Though separated by seven years and half the globe, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind have a specific, counterintuitive romanticism in common: Both argue beautifully for the essentiality of doomed relationships. And while the latter is about memory, Happy Together unfolds as if it were a recollection of a particularly intense period in its central character’s life, much like Wong’s subsequent tale of unrequited passion, In The Mood For Love. Yet Happy Together is more bitter than sweet, because whatever moments of joy and contentment its on-again/off-again lovers experience are answered tenfold by suffocating co-dependency, betrayal, and heartache. With his improvisational style, full of riffs and repetition, Wong places the audience in the middle of their passive-aggression, making it feel as if the four walls of a one-room Buenos Aires apartment are slowly closing in.
So why does Happy Together seem so romantic? Much of that is due to the lush texture of the images Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle create. Their fusion of blacks, whites, and color draws out the city’s classical allure and makes the whole movie feel warm and radiant. Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung play the gay couple, who impulsively travel from Hong Kong to Argentina on vacation, ostensibly to see the Iguazu waterfall, which they know only from a lampshade. As the film opens, the two are already locked in a pattern of abuse: Leung, the steadier, more practical of the two, is ill-equipped to handle Cheung’s immaturity and lack of commitment. When the two stall out in Buenos Aires indefinitely, without the money to go home, Leung logs time as a doorman at a tango bar (and later a worker at a slaughterhouse), while his partner carouses with other men and lives dangerously.
The only time the relationship works is when Cheung shows up at Leung’s door badly beaten, and Leung nurses him back to health, as if he were a wounded animal. For both men, it’s a compatible form of possession, with each having different needs satisfied. Before long, Happy Together returns to the fits of attraction and repulsion that keep them on shaky (and ultimately untenable) ground, but Wong shows a lot of insight into how bad relationships persist beyond their expiration date. The lovers are tough to be around—this film doesn’t have the swoon of In The Mood For Love or even Fallen Angels—but Happy Together’s overall tone is surprisingly wistful and wise. The lovers embark on a rough, roundabout journey together, but Wong implies that the trip is worth taking.
Key features: The Blu-ray transfer is a revelation, clarifying the experimental mix of stocks and color schemes so essential to the film’s ambience. Also included is an hourlong making-of documentary, “Buenos Aires Zero Degree,” that’s as artfully elliptical as the film itself, and a 2008 appearance by Wong at the Museum Of The Moving Image.