Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Happy Together

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As a gay man it feels impossible to find a good movie about a gay romance. It's too often alienating to find gay relationships riddled with drugs, adultery, and downright mean behavior (not to mention headache-inducing stereotypes). ★★
My favorite films that involve a believable relationship between two gay characters are Tom Ford's A Single Man, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are Alright, Andrew Haigh's Weekend, and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain. In each of those films gay romance is believable; their relationships are fraught with the things life is made of--mistakes and the lessons learned from them. Kar Wai Wong's 1997 realist gay melodrama Happy Together is not like the films I mentioned.

Lai Yiu-fai and Ho Po-wing are two Chinese lovers who want to see the world together. They travel to Argentina where their romance and ultimate failure to each other are revealed in black & white flashbacks. Lush verdant and flaxen color scenes connote the present. On a bungled trip to Iguazu Falls, with their car hamstrung and their map providing no assistance, their stress makes them realize their relationship must end. The grainy, handheld camera follows Yiu-fai post-break-up. He's working at a small tango bar. He is poor and sad, thinking of his unhealthy relationship obsessively. He lives in the city in a small flat where the TV and lights are always on, and shares a crusty communal kitchen with loud neighbors who constantly bicker.

Po-wing shows up at his door and, battered and bruised--he has to get his head and hands bandaged and needs the hard-working, still-bitter Yiu-fai to help his rehabilitation. But neither are ready to recommit. With one on the couch, the other on the bed, the two bicker back and forth, a habit the camera follows in motion. Yiu-fai is stressed, but Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays him with such range that we sense that Yiu-fai likes Po-wing's company nonetheless. He buys weeks' worth of cigarettes to keep Po-wing in his home, bed-ridden and dependent--but Po-wing is a loose cannon, leaving the apartment for hours, without showing gratefulness. After tensions climax, Po-wing willingly leaves at the insistence of Yiu-fai. They two go on very different paths--one finds an imperfect peace, the other disappears into a foreboding, murky future hidden from the audience.

Kar Wai Wong got much notoriety for his contribution to the 1990's realism movement that grew from the independent film craze. His film is powerful and showcases two extreme characters in an extreme situation--both are cruel and passionate, and both are lost in a world in which they struggle to find complacency. Maybe it's a victim of its era, but Happy Together fuels the hackneyed perception of gay relationships. The romance that takes place here is not impassioned, but cruel, made by a straight man who tried to humanize gays, but instead vilified their imperfections and adorned them with anonymous bathroom twists and an unstable "romance" that ultimately ends in the characters' leading a single life--far more comfortable for a straight audience, right?

I will make it known here and now that when I see a movie about a gay romance (especially one of high artistic caliber) I will shamelessly see it through the lens that expects a healthy, yet humanizing depiction. Happy Together left me feeling harangued for wanting a romance between two gay men to live up to its potential. Instead, I was lectured on how unhealthy gay romance is.

About the Author

Ian Tilman Nichols

Author & Editor

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