With his second feature, Days of Being Wild (A Fei Zheng Chuan, which means literally, “The True Story of Ah Fei”, 1990), Wong Kar Wai clearly established his own unique style of cinematic expression. A cult was born. His first film, As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon, 1988) had been a huge critical and commercial success, but its style was something of a hybrid. That earlier film had been a combination that mixed the stylistics of Hong Kong Triad Gangster films (derived from the Chinese Wuxia literature of legendary martial arts heroes) and his own emerging aesthetic of romantic longing. It was the gangster genre aspects of As Tears Go By that drew the big crowds, but it was probably Wong’s dramatic stylistics that helped it sweep the Hong Kong Film Academy Awards. With Days of Being Wild, the gangster characteristics moved to the background, and the loneliness of the broken heart moves to the fore. Certainly at that time the Hong Kong gangster film was in its heyday, and in that same year of 1990, one of its greatest films, John Woo’s Bullet in the Head was released. But after his first commercial success, Wong now apparently had the confidence to move away from the gangster genre and make films according to his own personal tastes. Starting with Days of Being Wild, Wong became truly the cinematic Maestro of the Broken Heart.
Like As Tears Go By and other popular Hong Kong films, Days of Being Wild was loaded with glamorous Hong Kong media personalities who double as both movie stars and popular recording artists. These included Leslie Cheung (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), Any Lau (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), Jacky Cheung (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau – he would appear in nine films that year, including a starring role in Bullet in the Head), Maggie Cheung (Zhāng Mànyù), and Carina Lau (Carina Lau Kar-ling). One should not underestimate the difficulty of making films in the big city – not the least of which is dealing with the real Hong Kong Triad gangsters, who have an unhealthy involvement in Hong Kong film production. For example during the shooting of Days of Being Wild, star actress Carina Lau was abducted and topless photos were taken of her (and later published) as punishment for having refused a Triad film offer. Such distractions notwithstanding, Wong further complicated the fliming process by initiating his now-characteristic practice of improvising on the set and not working from a prepared shooting script. This was also the first film for which he teamed up with the brilliant Australian cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. For Doyle, this was his first Chinese language film, and from here on he became Wong’s regular cinematographer (and perhaps also co-creator) , as well as doing the photography for other prominent Chinese directors, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. From the very beginning of Days of Being Wild, Doyle’s adroit cinematography of dynamic hand-held and close-in tracking shots creates an intense intimacy that will provide the dominant mood for the film.
The story is essentially a relentless visual examination of unrequited longing, missed connections, and loneliness, and the events presented are centred around the life of Yuddy York (Leslie Cheung), a self-centred playboy who takes pleasure in manipulating others. But the film is not so much about Yuddy as it is about all the people around him who believe their lives are only meaningful in his company. Yuddy simply provides the occasion for what seems to be their unavoidable fate of dependency and suffering. The plot, if you want to call it that, is set in 1960 and comprises five basic acts.
- Li-zhen and Yuddy. In the opening scene, before the movie titles, Yuddy is seen meeting and flirting with the beautiful Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who is working at a fast-food kiosk. Yuddy is arrogant, but Su Li-zhen is intrigued. After the title credits (whose rolling background scene, we will later learn, is a tropical forest in the Philippines), Yuddy reappears to flirt with Li-zhen some more, and he tells her that a specific, but arbitrary, minute that they spent together, 3:00, April 16, 1960, will persist forever in both their memories. Soon they are lovers in bed, and Li-zhen is clearly enamoured with the egotistical Yuddy, who spends much of his time obsessively combing his hair in the mirror and admiring himself. When she asks him to marry her, he refuses, and the crushed Li-zhen walks out.
- Lulu and Yuddy. Yuddy visits his Filipino stepmother, who was apparently a courtesan and now has enough money to spend it on gigolos. Disgusted with her dissolute life, Yuddy beats up her gold-digging boyfriend and then steals his girlfriend, Lulu (Carina Lau). Lulu is a beautiful go-go dancer, and she, too, falls immediately for Yuddy. Yuddy spends much of his time smoking in bed, pouting, and posturing himself like the cool dude that he fashions himself to be. The two beautiful girls seem to love it, though. Without much explanation or motivation, Yuddy’s pal, Zeb (Jacky Cheung) shows up for awhile, long enough for us to see that he is hopelessly attracted to Lulu, and then departs.
- Li-zhen and Tide. We now go back to the torch-holding Li-zhen, who we learn has been spending her time lurking outside of Yuddy’s apartment, hoping to run into him. She meets a beat cop, Tide, and they become friends and spend a long time discussing how to cure Li-zhen of her obsessive infatuation for Yuddy.
- Lulu and Yuddy again. Now the pace slows down, with a number of choppy, disconnected scenes. Most of these scenes depict Lulu’s own submissive and humiliating, but passionate, infatuation for Yuddy, who responds disdainfully. Eventually the bored and frustrated Yuddy decides to head off to the Philippines to track down his real mother, who gave him up for adoption at birth and whom he has never been able to identify. When Lulu learns of Yuddy’s departure, she angrily trashes his apartment and walks out, with the lovelorn Zeb trailing after her. But Lulu rejects Zeb’s faithfulness – she only wants the cool dude, Yuddy, not kindness. So Zeb responds by beating her, probably thinking that treating women that way, as Yuddy does, is the only way to be successful with them.
- The Philippine termination. Yuddy finally arrives in the Philippines, but he is unsuccessful in finding his mother. Unlike the previous four acts, all of which take place almost exclusively at night, this act is mostly set in the daytime. One day Tide, who has quit his job as a policeman and is now a sailor newly arrived in the Philippines, finds Yuddy passed out on the street and takes him back to his apartment. (This meeting seems extremely contrived, but the actors managed to pull it off with relative aplomb.) Yuddy later meets some gangsters at the train station (Tide just happens to be in the vicinity, too) in order to buy a stolen US passport for himself, and in the middle of the negotiation, he grabs it and runs away. A brutal fight breaks out, during which Tide, conveniently there to help out, shoots a few gangsters. They both escape and hop onto a departing train. They haven’t completely escaped, though, because a hood shows up on the train and shoots the snoozing Yuddy and then disappears. With Yuddy now dying, Tide and Yuddy talk about life. Tide, having learned from Li-zhen about the minute at 3:00, April 16, 1960, asks Yuddy if he remembers it. Yuddy says yes, but that if Tide meets Li-zhen again to tell her that he doesn’t remember it. The movie then ends with separate shots of Lulu, having just arrived in the Philippines in search of Yuddy, and Li-zhen back in Hong Kong and apparently trying to phone the now-departed Tide. All connections have been missed, and all the characters are adrift.
Days of Being Wild is pervasively gloomy. Yuddy, spoiled from his privileged upbringing, apparently puts the blame for his aimlessness on his illegitimacy. He doesn’t belong anywhere, and the end of his journey does not bring any enlightenment. Tide, the other important male character, rejects Yuddy’s obsessive egotism, but he is a rather unreflective, conventional sort and doesn’t project any positive alternative to Yuddy’s nihilism. So without much character development or resolved narrative conflicts, it is not surprising, then, that Days of Being Wild was not a big hit at the box office. Nevertheless, Wong Kar Wai has his admirers, and I am one of them. So, too, must be much of the Hong Kong Film Awards committee, since “Days of Being Wild” won the 1991 awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Cheung), Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography.
What makes the film appealing may perhaps be different aspects for different viewers. Some of today’s viewers may be fascinated by the role of the self-absorbed Yuddy, played by the boyishly handsome, Leslie Cheung, who was also a big-time Cantopop music star. And added scrutiny of Cheung’s performance may arise if viewers are mindful of his bisexual lifestyle and the fact that he later committed suicide in 2003. But even though the role of Yuddy provides the unifying thread, the real focus of the film is on the roles of the two girlfriends, played by Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau. To see these two beautiful women so openly and hopelessly in love, so vulnerable to the face-losing pains of rejection, is what stirs the emotions of many of the male viewers. The entire movie conjures up the feelings of loneliness in the big city – the crowded close quarters, where human interactions are frequent, but meaningless. It’s always nighttime in the urban jungle, with empty gestures, missed connections, and the waiting for fulfilment that never comes. In Days of Being Wild, these moments of melancholy are heightened and exaggerated, the way a rhapsodic musical piece can intensify the feelings of sadness.
But although Wong Kar Wai mapped out the cinematic architecture of melancholy, Days of Being Wild was not without flaws. For example, the narrational perspective of the silent witness (the audience) is relatively detached from everyone involved: from the two girlfriends and from the two men. The two girlfriends are seen very much from the outside, basically from an observing man’s perspective. Yuddy is opaque and difficult to empathise with, while Tide is taciturn and unreflective. So there is no protagonist with whom the viewer can closely identify, or at least share some common concerns. Nevertheless, it did evoke a (perhaps overly hopeful) belief of more promising film experiences to come.