A couple takes a trip to Argentina in search of a new beginning, but instead finds themselves drifting even further apart.
Happy Together (1997) is a film of layers. The characters, whether clothed or not, cloak their language. Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) hasn't told his father he is gay. From Hong Kong, Lai and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) travel to Buenos Aires in the hopes of seeing the Iguazu Falls. Like old photographs or memories, Happy Together begins in black and white. Fai as narrator says what they don't say to one another. Unhappy together or apart, their faces reveal their feelings. Together they are both satisfied and lonely, hanging around each other like a pair of shadows. On the road in Argentina, their car breaks down. Fai and Po-Wing blame each other. They break up.
Alone in Buenos Aires, Fai lives in a shabby rooming house with a shared kitchen, and bed bugs. Fai keeps the place as clean as he can, wiping the floors down with a rag. He smokes packs of cigarettes. He would be ok if he didn't keep seeing Po-Wing. Wearing a suit, Fai works the door of a tango club. He takes pictures for tourists as they crowd together to fit into the frame. Their happiness at being abroad in a group highlights Fai's aloneness. With no money for a return ticket to Hong Kong, Buenos Aires has become a city he can't escape. Po Wing brings his male clientele to the tango bar. They walk past Fai as he watches them. Po Wing gets beaten up after he steals a watch to give Fai as a present. Fai takes Po-Wing in while he recovers from serious injuries. In Fai's one room, they stay apart.
To be young is to be able to endure. A trip can go badly, one forgets to bring essentials. The sense of adventure can turn into despair. As Fai's white corduroy jacket lights up like candlelight in a Rembrandt painting, Happy Together turns techno-color. "Desires are already memories," Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities (1972). The film in black and white represents the past that can't be changed, that stays with you, that fades away and if you don't let it, will cause you to decay. The change of the film into color is expansive, every detail can be seen. The color of the film is intense in hues of blue. Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls are shot from overhead representing possibility through movement. Pedestrians making their way, cars in traffic, water rushing over rock, free falling.
Fai nurses Ho-Ping back to health but steals his passport. Ho-Ping no longer has the upper hand. They fight about promiscuity. Their trip turns on them. Their love has become stale. Fai meets Chang (Chang Chen) while working at a Chinese restaurant. Fai and Ho-Ping don't fight in person. They fight over the phone. Chang takes over the narration of the film as though he is relieving Fai of his burden.
Alone, Fai goes to see Iguazu Falls. Chang travels to a lighthouse at the southernmost tip of Argentina. Ho-Ping remains in Buenos Aires without a passport. He cleans Fai's apartment, something he never did when Fai lived there.
In her introduction to The Traveling Woman (1980), Dena Kaye, daughter of the actor Danny Kaye, made a distinction between traveling alone and feeling lonely, "It's your basic attitude toward the trip that gives you the emotional ballast to handle such moments. A moment is just that, a moment. It passes with time. Whatever the situation, it's important to see the humor rather than the drama, to watch your own reactions and learn how to pull yourself up. That too is part of the journey."
Fai returns to Hong Kong, "I'm back on this side of the world." Chang still on his travels wonders about the place Fai is now in. The camera flips Hong Kong upside down. As if to say, to gain a new perspective stand on your head.
Tova Gannana is a film curator and essayist @tovagannana