Islands in the Stream

For starters, let's talk about sex. Wong Kar-Wai's film Happy Together gets its groove on right away with a grainy black-and-white shot of two lovers trysting on a bed in a near-empty room. Wearing only his tidy whiteys, one playfully slaps the other's behind in trade for some tickling kisses on the neck. Suddenly, the one on the bottom rolls atop the other, pinning his hands down and nibbling his bare chest. Then they swap places again, the other spitting into his hand and reaching down between his lover's legs, just as a well-placed Godardian jump-cut gives a pre-orgasmic hiccup to the coming action--which lasts all of 30 seconds.

On the other hand, Tsai Ming-liang's Vive L'Amour takes its time: A single, stationary shot lasting almost three minutes shows two young strangers standing silent over a bed and slowly peeling off one layer at a time. Not counting some hot-and-heavy tongue-twisting in the next shot, the actual sex takes place offscreen, as an odd-man-out of this would-be ménage à trois wanders forlornly around the adjacent room, wishing he were in the scene.

These aren't merely gratuitous ways of teasing the viewer (or, dare I say, the reader), since the style of lovemaking in each movie befits the style of the filmmaking and the substance of the story. Set in Buenos Aires, Hong Kong's Happy Together imagines the tumultuous relationship between two HK men in Argentina as a breathless quickie, its sudden bursts of sound and image giving the sense of a sweaty, libidinous vacation. More the stay-at-home type, the Taiwanese Vive L'Amour plants itself in overcrowded Taipei for the story of three wayward romantics squatting in a vacant apartment while struggling to cope with their profound isolation.

Albeit opposites in pace and visual design, both films belong to the new wave of erotic cinema coming out of Chinese-speaking countries during a time of tremendous change: Call it a means of personalizing the political, or a collective show of defiance amid the international hunger for explosive shoot-'em-ups and the buzz-kill of domestic censorship. The titles of these films are ironic in the extreme. Happy Together and Vive L'Amour have less to do with love's bliss than the endless pain of urban homesickness. In each, the lovers are together but alone, and not where they seem to belong.

Appropriate to this theme, Wong Kar-Wai opted to uproot himself for Happy Together. Renowned worldwide as the cult auteur of Hong Kong picture-postcards such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, Wong responded to the pressure to make the definitive HK movie in the year of his country's "handover" to China by heading to Argentina for a queer romance. Happy Together's opening sex scene turns out to be a flashback to happier days in Hong Kong. As the film continues, the beautiful lovers Lai (Tony Leung) and Ho (Leslie Cheung) find themselves stuck on a desolate stretch of highway somewhere in Argentina, feuding incessantly. Their plan is to visit the torrential Igazu waterfall but instead fate forces them in separate directions: Lai sets up shop in Buenos Aires, working as a tango-bar doorman and swilling alcohol out of a paper bag; the more fragile Ho begins turning tricks and gets beaten up. Whereupon the two gravitate back together. Lai takes a job washing dishes and nursing Ho's wounds in a tiny apartment. And then they split up again. This time for good.

But that's not at all what the film is about. Rather, Happy Together is about the startlingly visceral effect of Wong's editing: his cut from the smeared black-and-white image of the lovers' road map blowing across their windshield to a freeze-frame of Lai holding his hand over his face, and then to the oversaturated blues of the roaring waterfall that remains out of the characters' reach. It's about the simple poetry of how that shot is matched to the wails of an Argentinian crooner who seems to be weeping waterfall tears for the unhappy couple. It's about Wong's insistence on weaving his songs into the visual fabric, repeating musical phrases again and again until these percolating rhythms become lodged in your head. Ultimately, it's about the dream state that Wong delivers to his audience, the gracious manner in which he provides you the chance to wander. The story may end in Taiwan on a heartbreaking note, but we're left somewhere between here and there, happily drifting through the film's luscious netherworld of sound and image.

If Wong is the new world cinema's reigning expressionist, Tsai Ming-liang is its master of abstract minimalism, the Taiwanese Antonioni to Wong's Godard. Like Happy Together, Tsai's Vive L'Amour (screening as part of Asian Media Access's "Chinese Film Showcase") is a film in which nothing much happens from a traditional narrative standpoint: You could say it's two hours of three characters with one-track minds, a distended portrait of overgrown kids playing hide and seek. Notably, more than 20 minutes pass in Vive L'Amour before anyone says a word. Until then, we're positioned as voyeurs into the silent, lonely lives of the film's trio: Hsiao-kang (Lee Kang-sheng), a seriously depressed young man in his early 20s who steals the key to a plush, Western-style flat in which he ponders suicide; Ah-jung (Chen Chao-jung), a leather-jacketed pretty boy who has a crush on his own reflection; and Mei-mei (Yang Kuei-mei), a real-estate agent who escorts Ah-jung to the apartment for an evening of anonymous sex, unaware that Hsiao-kang has been in the other bedroom making minor cuts on his wrist.

As these three desperate souls seem either destined or determined to keep themselves apart, Vive L'Amour works not only as an unromantic character study but also as a critique of capitalist Taipei--a city whose overpopulated streets only enhance its empty, isolating vibe, and whose identity crisis as neither China nor the West seems to mirror the characters' own indecision. Lacking meaningful personal lives, the young professionals are reducible to their occupations: The nomadic Mei-mei sells homes to others without having one of her own; the hustler Ah-jung peddles clothes from an illegal sidewalk stand; and Hsiao-kang hocks crematory urns, which would scarcely seem to offset his suicidal tendencies. Hsiao-kang holds the center of the film's attention, and yet he's clearly the third side of its obtuse love triangle. In one of the film's dispassionate sex scenes, he hides under the bed masturbating while the other two bounce above him; later, he sneaks up next to the sleeping Ah-jung but can't bring himself to drag his desire out of the closet.

If Wong's Chungking Express serves as an ode to chance encounters in the big city, Vive L'Amour laments the modern tendency to substitute people with things. Not for nothing does the film's most sensual scene take place between Hsiao-kang and a ripe melon, which he proceeds to kiss, cut holes in, roll like a bowling ball, smash into pieces, and rub across his face. More often, the characters are totally alone, as in the harrowing final shot of someone weeping into the camera for six straight minutes. Like Wong, Tsai finds emotional salvation in cinematic style: The main hope of Vive L'Amour is its courage to present the rhythms of capitalist life without commercial interruption.

Happy Together starts Friday at Oak Street Cinema for a one-week run. Vive L'Amour screens Sunday at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 15 at 9 p.m. as part of Asian Media Access's "Chinese Film Showcase" at Metro State University in St. Paul; for more info on the series, call AMA at 376-7715.

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