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Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung, two of Hong Kong's biggest stars, play a pair of gay lovers living out the waning days of their relationship as expatriates in Buenos Aires. Together with Australian Christopher Doyle, Kar-Wai's longtime cinematographer, the director discovers a city rich with diverse cultural influences. Happy Together reveals a corner of the world alive with intimate colors and an astonishing array of sounds. Even more striking, though, is the way that such an international collaboration begins to life a romance that is both realistic and universal. Ho and Lai are characters who are instantly identifible, who play the roles and experience the dynamics that all couples go through in the course of a relationship. Lusty tango bars, the salsa music of the La Boca sidewalks and the hypnotic vision of the nearby Igauzu Falls gives further dimension to the tensions growing between the two lovers.
Wong Kar-Wai (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) has made with Happy Together his most accomplished work: A modern film, made by an auteur with a distinctive signature, which contains equal amounts of cinematic beauty and penetrating drama. Here, Kar-Wai has crafted a rare art film that cements his international reputation as a world-class director.
For more about Happy Together and the Happy Together Blu-ray release, see Happy Together Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 13, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Chen Chang, Leslie Cheung
Director: Kar Wai Wong
» See full cast & crew
Happy Together Blu-ray Review
It takes two to tango…
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 13, 2010
Before the unexpected Americana of My Blueberry Nights, 2046's atypical sci-fi, and In the Mood for Love's lush cinematic seduction, director Wong Kar-Wai told three stories of lovelorn urban ennui, each set during the run-up to the pre-millennial British handover of Hong Kong. Chungking Express and Fallen Angels—originally envisioned as a single film—each follow two pairs of star-crossed, ill-fated would-be lovers as they navigate both the teeming streets of the director's hometown and the twisted corridors of the heart. Part gangster genre—with cops, drug- runs, and shoot-outs—and part Godard-ian, pop-comic foiled romance, the two films were arthouse successes, and announced Wong Kar-Wai as an Asian auteur to watch. His reputation was cemented when he won the Best Director prize at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for Happy Together— the third and most mature film in this loose thematic trilogy—a break up drama about two gay ex- pats, drawn into an elliptical cycle of quarreling and "starting over."
If Fallen Angels is about the transcendence of being "in the moment"—characters randomly intersect, share some experience, and part ways, changed—then Happy Together sees each new moment as a chance to "start over," the film's most oft-repeated phrase. "We left Hong Kong to start over," says Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung), who has come to Buenos Aires with his boyfriend Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung). The move was supposed to reignite their relationship, but they seem doomed from the start. They talk about visiting the famous Iguazu waterfalls—which adorn the shade of a tacky lamp the two have in their shared apartment—but an aborted trip to the falls ends with the two splitting hairs and, ultimately splitting. Lai takes a job ushering tourists into a tango club, where the more lascivious Ho shows up to stoke jealously by making out with another man. Ho's promiscuity seems to get him in trouble, though, and soon, he turns up at Lai's doorstep, covered in blood, his hands broken. Once again, it's time to "start over," as Lai—more emotionally than sexually needy—takes care of Ho, feeding and bathing him. Later, Lai confesses these were their happiest days together, but the elation is short-lived. Once he recovers, Ho resumes his cheating, and in his loneliness, Lai strikes up a tender platonic friendship with Chang (Chen Chang), a stranded, sexually ambiguous Taiwanese traveler.
Like Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, there's not much here that could be called a traditional A-to-B-to-C narrative. Rather than subjecting his characters to external plot machinations, Wong Kar-Wai seems more concerned with the internal, emotional texture of their day-to-day lives—the conversations over ramen, cigarettes smoked to the nub, the inherent loneliness of big city life. The camera will pause for a character to take an interminably long bite of rice; it lingers in seedy backrooms and cluttered kitchens, capturing the semi-squalid existence of displaced, near-penniless immigrants. And this—along with the fact that the film was largely improvised—does give Happy Together a drifting, transitory quality, fuel for the fire of the critical camp that would claim the director is all style and little substance. And you can't deny that Wong Kar-Wai has a wholly individual style. With the help of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, he created—in these three "middle period" films—a manic, seemingly spontaneous aesthetic that combines hand-held verite camerawork, variable frame-rates, and film stocks that are pushed, pulled, or cross-processed into hyper-color oblivion. (Recently, he's grown much more formal.) There's definitely some cinematic playfulness going on here—not a bad thing at all, I maintain—but rather than being experimentation for its own sake, the stylistic cinematography gives its own performance, one that's just as affecting and inherently necessary as those of the actors. Or, to put it more simply, the style is a visual manifestation of the film's substance—its sense of loneliness and cultural isolation, the way it conveys emotional brokenness and bittersweet heartache.
Bittersweet is also a good way to describe the feeling of watching the film. The breathless vitality and comic charm of Chungking Express is mostly gone here, replaced by an acrid examination of a caustic relationship. Both Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung give raw, riveting performances as their characters spar and sulk, sexually frustrated and emotionally drained. Lai and Ho are clearly not good for one another—in the film's opening love scene we sense an almost antagonistic sexual aggression—and as the jealousies and suspicions that plague their codependent bond get uglier, the title Happy Together seems to grow increasingly more sarcastic. However, once Lai finally musters the courage to break his cycle with Ho, the film's mood turns wistful, melancholic, even hopeful. The Iguazu waterfall, shown on the gaudy lamp as a cheery tropical spectacle—placid blues, sparkling water, two figures standing arm-in-arm on an observation deck—is a symbol of the happiness Lai and Ho think they can have together. The reality is much different. When Lai goes to Iguazu alone, before returning to Hong Kong, we look down in an aerial shot of an angry, turbid waterfall—the actuality of their hapless relationship. Lai stands on the observation deck and gets drenched by the spray. Newly baptized, he starts over.
Happy Together Blu-ray, Video Quality
A few months ago, Kino International finally gave Fallen Angels the home video treatment it had long deserved, and Happy Together looks even better, with a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that near-perfectly reproduces Wong Kar-Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle's visual whirlwind of color and texture. As in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Doyle uses a multitude of film stocks and processes here, and the effect is an aesthetic that seems at once more experimental and more emotionally unified than both previous films. The monochromatic scenes that open Happy Together are striking, with deep blacks and brilliant whites, evocative of early- 1960s New Wave. Where Doyle comes into his own, though, is the way he captures—in color—dingy backrooms, kitchens lit with bare fluorescent bulbs, and low-light nighttime exteriors. Colors are wild and saturated, contrast is pumped, and everything looks more real than real. My only complaint about this transfer—and, really, it barely qualifies as a complaint—is that the encode sometimes can't quite handle the depth of the more vibrant reds, resulting in a little bit of blotchiness. Otherwise, I'm in love with the picture quality of this release. The film's grain structure is fully intact, there's no evidence of digital manipulation of any kind, and clarity is exceptional. After several less-than-satisfying DVDs versions—and that's putting it mildly—this Blu-ray release of Happy Together is definitely something to be happy about.
Happy Together Blu-ray, Audio Quality
While not as drastic an improvement as the picture quality, the film's soundtrack gets a significant bolstering on Blu-ray thanks to a strong Cantonese-language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. The defining audio characteristic of the film is definitely the music, and it sounds wonderful here, from the Frank Zappa tunes to the slinky tango numbers by Astor Piazolla. The sound design and overall clarity seem somewhat limited by the on-location source recordings, but acoustically there's a nice sense of place, the effects are clean, and the rear channels pipe up frequently for ambience. You'll hear an 18-wheeler rumbling through the rears, the clatter and clang of pots in a Chinese restaurant's kitchen, and barroom chatter and music, among other place-establishing sounds. Voices can occasionally be overwhelmed by the chaos of their surroundings, but most of the dialogue is perfectly mixed. For the record, I didn't notice any hisses, pops, crackles, or drop-outs. Optional English subtitles are available in easy-to-read white lettering.
Happy Together Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Buenos Aires Zero Degree (1080i, 59:11)
Improvised and almost entirely script-less, filming Happy Together was an arduous process that tested the stamina of everyone involved. It also resulted in a film with an initial cut that ran for over three hours. Here we get to see some of the excised plotlines and scenarios, along with interviews with some of the members of the cast and crew. Think of it as behind-the-scenes meets deleted scenes. The hour long documentary is broken into six sections.
Interview With Wong Kar-Wai (1080i, 44:22)
In April 2008, Wong Kar-Wai appeared at New York's Museum of the Moving Image—introduced by the surprisingly hilarious Ang Lee—to discuss his career and field questions from David Schwartz. A must- watch for WKW fans.
Happy Together Trailer (1080p, 1:31)
Fallen Angels Trailer (1080p, 2:43)
Happy Together Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The somber Happy Together often gets lost between the frenetic energy of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels and the lush dreaminess of In the Mood for Love, but it's another brilliant entry in Wong Kar-Wai's body of work, one that finds the director dropping his prior gangster genre trappings in favor of a more mature, emotionally complex love story. As with Fallen Angels, Kino International has done a terrific job with this release, from the pristine transfer and lossless audio, to the highly informative bonus features. If you're a fan of Wong Kar-Wai or Asian arthouse cinema in general, there's no reason not to pick this one up. Highly recommended.
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Happy Together Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Happy Together, The Sun on Blu-ray in June - March 17, 2010
An early announcement to retailers indicates that Kino Video will release two titles in June: Happy Together (Cheun gwong tsa sit, Wong Kar-wai, 1997) on June 1, and The Sun (Solntse, Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005) on June 8. There is no information regarding audio/video ...
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