As recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hera gets her revenge on one of her husband’s lovers, Semele, by getting her to make a certain request of Zeus the next time they are alone together. He agrees to grant Semele a wish whatever it may be, and then is dismayed to hear her ask, “Make love to me the way you do to your wife.” He protests that as a mortal she would not be able to take it, it is too glorious, too much. But she insists, and in the ensuing act she is destroyed. When I encountered this story in high school, I was captivated by this idea of beauty so rapturous that it is incompatible with life. On certain summer nights, sitting alone contemplating the moon, I had vaguely apprehended this kind of beauty, and it felt like a burden because it seemed that most people live lives that have nothing to do with it. (Another exquisite rendering of this idea is Lois Lowry’s The Giver.) I feel this pain still, when I dream dreams at night that have so much more emotional and intellectual depth than I ever experience when awake, dreams which I so quickly forget. “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” There is a dimension I am able to experience, intense and beautiful, that is so otherworldly I wouldn’t even know how to live it. And that is why I connected with Wong Kar-Wai’s film, Happy Together. He has to go outside the normal methods of story and character development to do it, but he manages to evoke exactly those barely survivable moments of divinity.
I’d seen three of Wong Kar-Wai’s other films. His Chungking Express is one of my favorite movies of all time. In the Mood for Love, his best-known work in the circles I run in, I could never get into, and 2046 I found visually pretty but lacking in substance. Some say Happy Together is Wong’s best film. It’s about the co-dependent romantic relationship between two Hong Kong men living in Buenos Aires, Ho Po-Wing who comes and goes as he pleases and Lai Yiu-Fai who lets Po-Wing walk all over him. We watch as Yiu-Fai slowly learns to break free of the relationship. How difficult it is for him to do the right thing and get out; after all he loves the guy, and isn’t love supposed to be a force of good, something to hang on to? That is the sad paradox of love sometimes—that doing the best for someone else can mean doing the worst for yourself. But there is a selfish angle for Yiu-Fai too. When the freewheeling Po-Wing gets beaten up and Yiu-Fai takes him in to nurse him back to health, he muses: “I never told Po-Wing, but I hoped he would take a very long time to get better. Those were our happiest days.” In other words, on some level he can’t empathize with Po-Wing’s physical suffering, can’t truly love him, because he is so invested in what he can get from Po-Wing’s being vulnerable and infirm—the chance to take care of him. Isn’t that another kind of love? A broken and ironic but altogether human love?