Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Ironic Title is Ironic

Film: Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (Happy Together)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t have a vast amount of experience with the films of Wong Kar Wai. Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit (Happy Together) is the third of his films that I have seen, the others being In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express. Based on this small sample, it would seem that his films are about love, or more aptly about simple human connection, which frequently manifests itself as love, searching for love, or at least as sex. At the same time, it occurs to me that all of these films are not just about connection, but a lack of connection—an unfulfilled desire to make a connection that simply doesn’t happen.

That’s certainly the case with Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit. Fai Yui-fai (Tony Leung Chui Wang) and Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) are a couple who leave Hong Kong and travel to Argentina. This trip seems to be something undertaken as a way to save their relationship, and it’s immediately evident that it didn’t work. Ho is abusive and unfaithful; he frequently brings men to the place Fai works almost to show off his infidelity. It soon becomes apparent that this is a pattern with the two of them. After weeks or months of this behavior, Ho eventually says “Let’s start over,” and Fai always goes along with it.

For much of the film, we see this pattern unfold. Ho walks out of Fai’s life, Fai moves to get away from Ho, Ho shows up and the pattern repeats. Fai always regrets falling back into the pattern, so when Ho appears one night badly beaten, Fai determines to help him recover, but to keep the relationship at arm’s length. But he can’t, and the pattern repeats itself again.

More than anything, this seems to be the entire point of the film—Fai’s growth and determination that he can be something other than a safe place for Ho to return to when his wandering comes to an end. He knows this at the start of the film, but can’t bring himself all the way to it. He finally does make that emotional break with Ho and latches onto a coworker named Chang (Chen Chang). It’s not evident that Chang is gay, but it is intimated that he might be. While this relationship starts to blossom into a genuine friendship, Chang is temporary in Fai’s life. His goal, like Fai’s to see a particular Argentinian waterfall, is to reach the southernmost point in South America, and he eventually leaves Buenos Aries to do exactly that, leaving Fai alone again, this time more despondent than he has been.

It’s an interesting turn that Fai starts to become something like Ho, and in doing so, he starts to understand what Ho goes through with his constant need to destroy their relationship and to damage himself as well. This knowledge doesn’t make Fai happy at all—but it lends him a particular understanding of Ho’s self-destruction and loneliness. Eventually, Fai starts trolling for dates in public restrooms and gay porn films just so he doesn’t have to feel so alone. But even with this crushing loneliness, he has determined that he will not end up with Ho again.

This may sound a little harsh, but Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit is mostly interesting because it focuses on a same-sex relationship. It contains the same sort of interesting camera work and cinematography as many of Wong Kar Wai’s other films, but it’s not particularly noteworthy. It doesn’t contain the crushing pathos of In the Mood for Love, for instance. It’s interesting because it’s a relationship we’ve seen in film before, but it’s two men instead of a man and a woman. It’s only marginally more compelling than, say The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or any other film that involves one partner who is true to a relationship with another partner who is not.

And so, it falls to the cinematography, the camera tricks, the moments in slow motion or freeze frame to make this film additionally stand out from the crowd of films on a similar topic. Fortunately, it’s enough. This is a pretty movie to look at, no doubt. Even with a plot that is 90% same old romantic film, 10% oh-but-they’re-gay, it has enough going for it to recommend.

Why to watch Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit: Wong Kar Wai’s films are always worth watching.
Why not to watch: Homophobes need not bother.


  1. I like the title of this post.

    I haven't seen this one yet, but I'm really looking forward to it because 1) I've really enjoyed the other two films of Wong Kar Wai's I've seen 2) Tony Leung and that's all the reason I really need.

    1. I sort of had you in mind with this title--it reads very much like something you would write if only because you've written things like this before.

      I agree on Tony Leung. It's a damn shame he's not better known in the U.S., because he's a hell of a good actor and (in my experience) always worth watching.

  2. Your point about this being a movie we've seen before, except it's two men, and that makes it interesting, is exactly how I felt about it. There are a lot of movies in the list that feature male/male relationships (although almost no female/female, but that's another post). Most of those male/male relationship movies seem to fall into the Message Movie category or Very Imporant Film categories. It was a nice change of pace to see this film about a normal relationship with its ups and downs. I think far more heterosexuals could identify with the men in this film than in some of the Important Films.

    In regards to Wong, I've also seen 2046, which is a "sort-of but not really" sequel to In the Mood for Love. It follows your interpretation of the three you have seen.

    By the way, you still have Happiness to see and it's title is also pretty much the opposite of what you get in the movie. I refer to it as "(Un)Happiness".

    1. Sounds like that might be my title for Happiness. I've tried to watch that one already and didn't get very far, so it's one of the few I have left that I'm really dreading.

      You make an excellent point about the normalcy of this relationship. Often (and this will be the case in a film I've got coming up in a couple of days), there is a desire to make this male/male relationship something transcendent. It's not enough for it to simply be normal--it must be significant and special in some way. It's not unlike the propensity for filmmakers (still) to imbue black characters with special wisdom rather than just making them people.

      Also a good point about the lack of female/female films on the list. Why no Boys Don't Cry? This is indicative of a larger bias both on The List and in Hollywood. You're someone who follows Oscar films the same way I do. I've noticed something and I'm betting you'll notice the same if you look (or may have already spotted). These observations are:

      1. Frequently, Best Actress nominations come from films not nominated for Best Picture. This is surprisingly common--almost saying that a film with a great performance by a woman is less valuable than a film with a great performance by a man. I'm going to run some numbers on this, but I'm betting it holds true.

      2. There are far more Best Actor performances on The List than Best Actress performances, by a factor of more than 1 every two years. Again, it feels like a devaluing of great female roles and performances.

    2. I was right, incidentally. There are 192 Best Actor performances in films that were not nominated for Best Picture. There are 273 Best Actress performances in films not nominated for Best Picture--an average of just about 1 fewer per year.

    3. My take on the actor/actress thing in movies is that the landscape has changed greatly in the last few decades. If you think back to earlier Best Picture nominees like Gone with the Wind or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf both the male and female leads were nominated in the big categories. There was even a stretch in the late 70s/early 80s where both the Best Actor and Actress winners came from the same film four times in seven years (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Network, Coming Home, and On Golden Pond). In more recent movies, though, it is an exception to even have both nominations come from the same film, let alone both winners (1997's As Good As It Gets is the last film to do it). Most often what happens is the female lead is reduced to the Best Supporting Actress category. I believe this is done by the studios to make the case for the Best Actor candidate stronger (they believe), much like you pretty much never see two men from the same movie both nominated for Best Actor anymore. One is always reduced to Best Supporting Actor. I think the studios are taking it one step further and even doing it with the female lead even though she is not a direct competitor for the same award.

      Silver Linings Playbook really surprised me, especially where Lawrence didn't even appear for the first half hour yet still got a Best Actress nomination (and win). Yes, technically the Academy picks the categories, not the studios, but they almost never go against the "For Your Consideration" wishes of the studios. I just had to go all the way back to 2005's Walk the Line to even find the last time a single film had both Best Actor and Actress noms prior to Silver Linings Playbook.

      So this brings us to a situation where there are a small pool of Best Picture candidates to be nominated. These most often end up with many nominations, including in the acting categories. Since the female leads are usually reduced to Best Supporting Actress, though, this leaves the Best Picture nominees usually without a Best Actress nom, but with a Best Actor one.

      Recent winner The Artist is a perfect example. Berenice Bejo was reduced to the Best Supporting Actress category even though she had almost as much screen time and was almost as important to the story as Best Actor nominee and winner Jean Dujardin. True Grit had not only female lead, but overall MOVIE lead Hailee Steinfeld nominated in the Best Supporting Actress catg, while male lead Jeff Bridges was nominated for Best Actor. In fact, it is increasingly rare for a film to even be nominated in the five major categories - Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay - and it is almost always the Actress category that is the one of the five that is missing. Once again, The Artist is a perfect example of this. Silver Linings Playbook was again the exception when it received noms in all five catgs.

    4. (Oscar comments continued - I ran over the 4,096 character limit. Hey, you did ask for my thoughts...)

      In order to get the Best Actress nominees, then, the Academy goes a little further afield and probably picks a set of performances that actually better reflects the five best as opposed to the men's which more reflect the five best THAT ALSO HAPPEN TO BE IN THE BEST PICTURES NOMINEES.

      The films with Actress noms also tend to be more "women's films" that feature more than one strong performance by a woman, and often no real male performances of any note. The Help is a recent example - one Best Actress nom, two Best Supporting Actress noms, and I frankly can't even remember a single actor that appeared in it. Yes, it got a Best Picture nom, but if the Academy had not expanded the number of noms I highly doubt it would have been one of the five nominated.

      You've got the nominations in easy to refer to lists, while I don't. (I only have the winners). I'm betting that in the last 25 years there have been very few movies with both a Best Actress nomination AND a Best Supporting Actor nomination (only Million Dollar Baby comes to mind because it won in both catgs), whereas the opposite (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress noms) would be relatively common. In fact, I'm betting that even Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress noms from the same film are more common than Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor noms from the same film.

    5. You may be right on that last bit--I don't have the Supporting categories written out.

      It goes to show that there's still a long way to go in giving women in Hollywood the same sort of treatment and respect that the men get naturally.

      I don't have proof of what I'm about to write, but I suspect there is more than a kernel of truth in it. Best Picture/Best Actor nominations are more closely tied than Best Picture/Best Actress because movies in which men feature prominently tend to be considered more important and "better" that films in which women feature that prominently. It's a long-standing belief that a movie about men will be viewed by both men and women, while a movie about women will only be viewed by women.

      That's bullshit, of course. Certainly there are plenty of men who might find it demeaning to their manhood to watch something like The Hours, but there are plenty of women who would balk at watching something like The Expendables.

      It's a constant reminder that sexism is still out there and more rampant than we'd like to believe.

      Another bit of research I'd like to do--I'll do it when I have time (ha!)--I suspect that when one looks at the major categories--Picture, Director, Actor/Actress, Supporting categories, and the two Screenplay categories, that when you look at all the films with a single nomination, most of them fall in the two actress categories. That's a guess, but I'm more than 50% confident it would play out accurately.

    6. I think it has actually regressed from earlier years. I think that films have become more segregated between genders as the studios attempt to target market them in order to maximize box office. Sure, even the early days had the gangster films for the guys and the melodramas for the women, but there were a ton of comedies and dramas that were expected to attract everyone. Men went to go see Bette Davis movies and women went to go see Bing Crosby movies.

      Nowadays we get things like The Hangover and then Bridesmaids follows as "the female Hangover". We get tons of male buddy cop action comedies so now they come out with things like the recent The Heat which was marketed as the "female" buddy cop action comedy. And when I just went to look up the title I saw a news article titled "Melissa McCarthy may play female James Bond in comedy." Everything feels like it's getting segregated into his and hers movies, even when it comes to the Oscars. Your example of The Hours is a movie that was pitched by the studio as "for women".

      I agree that studios deliberately segregate movies that way, and some of it could certainly be because they feel one kind is more deserving than others, but I feel that it is also a result of attempts in target marketing. Men will tend to go see a movie alone if they are interested in it, whereas women tend to want to go with someone else. Consequently, movies targeted at men usually do better at the box office than ones targeted at women. This leads to studios making more films targeted to men than to women, which leads to fewer films overall that might end up winning awards. It's sort of a chicken and the egg situation.

      And not to be a Debbie Downer, but I think the segregation is only going to increase.

      You may be right about single nominations among the five major categories might be most often in Best Actress. If I was a betting man that would be the one I would put my money on. The Supporting catgs often end up being different movies, too, usually to reward a particularly good performance, or as a "career Oscar". I don't know if a single nom for Best Actress would occur more often than one for Best Supporting Actor, for instance. It would be interesting to know, though.

    7. I agree that it has regressed. Women's roles are a lot less interesting now than they were 50 or 70 years ago. It would be hard to sell a studio on a film like All About Eve today (although The Hours certainly heads in that direction) with multiple, excellently written, multi-dimensional female characters. Back then, it wasn't particularly surprising to see someone like Olivia de Havilland playing down in something like The Heiress because the role was so damn good. Now, when we get something like Monster (another award-winning film with lesbian overtones that didn't make the list), it's all about Charlize Theron taking a huge risk by ugly-ing up rather than about her taking on a challenging role.

      The segregation of film audiences almost certainly will increase, because it makes marketing easy. If you can say "this is a film for 18-35-year-old women," the marketing campaign is half-written. With millions of dollars on the line and at risk, the whole idea is to minimize that risk as much as possible. It sucks, even if it's understandable.

      The next time I'll have a chance to really sit down and do a detailed analysis of various awards like I want to will be toward the end of the year. I think it's worth doing, just to verify what I think is a sad trend.

    8. Wow, you're right that Monster isn't on there. Yet another that I never really realized until you pointed it out.

      You're right that it was all about "Charlize Theron plays 'ugly'". I do remember Ebert referring to it as the best female performance he had ever seen, though. When Theron did, I think it was North Country, a few years later there were people practically accusing her of "playing ugly again just to win another Oscar."

      I remember a comedy skit at the Oscars where they made fun of this. They did fake campaign ads. One of them was a pro-Keira Knightley ad that said something to the effect of "Charlize Theron plays ugly...again. Vote for the woman who dares to be beautiful onscreen...Keira Knightley."

    9. Exactly--what people take away as noteworthy is that a beautiful actress played something other than a beautiful role. The same thing happened with Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich (although she wasn't nominated for it). The talk wasn't about how good her performance was, but how "ugly" she was in the role. Did anyone say anything about John Cusack being completely unappealing? No. But for the woman, it's the main topic.

      It's stupid, of course, but it's become so expected that it will take a lot of time, a lot of awareness, and a lot of hard work to reverse it.

    10. Speaking of Diaz, it took a lot of years for people to stop referring to her as a "model/actress". It wasn't her, but someone else who asked why just because she was a part-time model in order to make ends meet before her acting career took off did people join that profession with actress. She asked why other people aren't identified as "waitress/actress" or "carpenter/actor".

      That goes back to your point about it being about looks first with actresses. It's doubly so if she started out as a model. There are any number of male models who became actors (Ashton Kutcher is one), but that is almost never mentioned.

    11. After this conversation, allow me to suggest finding a screening of Miss Representation. If you get a chance, it's incredibly worthwhile, but it's likely that you'll only find it at a screening somewhere.

      Scratch that--NetFlix has it. It's worth your 90 minutes.

    12. I will look into it. Thanks.