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"Yes, the film was a big challenge for Tony, which is what I intended," Wong notes with a laugh. "I had worked with him on three films already, and I felt that he's too sure about himself, that he's too confident, always in balance. For an actor that's not a good thing. I always wanted to push him into a situation where he wouldn't be so confident, where he would be a bit tense. This subject was just the right material for him.
"So I convinced him to do it. I explained to him, 'If you can fall in love with a can of sardines in Chungking Express, why can't you fall in love with a man in Happy Together?'"
Most actors in Hong Kong, straight or gay, would avoid such a part; they'd fear for their image even more than an American actor would. "Of course that was an issue," Wong allows. "Maybe if another director had asked him to do a part like this, he wouldn't have considered it seriously. But he knows that I'm famous for being weird. He can do anything with me, and people will assume it's because of me, not because of his background."
Wong disliked the film being labeled as "a gay film," which led to further discontent. "The critical response was very extreme," he says. "It's always like that. A lot of people liked the film, and other people didn't like it. Others asked, 'If the director says it's not a gay film, then why did he make it with two men rather than a man and a woman? If he wanted to make a love story, why not make it between a man and a woman?' It's ridiculous. There's no point to such questions. If you make a love story between a man and a woman, nobody asks, 'Why not between two men?'"
Some of the flak came from gay critics. Wong explains: "The film was accused of not being authentic enough. 'There's no gay sensibilities.' What are gay sensibilities? I just know human feelings. On a radio program, Shu Kei said that the love scenes weren't real enough. How can you say something like that? There are so many ways of making love; everybody's different."
Wong is famous for shooting with either no fixed script or with so many different conflicting drafts that there might as well be no script. His basic technique is to show up on the set with the cast and crew and make stuff up as he goes along, then shoot and shoot until cast members can no longer stay, with the intention of assembling everything in postproduction. (He spent more than a year editing Ashes of Time.) Happy Together feels more tightly scripted than the confusing Ashes of Time or the delightfully off-the-cuff Chungking Express -- but it wasn't.
"It was the same procedure," Wong reports. "I couldn't turn out a final script for this film. At one point the film was four hours; entire characters got lost."
Wong's first film, As Tears Go By, was more conventional in form, in part because it was patterned closely after Martin Scorsese's 1973 Mean Streets; it became a big hit. The followup, Days of Being Wild, swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, but -- as I politely suggest -- wasn't nearly as successful with audiences.
"No," he admits with minimal chagrin. "It was a flop."
Despite the budgetary advantages, Wong doubts he'll ever work in Hollywood. "I'd like it just as an experience," he says. "But I don't see anything that strikes me at the moment. Of course we've been contacted by some studios and producers, but I have to let them know the way I work. It would be very difficult for them. They like to calculate all the numbers in advance."
Directed and written by Wong Kar-Wai. Starring Tony Leung, Leslie Cheung, and Chang Chen.
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