Happy Together

May 13, 1998 at 12:00 am

The fact that writer-producer-director Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together employs a familiar narrative -- a tale of two tempestuously crossed partners in love -- only highlights the auteur's unique set of strengths. Innovator Wong expands the vision behind his classics Chungking Express and As Tears Go By with rare vitality.

In this case, the lovers are Chinese expatriates Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yiu-Fai, a couple whose frenzied sex kicks the film off with ardor and angst. The two men lodged in Argentina are enamored of each other, but while traveling one day to see Iguazu Falls, abruptly break apart and go their separate ways. Over the picture's course, Ho and Lai repeatedly break up and make up on a fervid run of wild passion. It is Wong's temperament that gives this chaotic affair an unusual profundity.

Wong has a tireless eye, and his cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, finds as much interest in the couple's necking as in a bustling Buenos Aires at sunset. Wong and Doyle boldly change film stocks and speeds, utilize color tints and do uncanny things with the camera. This saturated Kodachrome world pulses with a youthful energy that is fitted to the lovers' tragic relationship.

Significantly, like his influence Jean-Luc Godard, Wong builds pastiches. His genre-skipping here is at once mind-blowing and effortless, the film often grounded in straight drama and then building into an overblown romance send-up driven by the long, yearning brass lines of Frank Zappa. The punk edges of "Chungas Revenge," used in repetition, become a theme of doomed romance for these men inflamed by the wildness of their own tempers.

Wong balances these fiery aspects against delicate takes of the Falls that enthrall solely through their arbiter's enthusiasm. One moving scene, staged only with music and no dialogue, finds Lai floating in a boat by himself, looking over the forbidding waves that perfectly symbolize his quiet desperation.

Another triumph for the provocative Wong, Happy Together probes the heartaches and pains that reverberate after the love is gone.

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