Essays · Movies

The Expression of Inanimate Objects in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘Happy Together’

No one world-builds quite like Wong Kar Wai.
Happy Together Wong Kar Wai Lamp
Criterion Collection
By  · Published on June 27th, 2021

A common thread in the filmography of Wong Kar Wai is a feeling of vast and intense longing. We find this in the web of star-crossed lovers submerged in Hong Kong’s surreal neon nightlife in Chungking Express (1994) and in the unspoken forbidden romance of In the Mood for Love (2000). But while these two films have a couple of important objects that function as metaphors for longing – Chungking Express‘s pineapple cans, In the Mood for Love‘s dresses – the feeling can be found in a majority of the objects in another Wong Kar Wai film: Happy Together (1997).

The film follows Hong Kong couple Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) as they take an impromptu vacation to Buenos Aires in a last-ditch attempt to save their floundering relationship. The idea doesn’t go as planned, though, since they quickly realize they are incapable of getting along even with the change of scenery. But they also don’t have enough money to return home, so they are forced to continue their effort to repair their tumultuous relationship in a foreign city.

Ho and Lai are irreconcilably unpredictable and elusive characters. One minute they are desperately in love, and the other, they are beating one another to a pulp — a back and forth that will undoubtedly give the viewer whiplash by the film’s second act. And with a script that is understated and lacking in exposition, interiority is gleaned from hints as opposed to clear signals from the filmmaker. 

Wong Kar Wai litters the world of Happy Together with miscellaneous objects: half-empty water bottles, cigarette butts, cans, washcloths. And while these objects might, at first, appear to simply make for a chaotic and compelling mise-en-scène, there is also a case to be made that they, indeed, speak louder than the characters themselves.

In one of the first moments with the main characters, they drive in a car filled to the brim with personal belongings. This image attempts to reconcile the tension between intense claustrophobia and aspiration — a tension that ultimately guides the entire film. On the one hand, these are the couples’ things, items they are bringing with them to Argentina with the hopes of constructing a new life together. But on the other hand, there is an uncomfortable sense of confinement to the small, cramped space.

At first, the landscape in Happy Together hints at a hopeful and optimistic future for Ho and Lai. The roads are open, flat, and wide, as if to shout out that nothing but possibility lies ahead for our young couple. This world is their oyster. They just have to hold on until they get to Argentina.

But things don’t end up working out in the couple’s favor. This fact becomes abundantly clear as soon as they step foot in their new city. Much of Happy Together takes place in Lai’s cramped, one-bedroom apartment. Some of the first shots in the apartment are taken through the iron bars at the foot of his bed, which instantly give a trapped feeling. In addition to being restricted in size, the apartment is also crammed with sundry objects in the same way the car was. This imagery of entrapment immediately sets up a feeling of impending doom for the couple, as if they are destined to fail before they have even begun.

Ho and Lai also use the objects that fill the apartment to express their feelings toward one another when the expression of feelings falls short. At one point, Ho tosses a beer bottle and allows it to smash to vent his frustration. At another point, Ho wrenches his belongings out of the closet in a performative act to show Lai that he is packing and leaving — magazines, clothes, cans, a clock. A couple of times, Ho cleans Lai’s apartment as an act of love and gratitude.

Many of the objects in their possession, though, are used not to express irritation or claustrophobia, but quite the opposite. Lai’s necklace, for example, is not a jewel but rather a collection of practical yet intimate objects: a ring of keys. The very presence of these objects around his neck is aspirational: home is important to him; more importantly, a home with Ho is important to him. This is what they are working toward.

A similar aspirational object appears in the image of a lamp, which appears many times throughout Happy Together. In the beginning of the film, when the couple are still in Hong Kong, they discuss a lamp that Lai bought at Iguazu Falls, and they subsequently decide to visit the location together. Throughout the film, the lamp returns as a motif for Ho and Lai’s hopes for their relationship. When Lai takes care of Ho after he’s beaten up for stealing a watch, the lamp lingers poignantly in the background for the duration of the moment of tenderness.

Later, while they attempt to talk through their grievances, the lamp lies on its side on the couch, as if to signify discontent and disharmony in their relationship. And then, when Ho leaves Lai, the lamp sits at the forefront of the shot, as if to say this isn’t the end; the relationship will continue to exist in this whirlwind circle. And for Ho, the lamp continues to be a stand-in for his relationship with Lai. When he finally leaves Lai for what may well be the last time, he looks back at the lamp one last time, and the camera zooms in and focuses on the dream-like rushing water.

Objects almost seem to become characters in Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together. It is a film about not knowing how to say what you really want to say to the person you love. It is about feeling as though the rift between you is too vast to traverse. It is about how the things in your life — seemingly meaningless things, like cigarette butts and a kitsch old lamp — can do the talking for you. Perhaps most of all, it is a film about how cinema can convey emotions visually better than words ever could. 

Watch Happy Together on The Criterion Channel

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.