Just a few years before breaking hearts and brains around the world with his masterpiece “In the Mood for Love,” Wong Kar-wai premiered his exceptional, lone queer romance. That film, 1997’s “Happy Together,” plays this Thursday and Saturday at Hamtramck’s Film Lab, and it’s well worth making time for.
Following two men from Hong Kong (Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) who’ve “somehow” ended up in Argentina, Wong less details a plot than evokes a meandering, constantly shifting river of feeling between them over what seems like months in Buenos Aires.
Over Happy’s swift, consciously circuitous course, they trek out to waterfalls, work a carousel of jobs — at tango clubs, butcher shops, and restaurants — and share an ornate but cramped apartment, all as they come together and fall apart, again and again.
Wong takes his story in a direction neither studio-bound nor independent queer movies often do now, centering the story comfortably around queer people without making its out-loud subject the fact of their being gay. Happy’s story is chiefly experiential, only incidentally about queerness as an idea, a construct, or a political identity, focusing instead on the tones and feelings of living it and wanting someone from day to day.
Making little time for overt questions about oppression, anxiety over identity or cultural acceptance in its brief running time, the film embraces desire as its guiding star, focusing on the textures and feelings that span a romance while suggesting far more than it shows (though it’s not remotely prudish). Reeling between color and black-and-white, steamy kitchens and cooler bars, and moments of fury, ardor, longing and malaise, the film is intent on capturing a full range of turbulent, sensuous — and largely male — emotional experience.
Here, the rough work of getting by meets its right match in the struggles of maintaining a relationship amid the pressures of survival. No mere honeymoon, Happy’s title points toward a wry, tantalizing daydream of harmony that’s just one color in a broad palette encompassing longing, rejection, resentment and adoration. Wong pitches them all as inextricable and easier to glimpse than grab, making even his low points (as always) beautiful to watch unfold, but because of this, the couple at Happy’s center can rarely know contentment.
What makes Happy so distinct today, beyond all the florid textures and the bouquet of feelings that make it up, is its suggestion that its thrown-together queer expats just want many of the same things as anybody else.
While politics, history, and matters of identity linger at Happy’s margins (the handover of Hong Kong transpired just months after Happy’s release, and one can wonder throughout whether its leads feel more exiled to or freed by their time in Argentina), these mostly serve while watching to deepen its romantic resonances without ever overriding them. It’s Happy’s emotional currents that steer it first and which still endure across both geography and time.
Note: The film is being presented at Film Lab in the color palette associated with its theatrical release, not the revised and altered version associated with its recent restoration.