(Dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1990)
Memories That Haunt
The English title for Wong Kar-wai’s second feature would serve as an apt descriptor of his entire body of work. The words strung together to form Days of Being Wild carry with it so much of what Wong’s cinema has come to be known for: a nostalgia for the past, a preoccupation with time, the recklessness of youth, and a suggestion that now those days are gone. From the fragile optimism of contemporary Hong Kong’s loneliest souls in Chungking Express to the devastating unconsummated romance buried in the walls of an ancient temple in In the Mood for Love to the beguiling haze of passion and loss in 2046, Wong’s best films impressively fuse these themes of ceaseless longing together to form an impressionistic portrait of romantic longing itself. Whether his characters pine for a person, a place, or even a specific time, the filmmaker seems to have established a monopoly on cinematic yearning highlighted by his distinctive style that has influenced others for nearly three decades. Days of Being Wild, then, is arguably where it all began.
The reckless youth at the center of Days is Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), an unrepentant womanizer and lost soul living in Hong Kong in 1960. Though his conquests include two beautiful and committed women, Yuddy appears more interested in discovering the identity of his birth parents, much to the chagrin of his adoptive mother and former prostitute Rebecca (Rebecca Pan). His relationship to these three women forms the crux of the film’s first half. The film opens on Yuddy’s overconfident courting of the timid and somewhat naïve Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and seamlessly transitions into his second fling with the exuberant showgirl Lulu (Carina Lau) in a matter of minutes. No one in cinema creates such exquisite montages quite like Wong and frequent collaborator Christopher Doyle behind the camera – Days representing their first time working together. The camerawork throughout is stunning – one late-film uninterrupted tracking shot from street to back room of a billiard parlor in Manila comes to mind – and paves the way for the pair’s greatest work in later films.
Parallel to Yuddy’s aimless wanderings, Tide (Andy Lau) is a policeman who takes an interest in the brokenhearted Su Li-zhen when she learns of Yuddy’s new relationship. The two walk the rainy streets of Hong Kong after dark, Tide seeking to comfort his companion, and Su Li-zhen trying to recover, but Wong withholds from his audience by not granting the couple a happy love story of their own – one of the many insistences that foreshadows the director’s opus In the Mood for Love. When Tide’s mother passes away, he quits the police force and becomes a sailor, leaving his potential love interest behind. Escapism plays a major role in Days of Being Wild with its characters fleeing from the memories that haunt them – Yuddy leaves for the Philippines in search of his birth mother, Lulu, lovesick, eventually follows him, Tide abandons his own home in the wake of personal loss, and even Rebecca makes for the U.S. with a younger man when she feels slighted by her son. By film’s end, only Su Li-zhen remains, but in her final scene menially collecting tickets at the football stadium where she works, her own memories linger like ghosts in her mind as well – Wong includes a shot of the clock that brought Yuddy into her life and one of the phone booth where she spent time with Tide.
None of the characters in Days of Being Wild find answers to the questions they seek. As with most of his films, each of these strands ends with an ellipsis. Only Yuddy’s fate is sealed for him when a scorned thug comes for him while on a train somewhere in the far-off Philippines. His death, with neither Su Li-zhen nor Lulu by his side nor the once-desired meeting with his birth mother behind him, appears to be less a rebuke of his careless way of life and more a portrait of the natural consequences of our many life choices. Sometimes we never do find what we’re looking for. Yuddy several times makes mention through voiceover narration of a bird that will never stop flying until it dies, and only by film’s end do we realize he’s always been referring to himself. Days of Being Wild, then, is a film of unexpected beauty – with Wong’s signature poetic narrative technique and exhilarating visual style – and sorrowful tragedy.
The notion that these stories remain incomplete is only reinforced by the film’s oft-discussed and dissected finale that features a well-groomed, and as yet unseen, Tony Leung dressing himself and preparing to leave a dingy apartment before it cuts to the credits. Audiences have tried to make sense of the daring narrative shift for years and have rejected Wong’s own claims that Tony’s inclusion was simply a preview of a planned, but scrapped sequel. While there may be some truth to that official version, it certainly doesn’t explain the complete detour with a new and unnamed character with no obvious connections to the story thus far. With both In the Mood for Love and 2046 (and Wong’s entire oeuvre for that matter) behind us, however, featuring incarnations of several characters from Days, it proves all the more fitting for Tony (presumably a young Mr. Chow?) to show up at film’s end. Wong specializes in fleeting, mythical moments oftentimes eschewing easy explanations, and Days of Being Wild perhaps features the best instance of that intriguing, and to some infuriating, quality.