It was with Days of Being Wild (1990) that Wong Kar-Wai had become the director that we know him as today. His debut two years earlier, As Tears Go By (1988), gave hints of what was to come, but it was with Days of Being Wild that Wong first worked with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle coupled his ability to capture characters’ reflections in mirrors, moody lighting, and carefully placed clocks with Wong’s careful use of music to create an erotic, beautiful mise-en-scene in seven of Wong’s films.
Days follows bad boy Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), who is seeking his mother, the two women Yuddy abuses (Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau), and a cop named Tide (Andy Lau), a cop who befriends Maggie Cheung’s Su Li Zhen while she tries to mend her broken heart. The limited cast of characters does not make the film any easier to follow for first-time viewers or those unfamiliar with Wong’s work. Days takes place over at least a year, but Wong’s cuts have no problem omitting days, weeks, or months even as the same two characters barely move and appear to continue the same conversation. Once you catch on that this film is not about plot or romance, but about the dichotomy between our precious, frozen memories and unrelenting time and how these characters deal with it, it becomes far more rewarding. Some of the less introspective character moments are far too easy, particularly Yuddy’s poor relationship with his adopted mother explaining his poor treatment of women, but for the most part, each character is unique in the way they reflect on and learn (or not) from the past.
Yuddy is convinced that he must keep his life constantly in motion, like a bird that never lands that he brings up a few times, in order to capture every moment. He believes that he will not know which girl he loved best until he is ready to die. Yuddy has the most screen time, a disappointment considering his mother issues are given away like an overly definitive and premature “rosebud,” but his character’s ending raises several questions about how much he has learned, regretted, or remembered. Far more interesting is Su Li Zhen, caught between moving on like she never knew Yuddy and lingering just out of his reach so she can keep the memory of watching his watch with him for one unforgettable, never-ending minute at the beginning of the film. She finds herself entering a compelling but underdeveloped near-romance (Maggie Cheung found herself in an even better one a decade later in Wong’s In The Mood For Love) with Tide, who waits at the same phone-booth every night for her to call after she leaves town, only to find himself leaving to fulfill his dream of becoming a sailor. All of these characters are both trapped and liberated by love, giving them their most precious memories but also dooming them from moving on, but it’s how Zhen deals with this at the end film, and how effective it is, that tells us a great deal more about human tendency to deal with rejection and broken hearts than anything Yuddy does. In a film about broken hearts and how we seek to mend them, Zhen’s character is the one who tries the hardest in so many different ways to move on.
Part of this is because her backstory is suitably open; she speaks briefly of her sister but never of parents. Her motivations are far less easy to pin point than Yuddy’s. Similarly, we know Tide cannot be a sailor because he must care for his sick mother, but not much more is specified. It makes Tide’s friendly, semi-romantic gestures all the more mysterious, and it makes their romance far more interesting than the simplified Yuddy or his other girlfriend, the simplistic Mimi. Wong points so much toward internal motivations with his focus on characters dancing and use of straight cuts and time jumps, so the less definitive our explanations, the better.
Forgive my ineloquence; it is far easier to make observations about Wong’s characters than to find any possible reasons or conclusions. Wong has not yet learned how to craft stories of humanity. His pacing is all over the place, the gangster-flick finale is bewildering, and the flashback to Yuddy’s mother in the final montage is as redundant as the last shot is useless (it was the basis for an unmade sequel that eventually became In The Mood For Love). The power of Wong’s story derives primarily from his style, which is already quite unlike anyone else’s. Watching Tide from a dutch angle a few stories above is far more moody and mysterious than something head-on. The straight cuts that pick up a conversation somewhere in the future are a strong reminder of how timeless our memories are, and the constant placement of clocks and watches show a Yuddy determined to never leave a moment and the other characters desperately trying to recapture a past one or (in Tide’s case) find another one. The use of tints, which often change in the middle of a scene, effortlessly sets tone. Days of Being Wild was Wong Kar-Wai’s first stylistic triumph, a film where the mise-en-scene, the entire look and feel of every frame, conveys far more than its confused characters. Wong would never lose those brilliant flourishes on his way to great character pieces.