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No-Home Movie: Emotional Dislocation in ‘Happy Together’ and ‘Moonlight’

Written by Jonah Jeng on January 4, 2017 

happy-together-and-moonlight

From January 4-9, New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center will run a series titled Illuminating Moonlight, featuring works that inspired Barry Jenkins‘ Moonlight and were handpicked by the director himself. Included in this lineup is Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together, which makes perfect sense. Wong’s film, like Moonlight, tells of gay love and communicates its characters’ desires through both dreamy impressionism and a genre-spanning soundtrack. But these two are related in another, less obvious way, and this connection has to do with the contexts in which they were made. Happy Together premiered on May 17, 1997, less than two months before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, while Moonlight debuted on September 2, 2016, right as cultural backlash against liberal progressivism reached its greatest intensity in the unexpectedly massive show of support for Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump. Hitting screens as their respective societies were on the brink of potentially cataclysmic change, both films tell stories of displacement that resonate with larger destabilizations in the notion of nation as home — “home” here suggesting a place of stability, refuge, and rest.

For many Hong Kong-ers, the impending Handover further confused the already complicated idea of Hong Kong as home. Historically, the territory had passed through the hands of multiple sovereignties without any promise that it would ever be given full political autonomy, and the Handover seemed poised to continue this process. Exacerbating this worry was a fear that the Chinese government would curtail the hard-won freedoms that Hong Kong-ers had procured under Britain’s democratic governance; per the New York Times coverage of the Handover, the moment the clock struck midnight on July 1, “Hong Kong’s elected legislature was abolished [… and] a range of Hong Kong’s civil liberties were rolled back as new constraints were placed on the right to protest and association.” Being that negotiations over the Handover had been ongoing since as early as the mid-1980s, all these issues were already in the public consciousness when Wong started filming Happy Together. As such, although his film premiered before July 1, 1997, it spoke to anxieties that were contemporaneous with its filming and release.

In Wong’s film, future uncertainty and a lack of home are evoked almost from the outset. The central couple in Happy Together, Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung), hail from Hong Kong — except the film is primarily set in Argentina, where Ho and Lai go in an attempt to repair their relationship. They get lost on the way, with great emphasis placed on their inability to read a map. By the time they arrive in Argentina, they are broke and thus marooned until they can scrape together enough money to leave.

By this point, Ho and Lai have already fought so much that they seem, at first, to be separated, but jealousy and remaining attraction keep the two within each other’s orbit — not securely at “home” in a relationship, but also not fully apart. “Let’s start over” is Ho’s go-to refrain whenever things get heated between him and Lai, and the words must have rung loudly for Hong Kong viewers in 1997. Such a chance was precisely what the Handover proposed, though the phrase also suggested a repetition of past failures, thereby inducing trepidation about the future. In one of the film’s most striking moments, Lai wonders what Hong Kong would look like upside-down, and we are abruptly shown images of the city presented as such, simultaneously foregrounding the film’s self-conscious engagement with the reality of the Handover and visually communicating the disorientation experienced by Hong Kong’s people.

When Happy Together was released, the motif of dislocated individuals tapped the feeling of precarious uncertainty permeating Hong Kong during the months leading up to the Handover. A similar tension has been charging the U.S. in recent years, reaching greatest visibility with Trump’s presidential campaign. When Jenkins began filming Moonlight, Trump had not yet announced his candidacy, but the political division we have been seeing in the headlines was a long time in the making. Though received wisdom would have people believe that America has moved beyond the racism, sexism, and xenophobia of yesteryear, the reality is that universal empathy and acceptance are still a long way off. For many minorities, Trump is simply the latest grievance in a long history of failed progress, even if, thankfully, some progress has still been made. Whether or not A24 intended for Moonlight to be released this close to Trump’s political ascendancy is uncertain. What remains clear, however, is that a sense of displacement evoked by the film resonates with the experience of many minorities living in the United States over the past several years, an experience that has intensified with Trump’s candidacy.

Moonlight, though working in a different national context and historical period, aligns powerfully with Happy Together in conveying a reality of dislocation.  Chiron, the protagonist of Moonlight, is depicted as growing up in the same Miami neighborhood throughout most of the film, except it is clear that this place holds little comfort for him. When first seen, he is being chased by a pack of boys who call him queer, and the camera hovers just over his upper back the whole time, channeling the panicked kineticism of his movements. The cinematography in this scene evokes the opening long take in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Rosetta, and, like that film, Moonlight is about survival. The dominant culture in Chiron’s neighborhood holds certain expectations for how men should talk and behave, and because he does not conform to these standards, he is singled out and persecuted.

This attack of the minority by the majority reaches its devastating climax in the second segment of the narrative triptych, in which Chiron’s only friend, Kevin, is peer-pressured into beating him up in public. Earlier, these two shared a moment of physical ecstasy, after which Chiron seemed happy for the first time since the film began — he had found someone who loved the way he loved. When this two-person communion then breaks beneath the power of the dominant culture, Chiron not only loses a friend, but his entire sense of belonging, which had been tied to the one person who he felt truly understood him. By the start of the final segment, Chiron has retreated completely into himself, resigning his identity to the external forces dictating who he should (appear to) be.

Like Happy Together, Moonlight also conveys socio-emotional dislocation at the level of physical geography. As a child and teenager, Chiron technically lives under his mother’s roof, but her abusive, drug-fueled behavior renders the house inhospitable. Rather, he appears to spend most of his time at the house of a local gangster who functions as the father figure he never had. Chiron’s home that isn’t home comes to embody the character’s experience of displacement and, by extension, that experienced by many modern Americans.

If these films stopped at articulating the disorientation of the surrounding world, they would have emerged as powerful works of art. But both also end on hopeful notes, illuminating potential ways forward for the characters and, I propose, society overall. In Happy Together, Lai eventually earns enough money and decides to leave Argentina without Ho. After a few shots of him on the road, the film cuts to Chang, a Taiwanese student whom Lai had befriended in Argentina. When we see Chang, he is standing at a lighthouse at the southernmost tip of South America, a place where people allegedly go to dispose of their sorrows. Having earlier asked Lai to speak from the heart into a tape recorder, Chang has come to the lighthouse with the tape to perform the sorrow disposal on Lai’s behalf. After this brief interlude, the film returns to Lai, who has just arrived in Taipei, Taiwan. He visits the Liao Ning night market and stops at a food stand, only to see a photograph of Chang taped to the wall. Though Chang himself is not present, Lai has found Chang’s family. “I finally understood how [Chang] could be happy running around so free,” Lai narrates in voiceover after observing the conviviality of Chang’s parents. “It’s because he has a place he can always return to.”

Here, Lai is clearly describing the presence of a home in Chang’s life, and this description sheds light on his decision to pocket the picture of Chang before leaving the food stand. Just as Chang can always return to his geographical home in Taiwan, Lai can now revisit the photograph and the memories it conjures up and stands for. Moreover, Chang is a friend who, quite literally, was willing to go the ends of the earth for him. (Granted, Chang had himself wanted to visit the lighthouse to begin with, but the fact that he brought the recorder to the edge of the inhabited world is still striking.) Friendship and community transcend space and geography, and the playing of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” in the final scene reflects that: though Lai and Chang are physically distant, there is closeness in their shared experiences. If we interpret geography allegorically, as we have been doing thus far, we arrive at a slightly different, but not unrelated reading: although emotional displacement still exists for Lai and the Hong Kong people more generally, a sense of community provides some vital anchor.

Throughout this last scene, we see that Wong has strikingly decreased the frame rate so that images appear sped up, a marked departure from the aesthetic of slowing down that defined earlier portions of the film. Most of Happy Together is populated by flashbacks and Wong’s iconic step-printing technique, which visually evokes the sense of the past dragging Lai away from the present, disrupting his ability to move on. This final scene, however, rockets Lai forward at an almost reckless velocity. When one is “happy” and “together,” the future suddenly seems ripe for the seizing.

If Happy Together encourages finding alternate forms of community as a path to healing — rather than having Lai meet another Hong Kong-er, the film shows him befriending someone from a different country, which seems to be less a rebuke of Hong Kong than a metaphor for the kindred spirits that exist in unexpected places — then Moonlight calls viewers to directly confront the sense of displacement. By the film’s third act, Chiron is an adult drug dealer running business in Atlanta, another instance of geographical displacement signaling emotional dislocation. One night, he receives an unexpected call from Kevin, who is working as a cook back in their home city of Miami. Over the phone, Kevin asks Chiron to visit him and apologizes for the incident that drove them apart. Words alone can’t undo years of suffering, but Chiron is clearly shaken and moved by the call and decides to drop by Kevin’s diner. Right before he does so, he visits his mother in rehab, and their tearful exchange ends with Chiron forgiving her for abusive parenting — a moment of grace foreshadowing Kevin and Chiron’s own encounter, which begins tentatively but concludes with reconciliation.

For many living in 21st-century America, the impulse may be to angrily throw in the towel, but the progression of Moonlight suggests that grace and active conversation may be the key to making home feel like home again. Happy Together, though released twenty years ago in a different country, offers further perspective: in the event that forgiveness is not received and minority groups continue to be marginalized, community can be found in circles that exist apart from nationhood — for instance, women of the world can draw strength from each other and their male allies, and people of color everywhere can rally together against any instance of racism, even if their particular ethnic group isn’t the primary target. All of this should be common sense by now. What Moonlight and Happy Together do is make these realities not just sensed but felt, such that viewers may feel understood and even moved to action.

Near the beginning of Happy Together, Lai mentions that he had seen the design of a waterfall on the side of a lamp and wanted to visit the real-life Iguazu Falls that inspired it, but he and Ho were never able to find it together. A couple times throughout the film, shots of the waterfall appear, seemingly divorced from the plot, and Lai is repeatedly seen holding the lamp and gazing at the waterfall’s image. It is not until after he leaves Ho that Lai successfully makes it to the falls, and so it is only after Lai has unmoored himself from the dangerous seduction of the past that he is able to arrive at his destination. What must not be overlooked, however, is that it was a work of art — the image on the lamp — that kept Lai’s desire for progress alive long enough for actual movement to be achieved. Moonlight and Happy Together, and the best of art in general, similarly function as our lamps. They illuminate both present darkness and the road ahead, giving us hope and guiding us home.

Illuminating Moonlight runs from January 4-9 at Film Society of Lincoln Center. See more information here.


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