The scene chosen for discussion is from Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997), starring Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, and Chen Chang. It locates between 71 and 73 minutes of the film. The camera follows Tony’s character Lai Yiu-fai on the sidewalk and depicts the colourful nightlife in Buenos Aires.
Argentina, a South American country, has always been recognized for its enthusiastic image. However, in Wong’s story, it carries more sadness and nostalgia. The city was given a life but it also seemed to be a bit sick, as one of Wong’s staffs described in Buenos Aires Zero Degree, a documentary of behind scenes of Happy Together (Kwan & Lee). Half of the film being black and white, and the other half under a dusky lighting, the overall atmosphere feels heavy and depressing. But this particular scene adds some joyful pigments as it resonates bustling streets in Hong Kong, making Yiu-fai not so lonely even Po-wing and Xiao Zhang both left at this time. Hong Kong elements are presented by flexible camera movements, leading a flow of emotions and thoughts.
One of the most significant characteristics of Wong Kar-wai’s films is in-shot speed changes between fast and slow motion. As Christopher Doyle, Wong’s longtime partner cinematographer mentioned in his journal, they used to change from normal speed to twelve or eight frames per second or the other way around, making a flat image more interesting (Doyle). This scene starts with a twenty-second timelapse shot with a high angle, showing busy traffics around Obelisco de Buenos Aires, the famous monument in the city. Fast motion may indicate Tony’s mental state at this moment: time flies without people he cares about by his side. It also makes the city hustle and bustle, just like the Hong Kong that never sleeps.
Slow motion shots are perfectly stitched with fast motion ones. The clip includes a sequence of blurred actions shot by handheld cameras. Doyle explained that they were trying to create a “druggy” surrounding illustrating that time was suspended and emphasizing the relevance of what was going on (Doyle). With these camera techniques, the scene reminds the audience of Hong Kong – always lively at night but also dreamlike and laid-back.
The tight frame is centred around Tony. Although he almost blends in the background given the low-contrast colour setting, he is always the dominant character with his eyes concentrated on the camera as it moves by. There are six times where the camera moves from right to left, catching Tony drinking in a restaurant, standing with people on the street, and waiting in a bus stop. Using the perspective of a passerby, the scene encourages the audience to feel: is Tony’s unobtrusive smile saying “Po-wing, I can still have a wonderful life without you.” or is his deep eye telling us he is trying to hide his nostalgia.
Filming in a country far away from home, Wong said he learned the feeling of exile (Kwan & Lee). Likewise, the characters in this film all leave their hometowns, avoiding something back home or seeking a new self. But they all need to go home eventually. Bearing their identities that they are from Hong Kong (or Taipei), they can always catch the elements with which they are familiar, even in a brand new place.
Buenos Aires Zero Degree. Dir. Amos Lee Pung-Leung Kwan. 1997. https://vimeo.com/138709417. Doyle, Christopher. Don't Try for Me, Argentina. 1997. http://www.tonyleung.info/goodies/images/journal.pdf. 2 April 2018. Happy Together. Dir. Wong Kar-wai. Block 2 Pictures. 1997.