Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Slow and Steady Wins the Race?

By Angie Drobnic

APRIL 27, 1998:  Is it just me, or have all of our attention spans been radically downsized by Hollywood's turn-and-burn movie system? The number of flicks that get churned out with oh-so-typical plot lines can dull anyone's senses, but then something like the three-and-a-half hour epic Titanic comes along to make us all feel better. Nevertheless, it takes just one artsy foreign film to remind us of our Americanness. We need snappy dialogue, lotsa action and plots that begin and end as fast as a one-night stand with the same sense of (dis)satisfaction such a thing implies. Too often, films that break the mold leave audiences cranky and feeling that they didn't quite get off.

Happy Together is one film that inspires such thoughts. The premise sounds attention-grabbing: Two gay guys from Hong Kong pack it up and move to Argentina to "start over." For added tension, the couple doesn't get along that well. Right from the get-go it's fuck or fight, ball or brawl. The two guys are either throwing each other out, or getting it on (though there is only one explicit sex scene at the very beginning of the film). But amazingly enough, even this becomes almost stultifyingly boring. For 45 minutes, we watch our characters, Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai, yell petty imprecations at each other; literally, the level of discourse is "Fuck you!" and "Get out!" or "I'm leaving!" One begins to wonder when the film will come to a close and if this is indeed all the plot we get.

Finally, a new character comes on the scene, the sensitive young Tiawanese Chang, who works at the same restaurant as Yiu-Fai. Chang is drawn to Yiu-Fai's voice; he believes that sound more than sight holds the secrets of the soul. Chang attempts to draw Yiu-Fai out of his unhappiness, and this more tangible plot line makes up the last part of the film.

There are other redeeming qualities to Happy Together. Director Wong Kar-Wai won best director at the Cannes Film Festival last year for this flick, most likely on the strengths of its interesting visuals. For instance, the film switches from color to black and white for no clearly obvious reasons. During some moments, the film's speed is manipulated--the motion flows like sticky syrup or briefly stutters like a school kid. Wong also captures the city of Buenos Aires from a myriad of viewpoints and conveys a strong sense of the city as an organic whole. Wong is one of the most prolific and well known of the Hong Kong auteurs (his résumé includes Chungking Express and Days of Being Wild), and Happy Together is a strong testament to his technical skills as a filmmaker.

The actors are all first rate as well. Po-Wing and Yiu-Fai are played by noted Hong Kong thespians Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine) and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (Hard-Boiled), respectively, to great effect. Most surprisingly, Cheung was 40 years old at the time of filming, though you'd never guess it. Chang Chen, who plays Chang, brings a breath of fresh air to the film as someone who seems truly happy, though alone.

Happy Together is at its heart an experimental film--there are no subplots, no backstories, merely what we see on the screen, and that is all viewers are given to make sense of the film. There are many beautiful moments in Happy Together, but its meaning seems purposefully elusive. Perhaps it means to say that the exterior world masks the inherent interiority of individual existence. Perhaps its lesson is that the ones we love are not the ones we should be with. Regardless, viewers must have patience to figure it out. And patience is a gift American audiences are not used to giving.?


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