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Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan) 2001 / Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai) 1997


    Perhaps even mentioning Wong Kar-Wai’s Happy Together in this review suggests my cinematic knowledge doesn’t span as broadly as it should, but there’s no getting around it for me, especially since I imagine the majority of people who see both films will make the same, obvious connection. As far as gay-themed Chinese melodrama goes, Stanley Kwan’s Lan Yu can’t get out form under Happy Together’s shadow. On the plus side, it’s a bit more explicitly sexual than Wong’s film, which was chaste to a fault after its opening scene, but it’s also far, far less stylish, which hurts the most, since it’s barely any more deep or emotionally resonant. In Happy Together, the visuals made the film come alive, and made concrete the dislocation that the main characters felt from their surroundings and each other. Instead of using dialogue, that movie communicated the majority of its ideas and feelings through its images, and created an intimate visual essay about the mood swings of a love affair. Wong’s Godardian influences come out more strongly here than in any of his other films, and the effect is at once dazzling, and slightly more remote than his usual work.


      If Happy Together borrowed most of its stylistic trademarks from the French Nouvelle Vague, Kwan’s film feels mostly just vague. The time span of Lan Yu spans several years, but the scenes are arranged so we barely notice. Both movies use time in this manner (though Happy Together takes place over a more compressed period), as the two lovers at their centers drift randomly into and out of each others’ lives, but where Happy Together makes this temporal confusion reflect its leads’ on-again, off-again feelings toward each other, in Lan Yu, it seems a more obvious plot device. Lan Yu is also much more talky than Happy Together, so instead of visual poetry, we get lame-brained dialogue, such as the scene in which one sullen character explains his failed attempt to try to photograph a rainbow. Though there’s nothing insanely deep said in Happy Together either, but by leaving so much unsaid Wong doesn’t make the mistake of stultifying his characters’ relationship with this sort of lousy dialogue. The saving grace of Lan Yu, which keeps it from descending into a trite series of vignettes, is the relative naïveté of its titular character. Since the film’s being told loosely from the perspective of a romantic neophyte, it forces the audience to be a bit more accepting of the obvious.


    In Happy Together, the characters seem to have full knowledge that their relationship is ultimately doomed, but they continue onward nonetheless, giving the film a quixotic feel that it can’t shake as its lovers tango back and forth during their Argentinean escapade. The protagonists of Lan Yu are disappointingly practical in comparison, and I can’t imagine their predicament really inspiring anyone, even if Kwan attempts to parallel the ups and downs of their involvement with the rise of Capitalism in Mainland China. Kwan could have certainly used here some of the idealism that thrived even in the worst of circumstances in Happy Together. As such it’s a bit more dour and pessimistic than it really has any right to be, especially since it doesn’t really work as a lamentation, despite its mournful opening narration.


    Though the acting’s just fine in Lan Yu, the cast can’t compare to the star power that Leung and Cheung projected in Wong’s film. Their scenes together weren’t romantic so much as romanticized by Wong’s style. Kwan takes the opposite approach, hoping that the endearing qualities of his characters will help us overlook the relatively mundane way that he’s chosen to film his movie, but there’s no good humor or extenuating circumstance here that makes us love these characters, and the movie feels a bit undercooked as a result. Lan Yu is certainly a serviceable melodrama, but it doesn’t even try for the greatness that Happy Together shoots for (and misses). Like most real life relationships, the conservative constancy that Lan Yu provides is far less interesting that the self-destructive passion that fuels Happy Together.


Happy Together * * * 1/2 

Lan Yu * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman