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Redefining the food film: Food in Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together
Disconnection meals in Buenos Aires. Words and narration by Kevin Vaughn; editing by Joel Blackledge.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts.
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The following newsletter is part of Vittles’s ‘Redefining the food film’ package, which looks at how food functions in different films and film genres.
You can watch the previous films in the series below:
Today’s film is by Kevin Vaughn on a filmmaker who is well known for his depictions of food in his Hong Kong films, the director Wong Kar-wai. Less appreciated is the way food acts as an indicator of disconnect and alienation in his one film made in Buenos Aires, Happy Together.
Film 4: Disconnection meals in Buenos Aires
Words and narration by Kevin Vaughn; editing by Joel Blackledge
Buenos Aires always feels like it is a day away from collapse. California has the San Andreas Fault, Argentina has the peso and, at any moment, the earth is due to shatter underneath our feet.
Wong Kar-wai arrived in Buenos Aires during the winter of 1996 to make Happy Together. He arrived without a script but was guided by his love for football, Diego Maradona and the words of the author Manuel Puig. While he searched for his story in the streets of the south-side’s working-class barrios, Wong must have intuited that he was gliding through a city that was folding in on itself.
The 1990s was the decade of pizza and champagne. The neoliberal government of Carlos Menem promised to bring a return to calm following the turbulent 1980s, a decade marked by contradictions. The brutal dictatorship led by General Jorge Videla, which disappeared an estimated 30,000 people and silenced and exiled countless others, collapsed in 1983, leaving the democratically elected President Raúl Alfonsín with overwhelming national debt and record-breaking hyperinflation. Menem promised a real return to calm: he opened up the country’s economic borders to the International Monetary Fund, transferred public works into private (and often foreign) hands, and aligned the dollar and the peso one-to-one. The 1990s promised ascension up the social hierarchy to the masses: the pairing of the humble pizza with decadent champagne.
When he arrived, Wong found himself in a country that desperately wanted to connect to the rest of the world. In return, the world chewed Argentina up and spit it back out. He must have felt comfortable with that sense of longing, the inevitability of change. After all, many of his films are about Hong Kong rapidly transitioning underneath the pressures of capitalism, told through the love stories of characters that never meaningfully connect with one another.
Food often sits in the middle of this disconnect, like in As Tears Go By, when Ngor (played by Maggie Cheung) makes a meal off-screen for her distant cousin, Wah (played by Andy Lau) – a gesture that breaks down his tough-guy act and makes him begin to fall in love with her. Or in the rapidly Westernising 1960s of In the Mood for Love, when Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan (Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung) trade noodles for steak and ketchup while they pretend to confront their cheating spouses. Amongst the suffocating individualism of pre-handover 1990s Hong Kong in Chungking Express, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) scours neon-lit convenience stores for canned pineapples that expire on 1 May – the day he’ll get over his ex-girlfriend. He eats thirty to himself.
Happy Together, a movie about the up-and-down relationship of Hong Kongese lovers Yiu-fai and Po-wing (played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) who get stranded in Buenos Aires isn’t as readily remembered for its food as Wong’s Hong Kong films. Yet food is omnipresent, even if it is rarely the focus of the frame.
Throughout the film, Yiu-fai barely speaks – most of his lines are delivered in voice-over – instead, his character relates to the world through food, which flashes onto the screen like an extra, an actor’s subtle gesture. When he feels affectionate, he pours a bowl of hot soup with urgency, spilling broth all over the countertop; when he feels sorrowful, he lets an egg fry lamely in a pan of rice. In the film’s first act, the estranged Po-wing breaks back onto the screen at the tango bar that Yiu-fai works at in a rusty car filled with a bunch of young men. The camera follows Yiu-fai as he lingers on the cobblestoned streets and stares into the window. His eyes never stray from his old lover, who is making out with another man. ‘BAR SUR’ is painted in giant letters on the glass that separates the pair. His ex won’t let him in, and the city he is stuck in won’t, either.
Yiu-fai flees to the corner kiosk and buys a ham and cheese on pan árabe. I know this sandwich well. It’s a sandwich of desperation: either of hunger, economy, or both. I can feel the plastic wrap cling against my hand, the slimy meat of questionable expiry that flops out from one side, the absence of condiments increasingly clear as each bite of stale flatbread crawls slowly down the throat. This is not a meal of sustenance, of pleasure; it’s a meal to fill the void.
Argentine food is as hostile as the city that rejects Yiu-fai’s otherness: a cashier at a pizzeria mocks his accent; a stale medialuna crunches when he is left out of his co-workers’ break chatter. But his own dining table, crowded with bowls of stir-fry, steamed chicken and egg-fried rice, shows another man – a man that finds power in feeding others. ‘You’re always fucking around in here,’ a neighbour bemoans in the communal kitchen when he scoops his bowl from her grasp. When he nurses a bedridden Po-wing to health with noodle soup, he shovels his own mouth with rice; later, when Po-wing rejects food amidst a quarrel, Yiu-fai can barely lift his chopsticks.
Food is the couple’s glaring disconnect. Yiu-fai feeds himself and others, despite no one taking the time to feed him. His only meaningful connection is with Chang, a young Taiwanese man whose loyalty is cemented over a bowl of dumplings. But Po-wing rarely eats at all. He prefers to eat from the bodies of his lovers. When the couple finally separates, Po-wing fills the pantry cabinet of the room they used to share with boxes of cigarettes. He stays behind in Buenos Aires, crawling ever-deeper into the cracks of a society hypnotised by the hedonism of a doomed romance.
The flash sale on Argentina’s resources soon ran out of stock – the pizza turned to crumbs and the champagne went flat. Four years after the release of Happy Together, the country defaulted on payment of 93 billion dollars of external debt, plunging Argentina back into crisis. The storm after the calm. I bet Po-wing ends up hungry and emotionally bankrupt, too.
In the final scenes of Happy Together, Yiu-fai returns to Hong Kong. On a layover in Taipei, he walks calmly through a night market and the screen erupts with bright lights, crowds of people and hawkers that invite him to have a seat. He finds Chang’s family food stand and sits to eat a plate of meatballs and soup. He’s alone and the future is hazy, but he has finally been fed.
Kevin Vaughn is a food writer, photographer and editor based in Buenos Aires. He edits the magazine Matambre, a compilation of interviews, art, photography and the occasional reported story about the intersectional politics of food in Buenos Aires and Argentina. You can find him on Twitter as @iamkevinvaughn.
Joel Blackledge is a writer and filmmaker based in the West Midlands. His video series Feast Your Eyes explores how films tell stories with and about food. His writing has been published and produced by Novara Media, Little White Lies, BBC Radio, the Oslo Architecture Triennale, [in]Transition and Liars' League. Find him on Instagram at @dam.fino
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson, and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.