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Wong Kar-Wai Gets Down To Basics

By Gary Susman

HAPPY TOGETHER, Written and directed by Wong Kar-Wai. With Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, and Chang Chen. A Kino International release. At the Kendall Square.

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  What's so great about Wong Kar-Wai? That's what I wondered when the Hong Kong filmmaker's Chungking Express reached these shores two years ago, when everyone from movie populist Quentin Tarantino (who shepherded the film's US release) to the academics at Film Comment hailed Wong as the next Godard. Sure, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle had style to burn, and Wong was capable of blending gritty film noir conventions with more rarefied art-film philosophizing (though I found his mix used the most inconsequential elements of both). Most of all, Wong had a feeling for the rhythms of city life, especially the all-night metropolis of Hong Kong. But when a city is your protagonist, the human characters can get lost. Wong's follow-up film, Fallen Angels (to be released in America next spring), is essentially Chungking Express all over again, with all the good and bad that implies.

Now comes Happy Together, which finds Wong in self-imposed exile in Buenos Aires and his focus narrowed down to just two (sometimes three) characters. His theme of loneliness and missed connections is distilled down to its bitterest, most human essence. It's a wrenching movie, and a good one.

The film is narrated by Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung), who's musing over his break-up with Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung). The two men had moved from Hong Kong to Argentina, only to find that the alien land exacerbated their differences. When their car broke down on a trip to Iguazu Falls, the resulting argument found Po-Wing storming off for good.

Yiu-Fai finds a job as a doorman at a seedy tango bar in Buenos Aires; meanwhile Po-Wing becomes a street hustler, occasionally reappearing in Yiu-Fai's life and taunting him with his conquests. But when Po-Wing shows up at Yiu-Fai's tiny room after being badly beaten by a client, Yiu-Fai nurses him back to health. Despite his constant squabbling amid the squalor with the prima-donna-ish Po-Wing, the obsessed Yiu-Fai will look back on this time with fondness.

Later, after Po-Wing walks out on him again, Yiu-Fai befriends a straight, younger man named Chang (Chang Chen), who is traveling to the so-called lighthouse at the end of the world (in Tierra del Fuego) before returning to Taipei. Chang inspires Yiu-Fai as a model of emotional self-sufficiency; by the end, Yiu-Fai's future is uncertain, but Chang's lesson gives him some small measure of hope.

Wong has given his actors a real challenge, not just because the script is largely improvised, but because there are great, long stretches where nothing of consequence happens, where Yiu-Fai and Po-Wing simply pass the time, cooking breakfast or playing soccer in the street or waiting around in vain for each other to show. As the more serious of the two, the stoic Leung (Chungking Express, Hard Boiled) makes his obsession credible without seeming foolish. Cheung (Farewell My Concubine) makes his character, for all his flightiness, a worthy object of desire. Chang is touching as the unworldly but perceptive young man who senses Yiu-Fai's broken heart without fathoming the cause.

If Wong is short on plot, he's long on atmosphere. (And I do mean long; shots and sequences go on forever, as if his editor had fallen asleep. There is little point to the lugubrious pace, except the director's own endless fascination with whatever he's watching at the time.) There are a few shots of Buenos Aires that suggest the neon-lit urban frenzy of Wong's Hong Kong work, but most of the film is shot in a grimy slum on streets whose only life comes from the occasional bouncing soccer ball. The celebrated Doyle switches from a grainy black-and-white stock during flashback sequences to a high-contrast color stock during the present-day sequences, and the joke is, one can barely tell the difference. The sense of dislocation, solitude, and desolation is profound, whether in Yiu-Fai's claustrophobic room or at the spectacular Iguazu Falls or at the lighthouse at the end of the world.

Wong also deserves credit for creating a gay couple without resorting to stereotyping. His story is universally resonant. As Yiu-Fai notes -- and as Wong's whole body of work testifies -- "Turns out that lonely people are all the same."

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