A review requested by Bryan C, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

If there's one big, unanswerable complaint to be made against Wong Kar-wai's 1997 romantic tragedy Happy Together, it's that three years later, Wong made In the Mood for Love, and in the process made the earlier film feel like a bit of a test run. That's a manifestly unfair standard to hold against anything; In the Mood for Love isn't merely the best film of the director's career, it's one of the very best romantic dramas in all of cinema, and you can't start using absolute perfection as the gatekeeper to what movies you deem acceptable or not. It's just that even by the standards of Wong's deliberately redundant career, full of movies that feel like they're in conversation with each other, Happy Together has a lot of overlap with the latter movie. But it also got there first, and deserves tribute for its primacy, above and beyond the simple fact that everything Happy Together does, it does superlatively well.

Structured more as a series of impressionistic memories than a narrative, Happy Together is, generally speaking, about a relationship that's not working and the enormously "big" attempt the participants make to keep things together, more out of habit and a belief in romanticism than anything that could possibly be defended as good sense. We mostly get the story from Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), recalling how he and his boyfriend Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) threw caution to the winds and skipped out on Hong Kong to visit Argentina with nothing more than hope and a desire to see the Iguazu Falls, which they know only from a tacky little animated lamp. Very nearly the first thing they do upon arriving is to break up, at which point the film flings itself into severe, high-contrast black and white, and for some time thereafter, the penniless exes cross paths, reunite, and relive the same pattern of manipulation, strangled intimacy, emotional abuse, break-up, and then regret for having broken up. At a certain point, Lai finally makes an honest accounting of himself and his needs, and decides to return to Asia, at last snapping the cycle, to both men's private sorrow.

In other words, not much "happens" in Happy Together, but it not-happens in the most delectable way. Wong's filmography leaves him more open that almost any other great contemporary filmmaker to charges that he favors style over substance, but nothing else in his career, not even In the Mood for Love itself, so clearly depicts how his movies use style as a means of charting his character's emotions. And not just in the incredibly obvious ways, like how the film uses black and white cinematography to mark out the characters' first break-up, jumping back into color when they're back together, but also for a few insert shots of objects and moments that represent a sort of idealised romantic potential for them in their loneliness. That's fine and clever, if a bit blunt. Far subtler is its range of colors when it's actually in color, as Wong and his indispensable cinematographer Christopher Doyle (for proof, look what happened in both men's careers after they dispensed with each other) click from the sallow yellows of urban night into a much harsher, metallic array of muted colors, and then into a softer, more saturated palette, a series of shifts that don't map onto the narrative in any clear one-to-one fashion, but still describe a fluctuation of emotions that may represent what the characters feel in the moment but surely represent what they feel about it later on, when they're in our position of revisiting a story that's all taking place in the past tense.

What makes Happy Together truly great, though, isn't even its visual panache, which it after all largely inherits from Wong and Doyle's earlier work (where, in faith, it is perhaps better - ask me whether this film or 1994's Chungking Express is the more compellingly shot, and I'll eventually, if reluctantly, side with the earlier film), but in its powerful formlessness, its most distinctive legacy for In the Mood for Love, and the one that matters most, above things like a lingering sense of moody romance and the way that the latter film revises the southernmost lighthouse in South America into ruined wall in Angkor Wat. The most distinctive thing about both films, within Wong's career and generally, is their almost dreamlike texture, and that emerged fully formed and virtually perfect in Happy Together, a movie veritably constructed from ellipses and implications. When the director and editors William Chang and Wong Ming Lam suddenly throw in an unexpected insert shot or two, when the action stutters into a random piece of slow-motion, when scenes glide together along the spine of the voice-over narration despite the images not linking up in any normal way, we're seeing a film work towards building its characters' psychologies into its structure, not by depicting what they think and feel in terms of story and performance. Indeed, it takes two absolute powerhouse performances by Leung and Chung to sketch out who Yiu-fai and Po-wing are beyond the most superficial elements of "the one is kind of mean and likes sex, the other is moody and insular". And they are both magnificent - Leung's work in Wong's films represents the strongest collection of performances in Hong Kong cinema that I've yet encountered, and this is probably the best of it all - playing the characters with more depth than the series of essentialised poses that the script requires them to be, without bringing so much realism to bear that it threatens the dreamlike structure of the whole movie.

Still, what is best and most moving about Happy Together is not the way it works as a pair of character sketches about two particular people, but the way it reduces two particular people into states of being and feeling. It's all tremendously abstract and conceptual, but to a certain degree, that's the way the characters exist in the world anyway; the film's repeated invocation of Iguazu Falls makes it very clear that it exists as the ultimate expression of non-specific exoticised, hopeful romanticism for them (when it finally appears, Wong and Doyle let the water drench the lens and distort the picture into a literally impressionistic collection of colors and amorphous lines, and in so doing permit it to remain romantic), while the presentation of Argentina as a cacophony of unfamiliar spaces and noisy Spanish strips it of the concrete physicality that lends weight and gravity to the similarly fluid Chunking Express or Days of Being Wild. It is, ultimately, a film about two lovers invested in the textures and feeling of love, instead of the specific realities of it, and it indulges them by transferring their impressions into its own form. That is what leads them repeatedly and inexorably to tragedy, but it's also what makes the film an outstanding artistic triumph.