HONG KONG DIRECTOR Wong Kar-Wai has a knack for the comedy of missed romantic connection. His last picture to be released in America, 1995's "Chungking Express," was a series of shaggy-dog variations on the comings and goings of two pairs of almost-lovers. Playful and deadpan and shot in rain-smeared neon-bright colors, "Chungking Express" was impossible to watch without thinking of the pop poeticism of the French New Wave, particularly Godard. In Artforum, Howard Hampton, who has done far and away the best writing on Hong Kong cinema, noted that "Chungking Express" was less the art-film triumph some of its admirers claimed than a picture that treated the art film as a genre to be distilled (in much the way Godard distilled the gangster film).
"Chungking Express," a delightful trifle, didn't have the density or resonance of Godard. What it did share with those early Godard films, though, was that it treated cinema as a toy to be played with (much, as Hampton noted, "Diva" did) and that it provoked an absolutely obtuse reaction on the part of some critics. It's a movie that delights in pop songs and stuffed animals; in a gangster's moll done up in blond wigs, trench coats and sunglasses; in the way a shabby apartment can be given a sunny makeover from the wares to be had at a discount furnishings store. It winks at every one of its characters' eccentricities and teases the audience's expectations. If you read some of its reviews and then watched the movie, you'd wonder what this light, charming comedy had to do with the self-serious, self-indulgent art film the critics were describing.
What's so depressing about Wong's new movie, "Happy Together" (which, with the missed timing typical of the festival, won him this year's best director award at Cannes), is that it's easy to imagine those same critics looking at it and thinking they were right about "Chungking Express." If "Chungking Express" was about lovers who could never quite connect, "Happy Together" is about lovers who can never quite disconnect. In this case, the lovers are two men, Lai Yui-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, one of the lovelorn cops from "Chungking Express") and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), who left Hong Kong to start over and wound up in Buenos Aires. "Start over" is Ho's mantra, the thing he suggests whenever the love affair hits an impasse. In Buenos Aires, Lai works as a doorman at a seedy tango bar, trying to coax tourists to come inside. Ho runs around with a series of pretty boys, occasionally getting the crap kicked out of himself.
It's one of the recurring jokes in Wong's movies that no matter where the characters travel, they end up in the same crummy bars and apartments and fast-food joints. That every place looks like every place else is both Wong's comment on the way pop culture has remade the world and a comic rejoinder to "one world, one people" platitudes. (It's a joke that probably owes its origins to Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger Than Paradise," where the visiting cousin doesn't see much more of New York than John Lurie's rat-hole apartment.) It's a good gag, but it doesn't help much when you're stuck watching endless scenes of Lai taking care of the beaten Ho in Lai's shabby tenement room, the two arguing, smoking, making up, fighting again.
"Happy Together" is more closely related to the morose and mannered style of other Wong pictures like "As Tears Go By." It may be that the joie de vivre of "Chungking Express" was a fluke. That picture was shot in a few weeks during a break in the filming of Wong's avant-martial-arts epic "Ashes of Time," and perhaps that tight shooting schedule gave him a chance to be looser, off-the-cuff. (The picture he made between "Chungking" and this one, "Fallen Angels," will be released here in January.) "Happy Together" feels joylessly fussed over, the title as ill-fitting as the passionate music by the late master of the tango, Astor Piazzolla, on the soundtrack. As he did in "Chungking Express," cinematographer Christopher Doyle uses slow motion bursts of pixilated movement. There are eye-popping moments, like the final point-of-view shot taken from the front of an elevated subway train as it zooms through Taipei at night. Unfortunately, "Happy Together" has been given a dark-hued tone that's heavy-spirited, almost morbid, instead of voluptuous.
Lai and Ho's affair has become nothing but a series of arguments and break-ups. Wong doesn't show us any of the sparks that can still be struck between lovers who argue constantly, and it finally seems an act of perversity to cast two actors as attractive as Leung and Cheung and not create any romantic chemistry between them. The affair especially seems a waste of their time and ours when Lai gets a new job at a restaurant and meets the young Taiwanese Chang (Chang Chen), whom he befriends. It's unclear whether Chang is gay, but there's such an easy rapport between him and Lai that their scenes together come as a relief.
Wong almost pulls off some magic in the film's final moments as the ménage à trois scatters to various places, the characters regretting what might have been or what almost was and pining for togetherness. In these moments, Wong evokes the comic melancholy that was the charm of "Chungking Express," the sense of the city at night -- any city -- as an enchanted place. And you don't know whether it's a measure of his talent or his failure that what you feel in these scenes has almost entirely to do with Wong's style, and so little to do with the characters he fails to make you care about.