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The comfort in belongingness in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

The comfort in belongingness in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

Chasing the Iguazu Falls, two lovers in the ‘90s ran from their flailing masochistic affair to start anew. With no money and nowhere to call home, they only had each other. But catered in many attempts, painful and dragging, they are never bound to be happy together.

Wong Kar-Wai’s highly praised 1997 queer film starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung runs around this narrative. A story of running away, hustling, coming home, and a brand new start in a foreign land. A 96-minute story of chasing belongingness and failed romanticism.

The comfort in belongingness in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

When most would pick Wong’s staple classics Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, or In the Mood for Love, in the next paragraphs, this article expounds on Happy Together. From its masterful storytelling and execution, and exploration of belongingness.

Wong Kar-wai’s melancholic storytelling

Wong usually brings his stories to life through the neon-washed streets of Hong Kong and stylized angles. From Chungking Express to In the Mood for Love, he explores the melancholic arcs of his characters in short punching almost-diaristic dialogues and fragmented narratives, indifferent to their mainstream counterparts. Happy Together differs in this manner. 

In proximity, Wong brought Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing) to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Miles away from their homeland, Hong Kong, they became each other’s homes.

In aesthetics, with frequent collaborator cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong showcased his usually unconventional storytelling. The first 20 minutes of the film were shot in black and white, gaining its signature Wong-warm vibrant tones thereafter.  In a way, the black-and-white scenes depict Lai’s alienation in a foreign country and in Ho’s absence. The added color in the film’s progression outlines their romance and Lai’s sense of belongingness being rekindled, albeit unhealthy and masochistic.

Never happy together

Aside from the opening and intimate dancing scenes, Lai and Ho portray a volatile, vibrant, and intoxicating dying relationship. They fled to Argentina to start afresh but instead confronted with the plagues they brought in themselves. Lai Ho’s constant disagreements, distrust, and infidelity caused their on-again-off-again situation. Their circumstances, though undesirable, reflect reality, a tangible narrative.

In the last three or four years there’ve been some films about gay relationships made in Hong Kong and Asia, and somehow the characters were either treated too delicately, or as a joke. Sometimes it was too aggressive… I wanted it to be as straightforward as possible. Just treat it as two people, that’s it.

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Wong Kar-wai by Han Ong (1998)

Wong Kar-wai’s treatment of his queer characters as “straightforward” comes off as realistic and more comforting. The constant harboring and chase of Lai and Ho for belongingness either in each other, other people, or their homeland runs as a theme in the film. Lai craves Ho’s companionship for the first half of the film. Consequently, in the later part, Ho finally realizes his life without Lai and he can’t help himself but truly feel his absence. But both of them never really replaced their longing for Hong Kong.

The comfort in belongingness

Past its heartbreak and moving-on narrative, through its melancholic tones, Happy Together’s inspection of its characters’ comfort and belongingness becomes more transcendent and relatable.

On a personal level, Happy Together became my comfort watch when I started to resonate with the characters, their feelings, and their choices. I have a deep understanding of Lai and Ho’s craving for belongingness. I feel a constant dread of alienation, even in the communities I belong to. Which by extension, raises my doubts if I ever really belong anywhere. As an effortlessly dedicated skeptic, the alienation I feel everywhere I go consumes and overpowers any positive feeling I know I am supposed to have.

When I do start to spiral down these feelings, I turn to this piece of introspection to back me down. By the film’s conclusion, Lai lets go of Ho and any associated feelings and inanimate possessions he had of him. Ho’s abandonment became enough of a wake-up call for Lai. He cut off any sense of belongingness and home he felt for him. In its final minutes, Lai went back to Hong Kong and made a companion out of his old co-worker Chang. In Hong Kong and Chang, he felt he truly belong. By this logic, I find comfort in realizing my doubts are not my reality. Belongingness can be a person, a community, or a homeland.

And like Lai, we belong someplace somewhere to someone.

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