Happy Together (1997) is a surprisingly tough, difficult film by Wang Kar Wei, which really took me by surprise. I think of In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004), both of which I saw before Happy Together, and remember some of the most beautiful female actors China and the Chinese territories have found, dressed and presented with alluring elegance. Zhang Ziyi, the young princess in House of Flying Daggers, in sumptuous 1940s brocade costumes and elaborately elegant hair, for instance, and male counterparts to match. Not that these films are lacking in toughness; their lack of certainty about event, sequence and character make them constantly challenging.
But the tale of two young Chinese men who have run away together from Hong Kong for various reasons, whose relationship is turbulent, intense, often violent, and ultimately disintegrating as they struggle to survive in Buenos Aires, came as a surprise. There's not a great deal of 'plot' in the conventional sense. Ho Po Wing (Leslie Cheung) is the more resilient of the two, getting work as a doorman at a tango club – and meeting other men. They manage to buy an old car to visit the Iguaza Falls in the north of the country, but it breaks down. They learn a bit of tango, and dance together, but it's hardly a 'tango film': it's more about being an outsider speaking a foreign language and struggling to survive in a difficult city.
Ho Po Wing meets another young Chinese traveller, who invites strangers to tell stories into his tape recorder: he takes Ho Po Wing's story down to the lighthouse at the extreme south of Argentina, a place where it is said that reconciliations take place, but the 'story' on the tape is just the sound of sobbing. & Ho Pi Wing does finally visit the Iguaza Falls, an overwhelming, destructive force of nature, like desire, and beautiful, too. The compassion and emotional strength of the film is extraordinary. & like all Wei's films it looks amazing, black and white for the more intense scenes, and powerfully altered colour for the run-down boarding house at the edge of the old docks in La Bocca: the area has probably been 'regenerated' since then. Homage, I guess, to Argentine novelist Manuel Puig, (Kiss Of The Spider Woman) in style, although Puig has a dark sense of humour. Happy Together is a film of despair.
The 'Extras' reveal that Wang Kar Wei kept his cast and crew in Buenos Aires months longer than planned, writing and filming scene after scene to try and work out what seemed to him the right sequence. Everyone became increasingly fraught and homesick: Tony Leung reveals that at one stage he'd packed his suitcase, bought a ticket and plotted his escape. All of this, of course, fed into the film, which won Wang Kar Wei the Best Director award at Cannes in 1997, and some Best Actor awards elsewhere.