Sappy Together

As is the case with my October articles, alt.asian-movies has proven to be a invaluable source of info. It’s like using a microfiche. When researching Happy Together, there were over 16,000 words from Chinese newspaper and magazine articles that I copied and pasted onto this space until I had managed to whittle it down to 2,400 words. Whittling isn’t easy at all, especially when trying to balance the size ratio of paragraphs to photographs. If you feel that this article is lacking, you can mosey on down to Google Groups where you can happen upon the World Wide Web equivalent to the Wild West.

Happy Together, a 1997 release, is the most critically acclaimed Category III film. The celebrated director, Wong Kar-Wai, wanted it to be rated Category II-B (the Hong Kong equivalent to Britain’s 15 rating which the B.B.F.C. had certified the film with). The censors told him that the certification would only be allowed if he removed the sex scene. He felt bad because he had already reluctantly cut out a lot of scenes. He had particularly felt guilty about Shirley Kwan’s role being heavily reduced. Her initial sizable role was intended to lull Tony Leung Chiu-Wai into a false sense of security since Wong resorted to deception to get him to accept his role. Wong gave him the wrong script due to the film’s theme of homosexuality. Tony was tricked into thinking that the film would be about his character looking for his father in Argentina before romantically chasing the woman who had an affair with his father. It was only when the cast and crew got to Argentina to make the film that the real script was shown. Tony eventually forgave Wong since this was their fourth collaboration.

Perhaps in order to offset negative expectations, it was decided that Happy Together would be screened at the Cannes Film Festival (7 May – 18 May 1997) before being released in H.K. cinemas (on May 30). Tony was very nervous at the Chinese première because, with so many friends showing their support, he was worried about how others would react. Peer pressure and bullying at the hands of teasing cinema goers can easily result in ostracism. Still, co-star Leslie Cheung’s gayness didn’t prevent him from being popular. The esteemed director put on a brave face when he went to South Korea to promote the film despite the possibility that it could end up being banned. It wasn’t so much to do with homophobia as failing to pass the censor board on two occasions. On June 25 of 1997, it was officially banned.

In the following year, the ban was lifted so that the film could be released on August 22, but with the strict rule that the sex scene stayed out. This only happened because the censored version was screened at the Pusan International Film Festival in the previous October. It’s amazing that Wong Kar-Wai managed to win the Best Director award at Cannes considering that the poster exhibited there had used the sex scene as the focal point. Despite the win, he didn’t think that Happy Together was his best film. He felt that it still had flaws. His final word on it is that he was glad that he made the film before the handover of H.K. to Mainland China in July `97. Comedy actor Eric Tsang was very proud of Wong for his Cannes achievement would allow the H.K. film industry to be more respected.

Ten years earlier, Eric was the star of a Wong-written thriller titled Final Victory, where Tsui Hark plays a serious bad guy. Tony had a role which was left on the cutting room floor (this explains the disjointed editing as observed by a HKMDB critic). Tony recalls his observation of the director’s impressive impression of Wong: “I remember when making Final Victory, Patrick Tam Ka-Ming respected his script a lot – not a word could be changed. Although it took him four days to write a page, Patrick said it was so difficult to write a page, so nothing could be changed.”

Flashforwarding ten years later on June 25, a H.K. radio station held a discussion panel at a restaurant involving Tony, Wong and To Ho Fung. The latter is the Cantonese name of Christopher Doyle – the Australian cinematographer who was a regular collaborator of Wong, although it should be said that Andrew Lau has been left in the lurch in regards to previous collaborations. Doyle is well known for being an avid drinker if not exactly a borderline alcoholic. As the conversation continued, he made less and lesser sense. He expressed his admiration for Tony by saying that he isn’t just an actor but the source of inspiration for the creativity of Wong, himself and William Cheung Suk-Ping. The latter is an unsung hero whose contributions tend to be mistaken as the director’s overall vision. William is Wong’s rely-on art director, editor and costume designer. Strangely, he has yet to direct a film.

Even Doyle managed to churn out a few films in that regard. The irony is that the person who I was previously defending, Andrew Lau, is a hack of a director – a description that certainly wouldn’t be applied to Patrick Tam (who has the distinction of directing a 1981 sync-sound H.K. movie that was filmed in California i.e. Love Massacre). In fact, Patrick could actually be cited as having a big influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in that the robbery is never seen in Final Victory. Our only real glimpse of the action is a fast-forward where, like Mr. Orange, a character is wounded. There is a moment where we can only hear the robbery instead of seeing its violent glory – this is a strong example of the even stronger (if not strongest) juxtaposition of a still image being soundtracked by the sound of an atrocity in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

The John McNaughton film was made in 1985 but only got festival releases in the `80s, namely 1986, 1988 and 1989 before having a limited release in mainstream cinemas circa 1990. Patrick saw the film in 1986, where it was shown in September at the Chicago International Film Festival. In 1987, Patrick worked as an art director for a film that was directed by Eric and secretly co-directed by Wong Jing (who wrote the script). You’re My Destiny isn’t a harrowing thriller, but it’s likely that a conversation between Patrick and Jing is responsible for the similarity of the rape tape scene in Jing’s The Big Score (made as well as released in 1990). Like John McNaughton’s film, the context is a family home invasion scene. It may seem strange to think that Patrick would be watching a film in America circa 1986, but that year and 1985 were silent years for him – no releases. This makes his 1987 film all the more surprising.

Ten years later, even he would have to admit that Wong’s Cannes victory seems to be all for nothing given that there’s the issue of H.K. no longer having a singular identity with the impending handover. It would be appear that oblivious international critics would perceive Happy Together as being a Chinese film instead of a H.K. one. Even though the film was released two months before the handover, it wouldn’t matter. The film finished its H.K. run two weeks after the handover. Talk about a rollercoaster ride of emotional upheaval! Wong once said that he went to Argentina to shoot this film because he was tired of answering questions about the political future of H.K. and what it also means for him. It’s a shame that he never became a director of European cinema. He certainly missed his calling to be the flag waver of foreign-directed Hollywood Oscar bait.

Without being pretentiously coy about his Cannes success, Wong believed that he wouldn’t win the award because the 50th anniversary of the festival could possibly resulting in the jury wanting a victory to lean toward a French film like Assassins, The Sweet Hereafter, Western and The Fifth Element – especially the latter with it being the biggest investment in French film history. On the morning of May 11 in `97, Wong had flown to France to attend the showing of Happy Together at the Cannes Film Festival. He also brought a more conservative poster to Cannes, just in case. Later on in the night, he edited the trailer. It was easy because the film’s post-production took almost four months of his time. He edited quite a lot of film out, but the total length of the film was still over 300,000 feet i.e. over 3,000 minutes (special thanks to the Kodak film calculator).

Meanwhile, he prepared several designs for the poster. Because the outside world felt that this film’s topic is sensitive, the photos and trailers would require careful handling. Wong, from time to time, would always try to assure the press that the film should not be perceived so much as a gay film as a love story. As overused as this saying is, it worked in his favour…especially when it came to lifting the ban in South Korea. As it turns out, one of the film’s production companies was South Korean – Seowoo. Sensing difficulty in having Chinese money entirely support the film, it’s interesting to note that Wong also decided that one of the companies should be Japanese – Prenom.

As could be expected, not everyone in the H.K. film industry had good things to say about Happy Together. One such critic was a veteran actress named Carol Cheng. On November 12 in 1997, the then-40-year-old actress had the courage to talk about how (when all the hype died down) she finally had the time to see the film. She said: “Days ago, I watched Happy Together on LD. I was fast-forwarding as I watched and stopped only when there was dialogue. On paper, it really was up my alley – half the movie was about homosexuality; the entire film was filmed in Argentina. If it was in Hong Kong, talking about Hong Kong people’s stuff then it would have been better.”

On the midnight of May 30 in 1997, an actor named Kam Kwok-Leung had moonlighted as a reporter to discuss Happy Together with Tony and Wong in the latter’s office. Kam started out as a Kung Fu movie actor but he is best known as playing the villain in a 1999 thriller called Purple Storm. By 1997, he was more interested in being a writer and director e.g. 4 Faces of Eve (1996). A bigger plot twist is that he was the very same man who discovered and nurtured Wong by getting him to write for TV before films. The biggest plot twist is that Kam introduced Tony to Wong since Tony was working on a children’s TV series called 430 Space Shuttle. The environment of the witching hour interview was described as jazz music, beer and cigarettes. In Wong’s films, cigarettes are burned more than midnight oil.

The most interesting fact revealed, for me, was that Tony would eat pears when Maggie Cheung filmed her scenes on Days of Being Wild (1990). He would continue to only eat pears during the 10 days that he had spent filming his role on that film. Leslie had more interesting things to say when he was interviewed by Ngai Tak-Sum and Lau Chau-Ming for issue 406 of Next Magazine. When people purchased the December 19 `97 publication, they learned that Leslie’s sexuality didn’t automatically mean that it would be his favourite film. He described himself as being unbelievably sick during the shoot which was very long. He was actually very bored, but still went out of his way in the interview to say that it wasn’t because Wong Kar-Wai is a bad director. As a matter of fact, Leslie had described him as a masterful director.

Wong, during principal photography, had a lot of problems with the production house in Argentina. This meant that work had stopped for 3 months. Resultingly, Leslie had to rush back to H.K. for his concert tour’s press conference. What also complicated things further is that his schedule specified limitations. Despite all of this, he still flew back to Argentina to give Wong more than 10 days to work with him free of charge. There is a sense of overall melancholy that pervaded the making of the film. When Leslie arrived in Argentina, he immediately fell ill to amoeba. His body temperature dropped straight down and he almost died. Tony saved his life by using a computer to ask one of his doctor friends to help. The doctor immediately wrote a prescription to eliminate the amoeba.

Tony would end up being traumatized after filming his sex scene with Leslie. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. As he said, he was stunned for 2 days before returning to normal. Shirley Kwan, who is primarily a professional singer, was equally catatonic but for a different reason. Like Madonna also working in Argentina circa 1996, Shirley was expecting Happy Together to be her Evita. According to the local H.K. press, Shirley had shot a few weeks worth of film. She felt swindled, especially since her film career came to an end after that. Although Wong had praised her and wished her well in her future cinematic endeavours, neither critics nor producers were in a rush in making her the next Anita Mui – who happens to be the true Chinese Madonna. Even when Anita died in December of 2003 (eight months after Leslie had committed suicide), no-one sought to replace her as was the case with Bruceploitation.

This article is depressing, so here is some comic relief – On June 11 in `97, there was an article about Sammo Hung which had referenced Happy Together. The article gladly mentioned that there would be a week-long Sammo film festival to be held in Boston circa August. He was going to stay in America for half a year to see what life would offer. In June, he had attended a banquet hosted by Blackie Ko (whose most memorable role in a Sammo film was a biker in Wheels on Meals). At the banquet, Sammo had met Alan Tam – who hugged him and joked that they should make the sequel to Happy Together. This was an in-joke that alluded to their gay-themed buddy cop movie called Pantyhose Hero (a remake of Partners). When asked if he would take a role like the ones in Happy Together, Alan said that would depend on the plot, but he definitely wouldn’t bare his assets. If he really was going to make a homosexual film, he would choose Sammo as his partner because Sammo is a big and solid guy.


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