Happy Together is the 6th Wong Kar-wai feature I have seen (he has ten to his name, along with a segment in an anthology film). I think of him as one of my favorite directors, although in an erratically-updated Letterboxd Directors list (I last added to it last December), Wong is only ranked at #50. In the complicated system I came up with, Wong is punished perhaps too harshly for Fallen Angels, which I didn't care for (although I can't even remember seeing it, to be honest). Still, Wong has given us one all-time classic (In the Mood for Love, the first great film of the 21st century), and another that has rewarded multiple viewings (Chungking Express). Wong like to work with people he has been with before, and Happy Together shares with those other two films a star (Tony Leung), a cinematographer (Christopher Doyle), and an editor (William Chang). Leung has in fact been in seven Wong films, while the other main actors have also done repeated work for Wong (Leslie Cheung in three and Chang Chen in four). Wong must bring something special to the table for so many actors to want to work with him time and again, given that the productions for his films are rarely easy. For one thing, Wong isn't big on scripts, which I would imagine keeps the actors on their toes. (This was Chang's first film with Wong, and his part didn't even exist when filming started.)
Happy Together was made just before the Handover of Hong Kong. Wong filmed in Argentina, and the location gives the movie a different feel from other Wong films. There have been many attempts to interpret the film as directly commenting on the Handover; I don't feel knowledgeable enough to offer my own. Instead, I see the film as the story of a gay couple who fall into the "can't be with you, can't be without you" trap. It's easy to see why they are together. It's also easy to see why they continually break up. In fact, the repetitious nature of their relationship means eventually the film loses fire ... there's only so many times we can see them fight, split, and make up before it becomes a bit boring. Chang's insertion into the story (Leslie Cheung was unavailable due to a concert tour) helps by interrupting the repetition.
The film looks great, of course, with the shots of Iguazu Falls defying belief. #332 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
I should note I watched the recent restoration, which is a bit different from the original. Wong described the restoration, which extended to several others of his films:
During the process of restoring the pictures that you are about to watch, we were caught in a dilemma between restoring these films to the form in which the audience had remembered them and how I had originally envisioned them. There was so much that we could change, and I decided to take the second path as it would represent my most vivid vision of these films. For that reason, the following changes were made....
During a fire accident in 2019, we lost some of the original negative of Happy Together. In the ensuing months, we tried to restore the negative as much as we could, but a portion of it had been permanently damaged. We lost not only some of the picture, but also the sound in those reels.
As a result, I had to shorten some of Tony’s monologues, but with the amazing work of L’Immagine Ritrovata, we managed to restore most of the scenes to better quality....
As the saying goes: “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Since the beginning of this process, these words have reminded me to treat this as an opportunity to present these restorations as a new work from a different vantage point in my career.
Having arrived at the end of this process, these words still hold true.
I invite the audience to join me on starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.