Lost: Lai visibly struggles to grasp the geography of Argentina.

The reversed road map markedly announces Lai and Hos alienation from the space of their new home.

One of the only glimpses of Hong Kong is viewed in printed form, with its soon to be ended British rule on display in the face of the impending Chinese handover.

Hong Kong viewed upside down: the characters and filmmaker let go of their roots to land in Buenos Aires.

Nighttime exchange: Lai and Ho quietly switch roles in their small apartment ...

... completely cut off from the external world of the city.


The modest spaces that Lai and Ho are often confined to and framed in

appear to be a far cry from the dwarfing downtown structures.


"We lost our way": the time and space of alienation in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together

by Caroline Guo

“We lost our way,” recounts Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung) in his voice-over at the beginning of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997). A gust of wind passes through, flipping a road map over in slow motion. The native Hong Kong characters Lai and his soon-to-be-ex-lover Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) find themselves irrevocably lost on the way to the Iguazu Falls from Buenos Aires, Argentina. The film has been notably cited as Wong’s first work involving a homosexual romance and shot entirely outside of Hong Kong. As a result, the film’s political nature, theme of exile, and transnational production processes have been examined in detail by Peter Brunette, Stephen Teo, and in Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover’s City on Fire.[1] [open endnotes in new window] However, the shot that seems to pass by largely unnoticed is the reversal of the map. With its elongated motion, placement in the initial moments of the film, and Lai’s voice pouring through the imagery, a significant break is declared. Indeed, Lai suggests that they are not simply unfamiliar with the foreign land, but also, and perhaps even more so, incapable of mapping themselves onto the surroundings. That is, they experience a disjuncture from Argentina’s space—its geography and sheer expansiveness.

As a result, I would like to rethink Ho and Lai’s sense of alienation through spatial and geographical factors more so than through social aspects such as cultural or linguistic differences. Wong’s films have continuously explored the idea of alienation, especially in the urban setting of Hong Kong. Melancholia shrouds his characters in 1960s Hong Kong in Days of Being Wild (1990) while missed encounters and solitude abound in past, present, and future depictions of the city in In the Mood for Love (2000), Chungking Express (1994) and 2046 (2004) respectively. However, as Ackbar Abbas suggests,

“In Happy Together …even more centrally than in Wong’s other films, spatial experiences parallel and counterpoint affective experience.”[2]

In this case, the characters’ relationship to their surrounding spaces, more than any other factor, determines their emotional state and subjective experience. Thus, what I look to explore is not just the sensual or social side of alienation but instead how this alienation forms with respect to the external world.

Indeed, I intend to delve beyond Abbas’ claim to discover what it is about the city of Buenos Aires and its outlying streets that have made them so impossible to connect to for Lai and Ho. The specificities of Buenos Aires’ history of modernization, suburban barrios, and access to natural spaces such as the Falls prove essential in uncovering the significance of this on-location shooting as well as the roots of the characters’ alienation. Jeremy Tambling in his book Happy Together effectively details several of the locations and their importance. While I look to draw upon his conclusions, I will also expand on the particularities of these spaces and how they contribute to an overarching sense of displacement.[3] It is thus within the framework of Buenos Aires’ urban history, especially that outlined in Jason Wilson’s Buenos Aires: A Cultural and Literary History, as well as literal framework of its city map that I will trace out the varying levels of space—from the monumental to the suburban and the natural.[4]

Furthermore, in examining the city’s spatial components and their effects on the individual experience, I must inevitably consider the temporal aspects of this environment as well. As Mikhail Bakhtin claims in his definition of the “chronotope,” there exists

“the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed.”[5]

This means that the spatial as well as temporal dimensions of lived experience—the chronotope of a genre or situation—come to define the individual condition as depicted in a work. Consequently, despite being originally intended for literature, Bakhtin’s theories will prove crucial in revealing not only how the characters’ malaise emerges from their experience of time and space, but also how the filmmakers simultaneously express their own circumstances in exile. After all, Lai’s words announcing the characters’ disorientation may imply more than just their own disconnectedness from the external world. Instead, he may be voicing a general difficulty, both on- and off-screen, in coming to terms with the collective time at hand: that is, the critical period preceding Hong Kong’s July 1st, 1997, handover to China.

Tellingly, our sole glimpses of Hong Kong come at the very beginning when we see Lai and Ho’s passports being stamped to leave and near the end in brief, upside down shots of the city’s streets. It is as if, in choosing to leave behind their national identity and the impending watershed moment, Lai, Ho, and Wong Kar-wai have purposely loosened their grasp on their roots. As a result, they have fallen through the skies of home in order to land on the other side of the Earth—the other extreme of the space-time spectrum. Far from the definitive status of Lai and Ho’s passports or the smooth, steady speed of Hong Kong traffic (as it is depicted), the space and time of their new home in Buenos Aires are defined by oversized avenues and obstructed streets, liminal spaces and marginal lifestyles, and their own suspended state of existence as they drift through the maze of their relationship and surroundings. Indeed, through the labyrinth Lai and Ho go, and I follow as well. I embark on a search to reveal not only how the incongruity between human and environmental forms functions, but also, in the same (faint) vein of hope that encourages Lai and Ho, to see if we could still remap ourselves into the world—or, at least, if there remains a landscape kind enough to reorient us.

Monumental shock

In the close quarters of their apartment, Lai watches over a sound asleep Ho; the next moment, Ho watches Lai. As they are captured in still positions, time is lulled to a certain rest in this sleepy, fluid exchange of roles—until a time-lapsed shot of Buenos Aires’ Avenida 9 de Julio and the Obelisco (obelisk) follows immediately after. Cars zoom through the streets to create a blurred stream of lights as a digital clock displays time passing at full speed. A cut separates Lai and Ho from the view of the city, forcing calm to collide against speed, private against public, and human against monumental. As this floating perspective cast by the camera seems to inhabit an entirely different world from the space occupied by Lai and Ho, this point of view, cityscape, and time exist not only outside the limits of their physical space, but also, most likely, outside the limits of their perception.

Tambling notes the incongruity that emerges through this juxtaposition:

“The flat…does not relate to the image of the public Buenos Aires which has just been offered as a public metonym for the whole cityscape. Outside its range, its existence questions the possibility of seeing the city in this panoramic way.”[6]

In other words, this view of Buenos Aires appears incongruous both to the intimacy of Lai and Ho’s apartment and to the frames of their vision. Indeed, with the close shots of Lai and Ho watching over one another, we see how their relationship, each other’s company, and the modest dimensions of their living space not only fill up their line of sight, as Tambling suggests, but also compose their immediate experience of the present. The deliberate time-lapse filming therefore emphasizes the idea that such a (filmic) urban pace exists above human capacities of sight and thought. In effect, only the machine eye of the camera can take in the speed of the traffic while Lai and Ho remain physically and emotionally removed from this city center. However, beyond the sequence’s quickened pace, what is it about Buenos Aires’ cityscape that throws into doubt their “possibility of seeing” and perceiving?

The history behind the construction of Buenos Aires proves crucial in revealing the particularities of its space. The Intendente (mayor) Torcuato de Alvear led the movement in paving and expanding streets from 1880 to 1887, and this process of urban renewal continued throughout the 1900s.[7] The extent of this regularization resembles the reconstruction of Paris that took place under Baron Haussmann in the 1850s. Indeed, Wilson writes about the avenue:

“It is hell to cross as a pedestrian, but it does give a post-Haussmann perspective to the city, with the obelisk in the centre.”[8]

Thus, the scale of the avenue threatens to upset human efforts in traversing it and links it to the city of Paris as well as its European past and colonial history. With Lai and Ho’s minimal movements in their apartment and their origins from the more compact city space of Hong Kong, Buenos Aires thus demonstrates a scale and history that is out of their depths, out of sight, and, as a result, out of mind.

Moreover, not only does the downtown space prove inaccessible, but the mechanical stream of time that reigns over the city also escapes their notice. According to Wilson, the city “demolishes its past in the rush to modernize.”[9] The hurried clock time in the foreground certainly appears to epitomize the pace of extreme modernization: the fast-forwarded minutes advance relentlessly, showing no ties to the instants that preceded them. In contrast, the time that defines Lai and Ho’s relationship moves forth less swiftly, undeniably linked to their past—their original dream of reaching the Iguazu Falls and their previous life in Hong Kong—as well as the unhurried pace that characterizes their present shared moments. Perhaps, then, their alienation from the downtown space also stems from their incapacity to connect to the time kept by the city, operating in a world apart from the temporality of their personal preoccupations.

In elaborating on the alienating effects of Buenos Aires’ modernization, Tambling asserts that “the process of Haussmann-like urban renewal…tore out the heart of the old city.”[10] Tellingly, Tambling’s mention of urban renewal as akin to tearing out a certain “heart” suggests that something else has been lost—something more subjective and emotional, perhaps. Indeed, the insertion of the cityscape creates a certain staccato that clashes with the sleepy melody of the lovers looking after one another. Especially with the straight lines of the north-south Avenida 9 de Julio on display, the imagery of a grid city emerges.

While this structuring may increase clarity for navigational purposes, such regularity could account for a certain loss of heart as well as the emotional disjuncture that Lai and Ho experience from their surroundings. The film’s cinematographer Christopher Doyle states in his shooting journal:

“The streets all run north-south/east-west: grids of boredom and artificial restraint imposed upon every town in the country.”[11]

Although Doyle makes a significant link between the urban layout and affect while announcing his personal lack of connection with the location, it would be too simple to say that evenness translates to monotony and ennui. However, juxtaposed with the exchanges and irregular nature of Lai and Ho’s relationship, the city streets certainly appear incompatible with the ebb and flow of their emotions.

In effect, Lai and Ho undergo a particularly tumultuous relationship. If we were to map the space and time associated with their moments together, they would register more as spirals or waves—a sharp contrast from the straight lines of the city map and hyper-advancing of digitized time. There is seemingly no correspondence, then, between the regularity of the city’s structures and the couple’s heartaches as well as their fleeting moments of being happy together. This incongruity culminates in an overwhelming sense of alienation. That is, a mutual process of deflection and dissociation takes place between the spatial-temporal make-up of the external world and the individuals’ consciousness.

Even when Lai and Ho do take it upon themselves to navigate through the expansive urban structures, they find themselves incapable of doing so. In another display of Buenos Aires’ monumental structures, Ho forces Lai to go for a jog with him over the Puente Transbordador (Old Ferry Bridge) of the outlying barrio La Boca. Lai declares his inability to continue as they are forced to go back home, jacket over Lai’s head and pained expression etched on Ho’s face:

Afterwards, due to this (failed) attempt, Lai falls ill. He partly suffers against the forces of nature as he exclaims how cold the weather is, but I find that he is also reacting viscerally against the forces of infrastructure. The merciless iron of the bridge is heightened by the frosty, bluish tints of twilight and the small size of the human figures brings its magnitude to light. What could have been a moment of (re)union turns into a dispute, consequent illness, and a lack of advancement in their relationship. Hence, atop the bridge that connects the city to its suburbs, during the twilight hours between night and morning, Lai and Ho can only exist in a suspended state of being, finding it impossible to advance both physically and emotionally in space and time.

Similarly, Doyle expresses the film crew’s incapacities to navigate forward or back whilst caught in this new space:

“We came to Argentina to ‘defamiliarize’ ourselves by moving away from the spaces—and we hope the preoccupations—of the world we knew so well. But we’re out of our space and depth here. We don’t even know the city well. So why do we still tend towards bars, barbershops, fast-food joints and trains? What happened to the inspiration from Manuel Puig’s novels and Julio Cortazar’s conceits? We’re stuck with our own concerns and preconceptions.”[12]

Hong Kong now exists as a dream that they have purposely distanced themselves from, just as Lai and Ho have. At the same time, their dreams of Latin America—the fictional, romanticized accounts and distinctly Latin aura—remain just as elusive. As a result, the individuals both on- and offscreen are forced to retreat and confine themselves to what they know: the apartment and each other’s company for Lai and Ho; fast-food joints and bars for Doyle and the crew. In this case, what Bart Keunen describes as Bakhtin’s “chronotope of the threshold” reflects this incapacity of moving forward or back in time and space:

“At the heart of this temporal-spatial construction [of the threshold]…[t]he subject, in an agony of doubt, freezes in the face of the new experiential data, compares these with previous, older experiences and is paralyzed by his or her inability to attune the two.”[13]

Indeed, as characters and filmmakers alike find themselves caught on an unforgiving bridge between two dreams, unable to advance yet inextricably tied to their home and past, their paralyzed state of exile takes the chronotopic form of the threshold. Consequently, in addition to presenting an unfamiliar setting for the characters and filmmakers, the filmic depiction of Buenos Aires also brings it to resemble, in a way, a spatial and temporal threshold—one that promises a new experience yet cripples the subject due to its difficulty to grasp and navigate through. Here, though, on the Puente Transbordador, it is no longer the sheen of downtown but instead the skeleton of the suburban bridge that comes into the foreground. As the bridge leads us out of the city center and into the barrio La Boca, this outlying space to where they retreat is where I look next—to see if the suburbs prove any more accommodating to human desires.

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