The two gay guys in Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together are anything but happy together. Expatriates from Hong Kong, they've come to Buenos Aires to "start over," and yet they can't seem to get through five minutes without yelling at each other. Like a pair of escaped convicts joined at the ankle, they're both incompatible and inseparable. Lai (Tony Leung), the more responsible of the two, gets a job as the doorman at a tango bar. Meanwhile, Ho (Leslie Cheung) sinks into prostitution. And it's tempting to view Lai and Ho's relationship as at best a tango, at worst a trick. But they see it--and Wong sees it--as love. Not happily-ever-after love but unhappily-ever-after love--the kind of love that swallows up your life and spits it out on the sidewalk. Wong, who may be the most exciting development in Hong Kong cinema since Bruce Lee started drop-kicking some ass back in the early '70s, has made what he calls a "love story after." The movie's not about falling in love but about falling out of love--jumping off the cliff and hoping you land in one piece. Luckily, jumping off cliffs is something Wong knows a thing or two about. Starting without a conventional script, he kind of scribbles his films as he goes along--"postcards," he calls them. What's exciting about Wong's films is that he does the scribbling with his camera, thereby fulfilling Alexander Astruc's famous 1948 call for "le camera stylo," a filmmaking style that flows straight from the director's personality, like the ink from a writer's pen. Wong's own handwriting most resembles early Godard's (and MTV's), the narrative line fractured by jump cuts, images slamming against one another. With a nod to Einstein (and the VCR), Wong's films stretch not just space but time; they're a chaotic blur of fast-forward, pause and rewind. If MTV is style over substance, however, Wong's films are style as substance. At least, they often are. Given the improvisatory way Wong works, the results can be anything from the sublime Chungking Express to the ridiculously overwrought Ashes of Time. Alas, Happy Together may be closer to the latter. Once again, the texture overwhelms the text. Like Lai and Ho, Wong went to Buenos Aires hoping to start over--i.e., rejuvenate his work. Also like Lai and Ho, he found it difficult not to fall into old patterns. "At first, we hesitated to repeat our signature style," Wong's brilliant cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, recently told Sight and Sound, "but eventually it was just too frustrating not to."
So, we get a less than truly original movie from this truly original moviemaker, but it's a dazzling postcard nevertheless. And it's always nice to hear from him.