City Paper is not for tourists
Wong Kar-Wai has said that he decided to make Happy Together, a film set principally in Buenos Aires, to see what it was like to work outside of Hong Kong. But of course the film is about Hong Kong. The very notion of making a movie outside his home territory as the mainland-Chinese takeover loomed is a statement, and in Europe the movie was released with the telling subtitle “A Story About a Reunion.” In one of this downbeat fable’s more whimsical moments, a Hong Kong expatriate muses that Buenos Aires is on the opposite side of the globe from his home, and the scene shifts briefly to HKupside down.
Happy Together was inspired by”based on” would be overstating the casea novel by Manuel Puig, The Buenos Aires Affair. Wong doesn’t write scripts, however, and has called his creative method “a process of destruction.” The film’s production setbacks (including a technicians’ strike) and one of the stars’ scheduling conflicts probably had more to do with the result than did Puig’s book. The soundtrackmostly Astor Piazzolla and Frank Zappais based on the music Wong happened to discover as he was filming. The movie makes the director’s serendipitous Chungking Express look tightly plotted by comparison.
The film begins with a provocation: Two men recently arrived in Argentina from Hong Kong, Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie
Cheung), have sex in a seedy hotel room. The scene is an affront to Hong Kong’s new masters, who disapprove of homosexuality and sexually explicit cinema, but also to the Hong Kong audience, which is used to seeing Leung and Cheung in more traditional roles. Both actors have worked with Wong beforeand Cheung played a gay character in Farewell My Concubinebut they’re better known for appearing in films by more macho directors, notably John Woo, who portrays male bonding as something that happens during gunfights, not in bed.
Having dispensed with sex, Wong sets the lovers to bickering. They head for Iguazu Falls, the principal tourist attraction of subtropical northern Argentina, in a junker that proceeds to break down. Exasperated, Ho hitches a ride back to Buenos Aires, where he becomes a hustler. Lai also returns to the city, where he takes a succession of jobs, beginning as a doorman at a tango bar that caters to the tourist trade. Eventually, Ho is beaten up by a trick and turns to Lai for aid. Lai takes care of his former lover, but their old intimacy is lost. Previously estranged at a distance, now they’re isolated in the confines of a small apartment in Boca, a funky, downscale neighborhood. “Let’s start over,” is the film’s refrain, but circumstances and emotions just can’t be put back the way they were.
Working at a Chinese restaurant, Lai meets Chang (Chang Chen), a young man from Taipei. (This just happens to be one of the cities sometimes proffered as a new home for HK filmmakers if things get too hot under Chinese rule.) Unusually sensitive to tone of voice, Chang tells Lai what Lai won’t admit to himself: that he’s lonely and sad. Lai finally makes the trip to Iguazu Falls, while Chang visits Ushuaia, the town at Argentina’s near-Antarctic southern tip. Then they both return, separately, to Asia, “this side of the world.” Lai arrives in Taipei just as it’s announced that Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping has died. As the long-promised title song finally swells, Lai finds himselfunhappy and untogetheron the city’s new automated rail system.
Those who saw Chungking Express have some idea of what to expect from Happy Together. Both are freewheeling and improvisational, and shot with punky élan by Wong’s longtime cinematographer Chris Doyle. Although Buenos Aires fancies itself the Paris of the southern hemisphere, Wong was less attracted to its grand boulevards than its HK-like back streets, which Doyle shot in neon-bright reds and yellows (interspersed with some black-and-white). There’s even a scene involving a boat trip, although Buenos Aires’ grimy industrial riverfront can’t compare to the dramatic vistas of Hong Kong’s ferry rides.
All of Wong’s films seen in the U.S. have a strong flavor of melancholy, but in Happy Together it’s almost undiluted. The mood is seldom challenged by the sort of playfulness that made Chungking Express last year’s most effervescent film, and the movie drags in the center before recapturing its drive in a flurry of final, short scenes. Even the vivid hues have an ominous character: One predominantly red shot is of the floor of an abattoir, covered in blood. (The scene is echoed by the credits’ red backdrop.) Given such gory foreboding, it’s worth noting that this is a story about a reunion that fails.
In a familiar small-film gambit, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is based on an actual incident that allows it to be based entirely in one location: During the Bosnian war, a squad of Serbian soldiers was trapped in an unfinished tunnel by a group of Muslim fighters. But Srdjan Dragojevic’s film is not small in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s wide-ranging both narratively and thematically, and although it tells the story of a siege, the film sees no need to stay confined inside the tunnel with its principal characters. In fact, the troops don’t even enter the tunnel in the first half hour of this 128-minute film.
The movie opens with the 1971 dedication of the “Brotherhood and Unity Tunnel,” shown in mock-newsreel footage whose acid burlesque is similar in tone to Emir Kusturica’s Underground. An official goes to cut the ribbon and nearly chops off his own thumb in the process. Blood spurts all over the little girl who hands the man the scissors, a darkly comic harbinger of the blood that is to spatter innocents.
The road to the tunnel is never completed, so by 1980 the site looks sufficiently abandoned to serve as the local equivalent of a haunted house to two boys, best friends Milan and Halil. They can never get up the nerve to enter the tunnel, which they believe is home to an ogre. The ogre, of course, is fratricidal war and concealed ethnic hostilities. Ten years later, Serbian Milan (Dragan Bjelogrlic) and Muslim Halil (Nikola Pejakovic) are bitter enemies. When Milan finally enters the tunnel, it is with his fellow Serbian combatants; Halil remains outside, commanding the Muslim detachment that keeps his former friend trapped.
This premise is schematic, but the film is nothing of the sort. Dragojevic (who wrote the script with Pejakovic and Vanja Bulic) flashes back and forward, recounting the war as well as its prologue and epilogue. Some of the survivors of the tunnel siege end up in a hospital, where they are outraged both to be in a ward adjacent to Muslims and by the frivolousness of their fellow Serbs. Flashbacks also reveal that, in their prewar lives, some of the Serbian fighters were career Titoists, but others were thieves or drug addicts.
Pretty Village, Pretty Flame can be seen simply as a first-rate war film, albeit one about a conflict in which neither side seems especially noble; its evocation of battle is vivid and powerful. For Western audiences, it brings home both the mundanity and strangeness of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. With their intimate familiarity with American pop culture, the Serbs might as well be from New Jersey. Yet one soldier’s stated fondness for Streets of Fire doesn’t exactly explain his enthusiasm for burning down Muslim villages.
The West’s bewilderment is embodied by an American reporter (Lisa Mancure), who finds herself detained in the tunnel after stowing away in a truck. The reporter is hardly a fully rounded character, but her ignorance of the local cultureshe speaks not a word of Serbo-Croatianis an acid commentary on the Western press. She’s also a device to get the soldiers to tell their life stories and to recount odd bits of Serbian nationalist mythology. (One man declares that the Serbs were the earliest civilized people, because they were the first to use forks.) By the time she and soldiers are reduced to drinking urine to slake their thirst, however, the horror of their situation has largely overcome the sometimes didactic dialogue.
Dragojevic and his cohorts are Serbs, and Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is not the harshest possible portrayal of Serbian conduct in a war in which they were generally considered the aggressors. Still, the film’s depiction of Serbian burning and looting was enough to make some early Serbian backers withdraw their support. The only reference to Serbian brutalities against women comes from the reporter, who ironically remarks that, “I’m fully aware of the Serbian concern for women in the war”a comment that may be a little too discreet for American audiences, though not for Bosnian ones. Also subtle is an acerbic portrait of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic: The film’s embodiment of war profiteering is a fat bar owner who shares a nickname, Slobo, with the president.
As with Underground, understanding such nuances is edifying but not essential. Pretty Village, Pretty Flame is not just an informative dispatch from a bewildering country. It’s also powerful filmmaking, and a reminder than cinema can present worlds more extraordinary than any Hollywood’s special-effects masters have yet imagined.
A murder-mystery road movie, writer/director Bill Bennett’s Kiss or Kill is supposed to keep you wondering. What I mostly wondered, though, was if this routine genre flick could possibly be an accurate portrait of the Australian legal system.
Nikki (Frances O’Connor) and her boyfriend Al (Matt Day) are alienated kids taking their revenge on society via a fairly nasty scam. Nikki picks up men in hotel bars, drugs them, and then summons Al to help her rob them. One night, this con yields two complications: The drugged mark never wakes up, and the lovers find in the dead man’s effects a videotape of retired football star Zipper Doyle (Barry Langrishe) getting into bed with a young boy. Outraged, Nikki calls Zipper’s sporting-goods store to inform him that she has the tape. This means the couple will be chased both by the police, for murder, and Zipper, for the tape.
Nikki and Al head for Perth, the Australian analog of L.A., pursued by curious cops whose oddball asides frequently upstage the action. The lovers soon notice that they’re leaving a trail of bloody corpses, and Al comes to fear that Nikki’s doing the killing as she sleepwalks. (Tormented by just about the worst childhood memory a flashback can reveal, Nikki has reason to be jumpy and bitter.) Along the way, the twosome pass the same sort of toxic landscapes as Kalifornia’s runaway couple: the ghostly remains of the American nuclear-testing era.
Eventually, the couple is apprehended by the police, who watch the incriminating videotape. When they’re released due to lack of evidencesay what?the cops give them back the videoare you kidding me?which means that Zipper still has motive to track them down.
Both O’Connor and Day are alumni of Love and Other Catastrophes, the Aussie campus comedy released earlier this year; she was the manipulative yet engaging lesbian, and he was the modest med student who liked all the right movies. Here, O’Connor is equally charming and Day is equally competent, but the smartest thing about Kill or Kill is the Dylan Thomas quatrain that opens it. That epigraph is about not life, of course, but film.CP