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Masculine in Happy Together
The paper will focus upon the issue of masculinity in Happy Together, a film written and directed by acclaimed director, Wong Kar Wai. "Happy Together" is also the name of a song by The Turtles. It was a popular lovesong about the classic story of boy meets girl and they fall in love. Happy Together is another sort of lovesong, but one more bittersweet about when boy meets boy, and they cannot stop falling in and out of love. The film takes place in the late 1990s in Argentina. Ho Po-Wing and Lai Yu-Fai are young lovers from Hong Kong on holiday in Argentina. They once bought a lamp of a famous waterfall that exists in Argentina. The couple is madly in love with each other, whether they are together or broken up. Over the course of their excursion/road trip in Argentina to the falls, they get lost on the road. Ho Po-Wing dumps Lai Yu-Fai, played by the famous Tony Leung. This film is one of at least three films Wong Kar Wai and he have worked on together. The young men become stranded in Argentina without enough money to return to Hong Kong. As much as the men butt heads, there exists an undeniable connection between the two, as illustrated in Ho Wo-Ping's return into Lai Yu-Fai's life after an abusive new boyfriend prompts a visit to the emergency room. The paper will discuss the ways the narrative, the aesthetics, and the semiotics of the film contribute to a definition of masculinity that embraces, challenges and rejects traditional Chinese conceptions of men and what is masculine.
Wong Kar Wai is a film director and writer known for his imaginative and unique cinematic style. He is more recently known in the west for such films as In the Mood for Love and its sequel, 2046. Audiences and professionals alike are often astounded when learning that Wai often approaches a project and may shoot an entire film without first having written the script. The writing of the script often comes during or after the production stage of his film. This is a highly unorthodox and daunting practice that Wai repeatedly pulls off with grace, innovation, and a beauty that is both fluid and precise. This aesthetics, editing, and narrative style of the film are clearly influenced by other film movements such as the French Nouvelle Vague, film noir, and the Independent style that characterized Generation X The film pays homage to film noir and Generation X is by the narrative structure of the film, as well as the fact that about half of the first act is shot in black and white. The portion of the protagonists' relationship that was good, before they depart for Argentina, is shot in black and white.
Wai often pushes the envelope or walk the edge when it comes to his film. He pushes audiences with regard to aesthetics, to narrative, to characters, and to the act of storytelling in general. Chinese culture is traditional and that traditional attitude most definitely extends into what is acceptable behavior and tastes for a man. Though in western cultures, such as American cultures, for example, there too are restrictive attitudes toward acceptable expressions of masculinity, relative to Chinese culture, there is a great flexibility or wider spectrum of what is acceptable than traditional Chinese culture. Therefore, the mere fact that the two main characters are gay men is a big deal. It is a bold statement. Furthermore, they are openly gay men who live abroad in South America. Exposing and discussing the Asian presence in Latin American is yet another way that Wai demonstrates his creativity and innovation. It is arguable, that living in a traditional culture and country such as China is exceptionally difficult for homosexual men and that their love and their relationship would not have had the opportunity to see itself through or play itself out at all or at least not in the same ways had the film be shot on location in Hong Kong, rather than Argentina. The color palette of the production design and the lighting design underscores the vibrancy and passion between the men of their emotional states & physical conflicts.
Queer theorists and media theorists often vigorously examine the problems of masculinity and how those problems are translated and interpreted by the cinematic form. The problems occur because masculinity is often circumscribed quite narrowly in culture(s). Queer groups, such as homosexual men, throw into questions conceptions of masculinity. This group both does and does not fit within traditional notions of masculinity. Within queer or homosexual partnerships, there typically exists similar dynamics between a heterosexual one with regard to a balance of masculinity and femininity. There is usually a partner that is more masculine and a partner that is more feminine, though the characteristics of both the masculine and the feminine exist within us all, without regard to sexual orientation. In Happy Together, the sense of who is the masculine partner and who is the feminine partner can be sometimes definitive and sometimes ambiguous. Lai Yu-Fai has a slightly larger, taller, and stronger frame than Ho Po-Wing. Lai Yu-Fai has more muscle definition; he always has a job. He works with his hands. Yet, when Ho Po-Wing arrives at his doorstep bloodied and severely injured, he takes on a more feminine role of nursemaid, changing bandages, bathing him, even cooking Ho Po-Wing breakfast while Lai Yu-Fai has a fever. In the opening moments of the film, when the audience is first introduced to the couple, they are in bed, in their underwear, in the midst of a sexual encounter. During the foreplay, Lai Yu-Fai is more dominant and on top more. At one point, Ho Po-Wing gets on top and their wrestling intensifies. Wrestling is a sport that is both accepted as a masculine pursuit in many traditions, but also retains homoerotic undertones. The wrestling and kissing increases with fervor until the men are ready to commence intercourse, at which point, Lai Yu-Fai is the top and Ho Po-Wing is the bottom. Thus, in the first sequences, the film establishes that this is a homosexual couple and Ho Po-Wing is the more feminine and submissive partner. There subsequent sequences in the film that support that supposition and others that undermine it.
Ho Po-Wing attempts to win the affections of Lai Yu-Fai after initially breaking up with him. He invites Yu-Fai to his new place; he finds out where Yu-Fai lives and calls his place. By accident Po-Wing discovers where Yu-Fai works as he comes to the bar/restaurant where Yu-Fai is the bouncer or greeter with another man -- likely not to be Argentine because he speaks English. He is like British or American. After learning where he works, Po-Wing comes by bearing a watch as a gift to Yu-Fai. It is this gesture that sets the remainder of the film into motion. Po-Wing returns shortly thereafter with bruises on his face and body because it is implied that he stole the watch from his Caucasian lover to give to his former lover. He returns to ask for the watch back so he will no longer be beaten. In this way, the domestic abuse that Po-Wing suffers from reiterates his position as the less masculine of the two men. Stereotypically, in a domestic abuse situation, it is the woman that is beaten by the man, though, there are increasing numbers of reports of men coming forward as domestic abuse victims in both homosexual and heterosexual partnerships.
Po-Wing's characterization is general is more aligned with what many cultures would construe as girly or feminine. He is smaller and thinner than Yu-Fai. He is petulant, impulsive, whiny, fickle, and emotionally manipulative -- all of which are qualities that are typically used to describe women and what constitutes femininity. Though both men are moved to tears over the course of the film due to emotional turmoil and physical pain, Po-Wing cries more frequently and harder that Yu-Fai. Crying, particularly crying in excess, is a trait that usually aligned with the feminine with a pejorative undertone. Intense and/or prolonged or repeated displays of emotion in public and in private are typified by the feminine as well. Po-Wing demonstrates an excess of emotion, of sex drive; he cries often and also has multiple emotional outbursts, all of which go against traditional paradigms of acceptable masculine behavior. Again, while both of his hands are injured, Yu-Fai takes care of Po-Wing. Po-Wing must be taken care of and doted upon because he weak and nearly helpless for some time. In a heterosexual partnership, Po-Wing would be the woman and Yu-Fai would be the man. Moreover, Po-Wing is the partner that more adamantly fights for the relationship to recommence. He tells Yu-Fai, "I just want to be with you." In typical heterosexual narratives, for example from Hollywood, it is usually the woman who wants the relationship, the commitment, to settle down and…[continue]
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