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World of Wong Kar-wai: Days of Being Wild

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[On November 25th in NYC, Janus Films began presenting a slate of 4K remasters for legendary director Wong Kar-wai’s catalog of films. Set to run for the next few weeks, we at Flixist will be taking a look back at each of these films and explaining what makes them so important to cinema as a whole. Join us as we enter into “The World of Wong Kar-wai.”]

 

What a difference a second film can make. After As Tears Go By essentially gave Wong a taste and feel for directing, it’s with Days of Being Wild that his legend really starts to take shape. With a multitude of motifs and themes, this film is the one that finds our idea of Wong Kar-wai fully taking shape.

Leaping between Hong Kong and the Philippines, 1960, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) is a tempestuous, lazing bachelor who sets his sights on Li-Zhen (Maggie Cheung), a stadium clerk whose snack bar and its dingy green lighting always seem to be desolate, save for the two of them. The two begin a relationship, made unconventional by Li-Zhen’s melancholy and Yuddy’s short temper and disloyal attitude. Lounge dancer Mimi (Carina Lau) enters the picture and something of a love triangle starts forming. Yuddy’s contentious relationship with his adopted mother (Rebecca Pan) and his eternal pursuit of his birth mother only adds to the mix, as does wandering police officer Tide (Andy Lau), who strikes up a relationship with Li-Zhen.

The narrative in Days is a framework for intense performances from his actors, and a way for Wong to build the lazy, hazy, “away-on-vacation” atmosphere that permeates so much of the film. Inherent to the period setting, Days of Being Wild conjures up a certain nostalgia. For what, exactly? It could be different things for different people. The islander, acoustic theme of the film acts as a frequent refrain, summoning feelings of a trip one might have taken years ago. In Yuddy’s case, it would be his time in the Philippines getting into fights and searching for his mother, living in something of a never-ending vacation. Life is a dream, from which he refuses to wake up.

Through Yuddy’s stubborn anger and aimless hustle, Wong explores the emotional toll of a person like that: so selfish and yet, apparently, appealing. It happens with Li-Zhen, and it happens with Mimi. Both are attracted by his forward personality and good looks. “Love at any cost” and the ways in which clashing personalities find a sort of harmony (or, at least, a codependence) is something Wong will explore in future films, over vast stretches of time and space. But to see the romances in Days unfold, almost in the fashion of a summer fling, is a flashing encapsulation of the frustrating contradictions that can fuel a human being.

There’s a point in the film where, arguing with Yuddy, Rebecca -his adopted mother- gives up. “Fine, I want you to hate me. At least that way you won’t forget me.” Wong’s characters give in to the fierce expression of the entire spectrum of human emotion, essentially meaning that Wong’s writing and the performances he teases out of his actors is melodramatic: sometimes, to some, a negative connotation. Yet the heightening of emotion on Wong’s behalf is entirely committed to, and because of the consistency of tone, sold to the audience. Rebecca and Yuddy’s (at times) indignation is reflected, in equal intensity, in Li-Zhen’s aimless sadness.

Plagued by insomniac spells, the fizzling out of her relationship with Yuddy leaves her with a hole in her chest. The two argued, sure, and she’s smart enough to stand up to his macho posturing, but there was something there that fulfilled her. In the aftermath of their relationship, wandering the streets of Hong Kong in the rain, she strikes up frequent conversations with fellow-night owl Tide, a quiet, orange-peeling policeman who dreams of sailing the ocean. Confiding in him to the point of tears, it’s Li-Zhen’s confidence in a total stranger (and his reciprocation of confidence and compassion) that paints the more beautiful, sweet side of Wong’s melodrama. For as much of a tyrant as people can be, emotionally, there are those who are nothing but tender. Two strangers pouring themselves out on a rainy night is certainly something beautiful.

In a more literal sense, Days of Being Wild is indeed beautiful. Marking the first of more than half a dozen collaborations with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Days embodies a hazy heat with its prominent green tint and use of shallow focus. The green motif continues beyond the lenses and color correction, with characters wearing shades of green often. Some of the flashier decisions made by Doyle and Wong would be seen in later films (off the top of my head, Happy Together or Fallen Angels come to mind as truly-audacious in that respect), but Days features the occasional whip-pan or elaborate tracking shot. In fact, there was at least one moment where I felt a similar energy from Days as that felt in the work of two of Wong’s inspirations: the films of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker.

There’s a particular edit in Days, when Li-Zhen and Tide are taking their nightly stroll, when the subject of time comes up. Her relationship with Yuddy hinged upon a playful fascination with the passing of time (“From now on, we’re friends for one minute”), and she’s reminded of that relationship at the very mention of clocks and passage. “Don’t mention ‘this very minute’!” she starts at Tide, while Wong and his editors Kai Kit-wai and Patrick Tam cut to a clock at the nearby bus stop, the hour bell’s ring distorted and warped. The brief, slam-bang cutaway, for me, instantly recalled the sort of edits we see in Scorsese and Schoonmaker’s Raging Bull from 1980. It’s a tempo that Wong slides into effortlessly.

It’s incredibly exciting to revisit the films of such a masterful filmmaker, aided by new and meticulous restorations: Days of Being Wild is looking clearer and better than I’ve ever seen it before. Chronicling stormy romance and insatiable wandering, Wong Kar-wai’s second film is another early career tentpole in a catalog that only gets better.