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Movie Review: 'Happy Together'

As part of Pride Month on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast we looked back at Wong Kar Wai's exceptional 'Happy Together.'

By Sean PatrickPublished about a month ago 4 min read

Happy Together (1997)

Directed by Wong Kar Wai

Written by Wong Kar Wai

Starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Chang Chen

Release Date May 30th, 1997

Published June 17th, 2024

Happy Together is a vibrant and wildly experimental movie that views a toxic relationship through various different lenses, literally and figuratively. The film stars Tony Leung as Lai. He will be who we spend most of our time with in the movie. Lai has come to Argentina with his lover, Ho (Leslie Cheung), with little money and less of a plan. Due to their own collective negligence, they've stranded themselves in South America until they can raise enough money to go home to Hong Kong.

That is surely what Lai wants. As for Ho, he's unpredictable and selfish. He abandons Lai after a falling out during an attempted trip to a legendary South American waterfall. The two seem to part ways but they can't stay apart for long. As Lai works an odd job as a doorman at a nightclub, he's forced to watch as Ho arrives regularly with a different man. Yes, it's quite sad and upsetting as he's left to watch Ho go home with men. It's not stated plainly that Ho is a sex worker but the implication is there.

Then, Ho shows up at Lai's apartment. One of his slew of new boyfriends has beaten the hell out of him and broken both of his hands. With nowhere to go, he turns himself over to Lai who can't help but become his nurse and caretaker. Lai takes a new job at a restaurant and uses the access to food to keep them both fed as Ho recovers from his various injuries. Lai confesses to us in voiceover that he hopes Ho will not recover too quickly as this is the happiest the two have been together since arriving in Argentina.

Naturally, the idyll doesn't last. As Ho gets better, he starts venturing out more. This leads Lai to become suspicious of his loyalty. Money goes missing from the apartment and Lai is sure that Ho is stealing from him to fuel his love for gambling and illicit sex. We see nothing of Ho's disloyalty as we are almost always with Lai. But Wong Kar Wai is not playing by traditional narrative rules. Switching between black and white and color throughout Happy Together, Wong Kar Wai is also fearless about taking the perspective and voiceover away from Lai from time to time.

Eventually, we do see Ho going through Lai's things, confirming at least some of Lai's suspicions, but it's brief. We also get occasional voiceover from Ho, though it is notably less confessional than Lai. Interestingly, both voiceovers are dispassionate, resigned, not lively or excited. The matter of fact voiceover is intentional as Wong Kar Wai wants this to feel like a memory being retold. That feeling gives the film a dreamlike quality, a hazy, half remembered, affected feeling that someone may be telling you a story but it is heavily biased to their perspective.

Even more experimentally, Wong Kar Wai switches perspective to a brand new character halfway through the film. Chang (Chang Chen) is a new employee at the restaurant where Lai works. Chang is not gay but he and Lai begin to build a very close friendship. It's clear from the perspective Wong Kar Wai gives us of Lai and Chang, that Lai may be developing feelings for Chang but he's embarrassed as he knows Chang isn't gay. The relationship culminates beautifully in a scene where Chang asks Lai to record a message for him to take as he's leaving Argentina for the farthest southern tip of South America. I won't go any further on this as you should see it for yourself.

Happy Together is a brilliant exploration of style, character, and emotions. It's a bold and beautiful film where the seemingly disparate styles of filmmaking work to craft a series of scenes that feel like recollections. It's like watching a series of memories unfold. By breaking the typical rules of narrative and breaking the rules of style, Wong Kar Wai bends cinema to his will but gently, this is an exceptionally gentle film despite the big emotions at play. He's twisting conventions deliberately because each violation of traditional filmmaking rules plays into the story of disconnected men desperately seeking connection but sadly adrift. It's a beautiful, bold, and ambitious way to approach filmmaking and I loved every moment of it.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and more than 2000 movie reviews at Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!


About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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