When Quentin Tarantino started up his boutique releasing company, Rolling Thunder, last year, his first release was, unsurprisingly, a Hong Kong production. Tarantino has, after all, been one of the most vocal boosters of Hong Kong cinema in the United States. What was surprising was the choice ... Chungking Express, a 1994 film by Wong Kar-Wai.
While Tarantino, like most American HK film buffs, seems to favor the crowd-pleasing, immediately accessible genre efforts that dominate the colony's output, Chungking Express is something altogether different. The title might suggest a thriller set aboard a train, but the film is, in fact, almost everything but. It's a romance and a comedy, but not a romantic comedy; it's a story about cops and smugglers, but not an action film; it's an art film, but one that doesn't try to bludgeon you with its artiness.
What makes Wong stand out in Hong Kong is his apparent disdain for commercial success; in an industry obsessed with commercial values, he seems more like a Godard or Rohmer than a Barry Sonnenfeld or Joel Schumacher. As a consequence, Wong's ability to keep making films is based more on acclaim on the international festival circuit than on box office receipts. (It's also helped by the fact that, like David Lynch or Woody Allen, his industry's biggest stars compete to work with him.)
Chungking Express didn't do great business, but it did bring Wong's name to American audiences, leading to the limited release of his earlier films, As Tears Go By (1989), Days of Being Wild (1991), and Ashes of Time (1994). While none of these garnered more than a cult following, Wong has two films scheduled for release in the next few months; his latest, Happy Together, which won Wong the best director award in Cannes last May, and its immediate predecessor, Fallen Angels, a sort-of sequel to Chungking Express.
Happy Together is neither the crowd-pleaser that Chungking Express was nor an incomprehensible mess like Ashes of Time. Like most of Wong's films, it is meandering and far from action-packed -- a character study that steadfastly plays its cards close to the vest. It is also one of the first major Hong Kong productions to center on a homosexual relationship.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (of Hard-Boiled fame) and Leslie Cheung (Farewell, My Concubine) play Lai and Ho, two Hong Kong lovers who travel to Argentina in search of the beautiful Iguazu Falls. Along the way, they quarrel over something trivial and split up. Lai, who narrates most of the film, takes a job as a greeter at a Buenos Aires nightclub.
One night, Ho shows up with another man. Lai doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but Ho forces himself back into Lai's life. Their romance is off-again-on-again but rarely on for very long. As the charming, but totally manipulative, Ho descends into prostitution, Lai becomes friends with Chang (Chang Chen), a displaced Taiwanese, before finally heading back to Asia.
It's not much of a plot, but then, Wong rarely cares about plot; his specialty is character and mood, both of which Happy Together has plenty of. While the film's subjects are gay, Wong's personal pessimism -- centering on loneliness and the difficulty, even the fruitlessness, of relationships --remains. While the film largely abandons the trick cutting and photography of his last three films, it's mostly in black and white -- not the slick black and white of American melodramas and film noir, but the rougher, more impromptu style of early Godard.
The opening shots of Happy Together are in color, showing the two lovers' passports -- one of which will later assume some plot importance. But, without warning, Wong cuts directly to a black-and-white sequence of the two men in bed, as if to immediately make clear that the central characters are gay.
I talked to Wong in Los Angeles; he was on his way to the New York Film Festival, where both Happy Together and Fallen Angels were being shown. I've had my ups and downs with his work -- about which he had apparently been told. Wearing his trademark shades, he jovially opened with: "Ah, so you're the man who still can't figure out Ashes of Time after five viewings?"
After a moment's embarrassment, I assured him a) that it was only four viewings, and b) that I was much more positive on Happy Together. I asked why Fallen Angels (1995), one of his more accessible films, hadn't opened here sooner.
He sighed. "Last year we were going to show it at the New York Film Festival, but people warned us, 'No, don't show it there without a distributor in place, because, if you get reviewed by the New York Times and if the review is bad, it will kill your film before it's had a chance.' "
In a city like San Francisco (and particularly at a theater like the Castro, where Happy Together opens this week), gay-themed films have a built-in audience, but in Hong Kong the subject matter is still risky, and hence rarely tackled. Prior to Happy Together, the most prominent film with a gay theme was Shu Kei's Queer Story.
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