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Falls pretenses.

By Ray Pride

JANUARY 26, 1998:  The Iguazu waterfall in Argentina is a South American counterpart of Niagara Falls: vast, thunderous, wet. In "Happy Together," Wong Kar-Wai's story of two Hong Kong gay men who drift to Argentina to try to start a new life, Wong uses Iguazu as a potent symbol of the romantic disaffection of Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung) and how their lives never fit together. The general melancholy -- Buenos Aires looks as uninviting as any filthy Hong Kong back alley Wong might have filmed in any of his earlier pictures -- concludes with five or ten minutes of the most full-to-bursting jumble of color and incident you could imagine. Wong and his tremendously talented cinematographer Chris Doyle were rebelling against the trademark style the film ends with, a gorgeous, idiosyncratic grammar of slow-motion and canted angles and blur and streaks of neon.

Yet when the strains of "Happy Together" finally hit screen at the very end, the effect is deliriously good. (Contrariness and perversity, from shot to shot, is the trademark of the profligately inventive Wong and Doyle.) One of the movie's earliest scenes is a helicopter shot pitching into the roaring acres of water, a voice-over describing the romantic notion the two have of somehow reaching this vast landmark. One of the movie's characters does reach Iguazu, but the impact is far different than one might have expected at the start of the story.

Wong's work alternates energy and stasis, with lingering moments usually succeeded by jittery slivers of ka-POW! His love of pop culture -- urban congestion, clutter and detritus as frenzy and color and motion -- finds new patterns in "Happy Together," and those who are open to his style will find much to admire amid the harsh love story being told. While "Happy Together" isn't the easiest movie to watch, its images and mood stay with you, lingering like the stink of smoke in a sweater or the face you put to the last heartbreak. Wong Kar-Wai is an insecure romantic who reaches out for the moment before him, to capture the space that both his camera and his characters can occupy for a few frames and if they're lucky, each dance.


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