While watching Happy Together, Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong drama that won him Best Director at Cannes in 1997, I was struck by the deep emptiness of the protagonist Fai, and the subtle ways Fai allows, and in some cases even encourages, his lover’s abusive behavior. It’s a brave film to explore the psychology underlying victimhood, and it takes a gifted director to allow reflection without sacrificing empathy.
This is, of course, dangerous territory. Victims are often blamed for being abused, and abusers are often excused for their behavior. It’s a delicate tightrope, which partly explains why it’s so rarely addressed in cinema with such brutal honesty. We go to movies to be entertained, not reminded of the darkest natures inside of ourselves, let alone the fragile boundaries we hope protect us from becoming victims – or abusers ourselves.
We’re told that Fai and his lover Ho escaped Hong Kong to live in Argentina, for reasons that are partly explained but mostly unspoken. Soon after, Ho breaks up with Fai to pursue more base pleasures, and for a time Fai tries to survive in a foreign land as best he can. These initial scenes are shot in dull black and white, but when Ho returns to weasel his way back into Fai’s life, the movie switches to harsh, oversaturated yellows, reds, greens. What’s Wong Kar-wai saying about the aggressive allure that Ho brings to Fai’s life?
There is, undoubtedly, a certain seductive nature about being a victim, both because of whatever shallow rewards one might enjoy in victimhood, but also because abusers can be incredibly adept at drawing out insecurities and playing on them. In Happy Together, Ho acts the part of someone helpless and alone, someone who needs to be taken care of; it’s suggested that there is a great need in Fai to be caretaker. They argue, accuse, manipulate. I doubt greatly that Fai understands why he participates in these battles, or what impulse within him keeps him from leaving. As viewers, we may not be asked to completely sympathize with Ho, but we are challenged to look at Fai for what he is: someone a little needy, self-destructive, petty. What abuses had he suffered in the past? What penance is he paying off?
Perhaps most perplexing of all is the name of the film. Is Wong Kar-wai using the term ironically, in a story about two individuals so obviously miserable? Or is he suggesting that there is a bittersweet connectedness between individuals so codependent, a connectedness that may even be confused with happiness? After enduring what appears to be weeks of taking care of the injured, ungrateful Ho, Fai reflects, “this is the happiest time we’ve ever had together.” Maybe, in his own self-hatred and emptiness, he’s right.