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Metro Pulse Wong Time, Right Place

"Happy Together" is a burst of cool from Asia's hottest director.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

APRIL 27, 1998:  By now, everybody is probably pretty well tired of hearing about Hong Kong cinema. We've seen our share of Jackie Chan extravaganzas, watched Michelle Yeoh battle her way through a Bond film, and rooted for John Woo to make good in Hollywood (which he finally did with Face/Off). In case you haven't picked up on it, Hong Kong movies are like all the best parts of American action films pasted together with touchingly naive layers of hopeless romanticism and/or goofy comedy. If you've never actually seen a Hong Kong movie, the slow-motion gun battle in Face/Off with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" playing on the soundtrack is really all you need to know.

So what's left, especially now that all the Hong Kong talent has moved to L.A. and the People's Republic has reclaimed its prodigal capitalist son? What's left is Wong Kar-Wai, the smartest, artsiest, and flat-out coolest director on the Hong Kong scene. Quentin Tarantino reveres him. The Cannes Film Fest folks gave him last year's "Best Director" nod. And, not surprisingly, his films rarely make it to Knoxville. This weekend, the University of Tennessee's Film Committee is showing Wong's most recent film, Happy Together, and it's a chance worth taking.

Wong's movies don't have much in common with the insane guns-and-guts barrage of Woo's sagas or the slapstick chop-socky of Chan's. What they do share (at least the two I've seen—Chung-king Express and Happy Together) is the fever pitch, an energy that seems to be drawn straight from some adrenalized Hong Kong mainline. Wong is an artist with a capital A, but he's an artist on overdrive. Happy Together recalls both the anything-goes liberation of early French New Wavers and the youngblood intensity of Scorsese circa Mean Streets.

Chungking Express, released in the U.S. through Tarantino's Rolling Thunder Productions, was a fractured film, two unrelated storylines that didn't connect with each other or go much of anywhere on their own. It got by on its fake-noir riffs, its buoyant performances, and the sheer jangle of the whole enterprise. Happy Together—which won the 40-year-old Wong that Cannes award—is more coherent, but it still spins like a mirror ball.

The ironically titled film tracks a temperamental pair of gay Chinese lovers slumming it in Argentina. Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) is the more stable and brooding of the two; Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) is the mercurial, spiteful one. After they break up during a roadtrip through the Argentine countryside, they both land in Buenos Aires, where Yiu-Fai finds work as a doorman and Po-Wing becomes a prostitute.

There are inevitable reconciliations and re-separations, and the see-sawing becomes a little tedious. But Wong's style is too jazzy to ever get boring, and his thesis—that loneliness and longing are universal—picks up momentum in the second half. Visually, the director uses whatever works, and the film snaps back and forth from silvery black and white to a kind of hyper-color, where every white light is like an explosion and every red wall looks ready to ignite. There are images—like a recurring blue waterfall—that make you want to melt into the screen. Wong also has an amazing ear—where Chungking Express charged along to the sounds of the Cranberries and the Mamas and the Papas, Happy Together plugs into a wide-ranging playlist of Latin folk, pop, and rock. (This film is far more "global" in its sensibilities than any of the international blockbusters churned out in Hollywood.)

The movie's casting made it a sensation in Asia, where Leung and Cheung are two of the cinema's hottest leading men. Imagine Tom Cruise and Matt Damon gettin' it on, and you get the idea. What stands out from an American viewpoint is the explicit heat of the film's eroticism. Gay commentators have complained recently that while Hollywood seems all too willing to show, say, Neve Campbell and Denise Richards in flagrante delicto, it tends to de-sex gay men. (The most we get in that category is a prissy smooch between Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck, which it's hard to believe fulfills anyone's fantasies.) No fear of that here.

The other thing that stands out is Wong's unwillingness to buy into prevailing pop cynicism. Without giving up its cool, Happy Together ultimately suggests that while it's possible to be alone in the crowd, it's also possible to make connections there. Coming from the hippest director on the world's most crowded continent, it's a refreshingly hopeful statement.


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