (Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Cheung) become fixated on visiting the famous Iguazu Falls, but their lack of money and ceaseless cycle of fights, abuse, break-ups, and make-ups keep them in limbo, preventing them from arriving at their destination together. Po-wing, who is rash, destructive, and overtly manipulative, weaves in and out of Yiu-fai’s apartment as he experiments with relationships with other men. Meanwhile, Yiu-fai, who is more committed but no less toxic, tries to focus on work and earning enough money to get himself back home to Hong Kong. Photographed by Christopher Doyle, Happy Together exhibits a remarkable visual style that is idiosyncratic to Doyle’s and Wong’s collaborations together, marked by deeply saturated colours, sensuous textures, and experimental use of film stock. Over two decades later, the film still holds its own as a piece of queer Chinese cinema—exploring sexuality alongside Hong Kong’s colonial identity.
On the record, Wong has stated that part of his decision to write this story about a gay couple was because he was dissatisfied with the way most Hong Kong films portrayed homosexuality, “because they treat it specially; there must be something different” (Eng). For him, it is important the story of Happy Together “so happens” to be about two men, rather than treating a homosexual romance as something intrinsically different from heterosexual romances (Eng). At the same time, Po-wing’s and Yiu-fai’s gay identities are culturally important, as Audrey Yue argues that Happy Together was among the first East Asian films to feature “the visibility of queer subjects” (Yue 147). Though by 1997 homosexuality had been legal in parts of Asia for several years or longer—six years in Hong Kong—the critical acclaim it received, as well as its popularity amongst both “queer and mainstream straight audiences in the West and across Asia” helped ignite a sudden change in attitude in Asia (Yue 146-7). Formerly taboo and illegal, homosexuality could now be regarded with positivity. The fact that it was rated a Category III film in Hong can be attributed moreso to sexually explicit scenes rather than the appearance of homosexuality (Davis 17).
Happy Together’s historical locus and zeitgeist also figure importantly in its relation to the much-anticipated handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. The film’s release in May 1997 was less than two months away from the official transfer on July 1st. Wong has stated that he chose to shoot the Happy Together in Argentina because he was constantly being asked whether his upcoming film was about the handover, but after spending “about four months,” he realized that “in fact, we missed HK very much; we all wanted to go back home” (Eng). While we could read the fact that the film was shot almost completely outside of Hong Kong—primarily in Argentina, and with a segment in Taiwan—as pragmatically escapist, Wong’s decision to situate the story’s timeline as being from 1995 to 1997 does tie it to this very crucial moment in the collective consciousness of Hong Kong identity. David Pountain argues that the “emotional rootlessness and geographical displacement” of Po-wing and Yiu-fai “echoes the lonely ambivalence of a population who weren’t sure what home was anymore, with the Hong Kong identity currently in a state of flux.” The film’s characters feel like reluctant transients; pulled away from their homelands and from relationships because of their unhappiness rather than any real desire to explore, they come no closer to finding happiness nor belonging away from home. The film reflects, directly and indirectly, historically momentous turning points in Hong Kong society, both in terms of queer acceptance and its changing autonomy and cultural identity.
 One of Wong’s later films, 2046, also relates to Hong Kong’s status of sovereignty, referencing the year 2047, in which Hong Kong is to lose its political autonomy and be re-incorporated into China’s governmental system.
Chew, Yi Wei. “Projections of Diasporic Sensibilities through Travel: Wong Kar Wai in/and ‘My Blueberry Nights’.” Cinema Journal, vol. 54, no. 4, 2015, pp. 50-73, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43653128. Accessed 1 April 2019.
Davis, Darrell W. and Yeh Yueh-Yu. “Warning! Category III: The Other Hong Kong Cinema.” Film Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 4, 2001, pp. 12-26, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2001.54.4.12. Accessed 1 April 2019.
Eng, David and Lebinh Khoi. “Wong Kar-wai Exclusive Interview.” Asia Studios, retrieved from Internet Archive on 29 December 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20071229154411/http://www.asiastudios.com/interviews/members/wongkarwai.html. Accessed 1 April 2019.
Lee, Edmund. “In pictures: Happy Together—the Tony Leung-Leslie Cheung romance that put Wong Kar-wai on the world map—turns 20.” South China Morning Post, 14 May 2017, https://www.scmp.com/culture/film-tv/article/2094145/pictures-happy-together-tony-leung-leslie-cheung-romance-put-wong. Accessed 1 April 2019.
Pountain, David. “How the cinema of Wong Kar-wai reflects a Hong Kong in transition.” Little White Lies, 18 July 2017, https://lwlies.com/articles/wong-kar-wai-cinema-hong-kong-transition. Accessed 1 April 2019.
Yue, Audrey. “Queer Asian Cinema and Media Studies: From Hybridity to Critical Regionality.” Cinema Journal, vol. 53, no. 2, 2014, pp. 145-151, www.jstor.org/stable/43653576. Accessed 1 April 2019.