Wong: Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai’s sophomore film, is clearly the work of the master who produced As Tears Gone By. There’s the same effortless noir cool, the same Hong Kong gangster chic, and the same sense of doomed romantic yearning. There are, however, a fair few differences, or perhaps developments, as well, all of which gesture towards the fully-fledged signature that Wong would explore in the 90s. For one thing, Days of Being Wild is set in an amorphous pastiche of 60s Hong Kong, rather than in the intensified present tense of his first film. The extravagant synths are also entirely gone, and while the lurid palette remains, this marks Wong’s first collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who would opt for a considerably moodier visual scheme than Andrew Lau. In addition, the plot is considerably more experimental, both more convoluted and dispersed at the same time, and increasingly incidental as the film moves on. At heart, it revolves around Yuddy, a gangster played by Leslie Cheung, his on again-off again lover, Su, played by Maggie Cheung, another girlfriend, Leung, played by Carina Lau, and Tide, a police officer played by Andy Lau, who develops a friendship with Su as she wanders the streets outside Yuddy’s apartment complex.  

However, the biggest change from As Tears Go By is that Wong now shifts us to the interior landscape of Hong Kong, replacing the exotic location shooting of his first film with a vast labyrinthine infrastructure of corridors, lobbies and stairwells. The neon residuum of As Tears Go By is still here, but at a further remove, filtered through the dank, humid, iridescent patina of moisture that covers every surface and body. At times, this plays like a predecessor to a certain kind of Hollywood cityscape in the 90s – cities that were cloaked in rain, dew and humidity; liquid that functioned both as harbinger of a new ultra-connected world, but also as a testament to the material corruptibility of a hardware universe that was rapidly being absorbed into an entirely virtual sphere. Wong’s film also takes place at this nexus between real and virtual space, but by backdating it to the 60s the effect is more of suspending us between the characters and their fantasies, in the midst of their projections onto the world.  

As in his first film, Wong captures this space through rapid pans and economical editing, but the movements of his camera are both more plosive and more condensed here. Time and again, the camera pulls out, then hovers back into the proprioceptive purview of its subjects, as if compelled by the gravitational pull of each character, or entranced by the magnetic field between characters. An instinctive and unspoken synergy exists between each body in the film, which displaces any traditional sense of human relationships, and often tips the action closer to music video, or even to a traditional musical. When Yuddy first brings Leung home, he spontaneously sings to her as she dances on top of him, and this ushers in their romance. The entire film is situated in a push-and-pull between characters, at thresholds of attraction-repulsion. In one scene, Yuddy and Leung embrace passionately after she threatens to pour acid on his face, escalating to him biting her ravenously on the shoulder, and seeming to calm down only for her to return the favour by biting his nipple. Rather than unfolding regular romantic or familial or fraternal or professional relationships, Wong experiments with all the novel and beautiful ways of framing two bodies in the same frame, producing one composition after another that seem to emerge organically from the mutual pull of bodies.  

These push-pull thresholds extend, in turn, to the relationship between Yuddy’s apartment and the city around it. Early on, when Yuddy rejects her, Su promises that she’ll never return, but keeps coming back, and indeed tells Tide that she can’t keep away. Similarly, after a particularly volatile argument with Yuddy, Cheung vows to leave for good, but returns at the last minute, on the cusp of the world outside. As the film proceeds, these thresholds bleed into a broader sense of Hong Kong as the gateway between China and the diaspora, especially once Yuddy’s adopted mother Rebecca, played by Rebecca Pan, comes into the picture. We learn that Rebecca only told Yuddy that he was adopted because she believed he would reject her at some point, although this disclosure is precisely what ended up alienating him, especially since she has always refused to tell him the identity of his biological mother. All that Yuddy knows is that he doesn’t have a mother, that he doesn’t have a real home, and that his whole identity has been defined negatively. We meet Rebecca as she’s preparing to emigrate to the United States with a new lover, and while Yuddy scrupulously avoids her in Hong Kong, he also doesn’t want her to go. Our first shot of the sky, and Wong’s first establishing shot without people, comes when Rebecca finally and grudgingly reveals Yuddy’s parentage – a Chinese expatriate living in the Philippines – as this diasporic quality momentarily promises to resolve into something resembling a home, and traditional space.  

Yet Rebecca’s revelation simply becomes the incentive for a series of departures, as all the main characters gradually evacuate the centre of the film and emigrate from Hong Kong to the wider diaspora. Tide is the first to go, bidding Su farewell for a career change from policeman to sailor, and Rebecca is the next, remaining firm in her decision to head to the United States with her lover, before Yuddy moves to the Philippines to seek out his mother. We had a glimpse of this vast diasporic melancholy in the Lantau Island sequence of As Tears Go By, but it’s radically intensified now, as the sounds of foghorns and the ocean seep into the soundscape, and the volatile spaces between characters start to dissipate and diffuse. The third act is driven largely by a drifting, wandering flanerie or anomie, but without any clear sense of an external world, or even a propulsive narrative direction anymore. By chance, Yuddy meets up with Tide in a Filipino Chinatown, a more deterretorialised Hong Kong, and engages in a peripetatic dialogue that sees both men float from one vague observation to another – “I just wanted to wander around,” “I don’t have a place,” “I get bored staying in one place” – while conceding that they might have met or seen each other, but that they have terrible memories for people and places. As if in one final effort to rein in the amorphous space and time of this diasporic continuum, Wong employs the most dramatic tracking-shot of the film to follow them through a hostel up to a dining room and into a volatile fight that could be straight out of As Tears Go By, but it disperses as soon as it begins, and settles back into the gentle and somewhat aimless dancing that Yuddy and Leung engaged in back home.   

These gestures of compensation occur throughout the film, as if Wong had to reify time to retain some semblance of the present moment. When Yuddy and Su first meet, on April 16 1990, he asks her to note the exact minute, and then tells her, later on, that “we started as one minute friends, and then two minutes friends” and then so on. There is nearly always a clock ticking in most scenes, and Wong periodically returns to clock faces whenever the action grows too diffuse. Yet this dispersed quality also wins out, as the film follows Yuddy’s favourite anecdote of a bird that can’t land, except to die, meaning that it is destined to spend its life circling the globe until it comes to earth for the first and last time. Yuddy himself translates this directly into his attitude to romance, explaining that “I can’t know how many women I’ll fall in love with in my life – I can’t know who’ll I’ll love most until the end of my life.” The passage of this bird is encapsulated in the recurring blue-green pan across a tropical canopy, and yet this also corresponds to Yuddy’s despondent walk back from the Philippine plantation where he finally meets his mother, who ends up rejecting him once again. In the push and pull of that blue-green pan, which also forms the backdrop to the credit sequence, lies the film’s tension between revelling in the sensuous cruisiness of diasporic space, and yearning for some way to transcend it, or at least bring its dislocating tendencies to a crisis.  

The cryptic final moments of Days of Being Wild take place as an extreme oscillation between those two states. On the one hand, the space and time of the film grows ever more provisional, as Yuddy and Tide take an all-night train from their small Philippine town back to Manila, before Wong cuts to a completely new character, played by Tony Leung, coiffeuring himself in a cramped concrete bunker, in a kind of prophecy of the lifeworlds of In the Mood for Love and 2046. The dreamy distention of these spaces see Yuddy and Tide’s peripatetic dialogue grow even more ambling precisely as it starts to circle around their shared experience of Su: “When you see her again, tell I remember nothing,” “Even if I do see her again, she may not recognise me.” Against this diffuseness, however, Wong also includes some striking gestures of catharsis and containment, as in the sudden shoot-out on the train that leaves Yuddy dead, or the sharp confinement of the concrete bunker that forces Leung’s character to stoop over as he meticulously organises his clothing. By these closing moments, Wong seems to have moved beyond character, story and even setting to instead lean into the haptic economy of the diaspora itself – bounded and unbounded, melancholy and exuberant, dotted with nodes of focus and volatility that exist in an ocean of sticky, warm, humid affect.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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