Being Happy Together (1997)

HAPPY TOGETHER, (aka CHEUN GWONG TSA SIT), Leslie Cheung, Tony LEUNG Chiu Wai, 1997. ©Kino Internati

To view Happy Together click here.

One of my favorite directors, Wong Kar-wai, is represented in FilmStruck’s new theme “Gay and Lesbian Cinema.” His film Happy Together (1997), a deceptively simple story about a gay couple in a turbulent relationship, earned him the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for the Palme d’Or.

Happy Together was constructed through Wong’s highly organic filmmaking process, which shaped his directorial style during the 1990s. It’s definitely a process that they do not encourage in film school! Wong and his long-time collaborators, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and art director William Chang, did not begin their films with a script. Instead, they created the content during the shooting and editing phases. Wong described his process as beginning with place, not plot. Drawing inspiration from music and setting, the director and his collaborators found their narratives as they created the visuals. Wong tended to use the same actors from film to film, including Tony Leung (or, Tony Leung Chiu-wai), who stars in Happy Together. Actors like Leung worked closely with Wong to develop their characters.

HAPPY TOGETHER, (aka CHEUN GWONG TSA SIT), Leslie Cheung, Tony LEUNG Chiu Wai, 1997. ©Kino Internati

The strength of Wong’s methods is that the collaboration, improvisation and element of chance inherent in the process inspire innovation and originality. The downside is that without a plan in place, any unexpected snags can balloon into monumental setbacks. For example, the six-week location shoot for Happy Together in Buenos Aires turned into a difficult four months. Problems included everything from technical difficulties with the lights and camera to disputes with Leung over the explicitness of the sex scenes to clashes with the Argentinian crew.

Buenos Aires was pivotal in inspiring the narrative for Happy Together, partly because the city was not what the filmmakers expected. Consequently, it remained unfamiliar and alien to them, creating a sense of dislocation as the backdrop for the story. Happy Together follows the doomed relationship of Lai Yiu-fai (Leung) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung), who leave Hong Kong for Argentina in the hopes of a fresh start. The pair have a pattern of conflict, breakup and reconciliation. Fai, the stable partner, knows the relationship is not working, but he can’t say no when Po-wing suggests they start over. Po-wing is handsome and exciting but also unreliable and unfaithful. It’s not that he doesn’t love Fai; he just doesn’t know how to commit. The English title Happy Together, which references the 1960s pop song by The Turtles sung by Danny Chung on the soundtrack, is meant to be ironic.

Wong is considered a stylist, and his films have been labeled arthouse movies. He and Doyle employ bold techniques such as swish pans, step printing, color, slow motion and jump cuts to help tell their stories. In Happy Together, when Fai and Po-wing are together, their conversations are disrupted, and their scenes are fragmented through editing—a commentary on their broken relationship. After one of their breakups, Fai finds friendship with Chang, who is also in Argentina to figure his life out. The most complete conversations are between Fai and Chang, not the two lovers.

Despite its nonlinear structure and arthouse style, Happy Together is accessible in its story of a passionate but destructive relationship. Wong stated in interviews that he did not create a “gay story” but a love story that is “about how a person quits his habits.” The two principles just happened to be men. Anyone who has ever been in love with a commitment-phobe can relate to Fai in this film. I know I did. Still, given the content, the film received a Category III rating in Hong Kong, which is equivalent to NC-17 in America. It was banned in Malaysia and South Korea, though eventually released in the latter.


Beyond its universal story of a dysfunctional relationship, Happy Together also references the historical event that loomed so large for Hong Kong in the 1990s. In July 1997—two months after the release of Happy Together —Hong Kong was transferred from Britain to mainland China in an event known as the Handover. A sense of loss and dislocation permeated many of the films from Hong Kong during the years leading up to the Handover, reflecting the people’s ambivalence about their fate. The Handover was very much on the mind of Wong Kar-wai when he chose to show passport pages with the stamped photos of the protagonists as the film’s first images. The opening credits are in red and white, like the colors of Hong Kong’s flag.

The first spoken words of the film, “We could start over,” is a sentiment often expressed by Po-wing in an effort to salvage his relationship with Fai. Starting over is a theme in the movie; the lovers start over more than once but also begin their lives anew after their breakup(s). Outside of the storyline, the idea of starting over is relevant to Wong, who, in shooting halfway around the world in a country unfamiliar to him, was trying something different. And, Hong Kong was about to start over as part of mainland Communist China, an event whose outcome was unpredictable. As Fai notes in the movie, starting over can have many meanings.

Susan Doll


6 Responses Being Happy Together (1997)
Posted By michaelgsmith : June 12, 2017 5:23 pm

Great review. I think you may have seen this for the first time in my Facets class on Wong Kar-Wai.

Did you know that HAPPY TOGETHER was a major reference point in last year’s Oscar Best Picture winner MOONLIGHT?

Posted By Susan Doll : June 12, 2017 5:25 pm

Michael: I did see it for the first time in your Wong Kar-wai class. Who would have thought that so many years later I would have a chance to write about it.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : June 12, 2017 6:28 pm

I haven’t seen Happy Together, but the Wong Kar-Wai films I have seen seem to have that theme of disconnection, or missed connection, while still holding onto the hope of connection. I have long believed that the most romantic films are breakup films, and his work seems to bear that out.

Posted By William Serritella : June 13, 2017 1:50 am

I need to see this…

Posted By kingrat : June 14, 2017 12:11 am

The problem with starting without a script is that it’s easy to end up with a film that looks like it started without a script. That’s true of both Wong Kar-Wai films I’ve seen, HAPPY TOGETHER and DAYS OF BEING WILD. He’s a very talented director, but neither film is really satisfying. HAPPY TOGETHER begins strongly, but loses focus halfway through. When the couple breaks up, the movie drifts, and so did my attention.

DAYS OF BEING WILD ends rather abruptly after apparently setting up a major segment of plot in the Philippines. The woman who appears to be the main female character also drifts out of the movie. Structurally satisfying it isn’t.

I’d like to see more of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, and I’d truly love to see one that was satisfying in every way.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : June 14, 2017 6:03 am

Kingrat, try In the Mood for Love. It’s structurally satisfying (but emotionally frustrating).

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