Days of Being Wild is Wong’s most under-appreciated gem.
The first time we meet Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), we see only his back. Director Wong Kar-wai’s camera follows him through an empty hall and even though we can’t see his face, he’s got panache. When he emerges from the shadows to get a bottle of Coke, we see his handsome face and the cigarette that dangles from his lips. Yuddy is so cool that it’s practically a lifestyle. In Days of Being Wild, that Bogart/Brando inspired persona is a blessing as much as a curse. Coolness is the essential quality of a Wong Kar-wai hero but it’s a persona based on concealment, carrying as much melancholy as it does sex appeal.
Su (Maggie Cheung) stands behind the counter with the same listless boredom later seen in Faye Wong’s snack bar girl from Chungking Express. Cheung was also featured in Wong’s debut As Tears Go By and it’s a pleasure to see her again. She’s exchanged the one-dimensional good girl for a tougher, even noir-ish type of woman. Her presence behind the counter is also more suited to Wong’s style since work is an essential part of his character’s lives. Whether they’re policemen, food vendors, gangsters or prostitutes, his characters are defined, at least in part, by the way they earn their living.
When Yuddy asks for her name, Su doesn’t blink. “Why should I tell you?” Yuddy isn’t the sort of guy who loses sight of a woman like Su, so he leans into her ear and says, “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams.” The shot is framed so tightly around their faces that if you leaned in, you’d probably kiss them. Wong savors this kind of intimacy, especially when it’s between strangers. While some audiences might snicker at the gumption of Yuddy to say such a thing about “dreams” to a girl he just met, for Wong, passion like this is no laughing matter.
Yuddy visits Su every day for one minute because they’re “one-minute friends.” Eventually one minute turns into an hour and soon they’re in bed. “How long have we known each other?” Su asks, lying beside him with her fingers gently resting on his lips. “Long time,” he says. “I’ve forgotten.” He’s looking off into the distance. As much as he likes Su, he’s a playboy with faraway thoughts. Maybe he’s thinking about the cabaret dancer he’s already dating (Carina Lau). Maybe he’s thinking about what his mother said the other night about how he was adopted. The break-up happens fast because Su wants to get married and Yuddy doesn’t.
When the lovers meet again in a dingy alley, the scene is rampant with sexual tension. It’s a result not only of the actor’s natural chemistry but also the vividness of the urban setting and Christopher Doyle’s bleak, sensual cinematography. Yuddy can’t commit because he’s loved too many woman and, “I won’t know while I love most ‘til the end of my life.” Su waits while Yuddy retrieves her things. The only problem is that the cabaret dancer is over and she’s wearing Su’s slippers. When she refuses to hand them over, Su walks in and understands immediately what’s happening. In this instant, Cheung almost steals the picture. The look on her face says more than words ever could.
Faster than Yuddy can light a fresh cigarette, Su leaves and on the street, she’s frozen in sorrow. Her eyes, beautifully lit, stand out against the dark. A kind night watchman lends her money to take the bus home and when she returns to pay him back, they become friends. The relationship is random but that’s exactly what Wong likes about it. He often fills larger narratives with smaller stories built around the interconnecting lives of strangers. One night, Su visits the watchman to talk and delivers one of the most moving soliloquies about love and loneliness in film history. “I thought I would be okay,” she says. “I kept telling myself, ‘Don’t tell others you’re unhappy. Work hard. Go to bed early.’ I want to go home, but my home is in Macao. I don’t know how to get through these long nights. I can’t sleep.” The speech is disjointed and filled with breathy indecision. It’s shot in a single take and Cheung’s performance is perfectly complemented by Doyle’s dark, moody atmosphere.
Time is one of Wong’s foremost preoccupations throughout the film. If the characters aren’t looking at clocks, they’re talking about how much time has passed or what time feels like. When Su walks with the watchman and recalls her “one-minute” friendship, she comments on time’s elasticity: “I used to think a minute could pass so quickly. But actually, it can take forever.” For Wong, time is abstract and objective but it’s also amorphous. When it’s internalized, it becomes filled with meaning.
While Su and the cabaret dancer grapple with their damaged emotions, Yuddy becomes obsessed with finding his real parents. He coaxes it out of his mother (Rebecca Pan) and as soon she tells him, she wishes she could take it back. Like Su and the cabaret dancer, she too is afraid of being alone. “I should never have said anything…I know sooner or later you’ll leave me.” Yuddy takes off for the Philippines and the dense forest we saw in the opening credits finally starts to make sense.
It would me a mistake not to mention the remarkable technical and narrative improvement between Wong’s first feature (As Tears Go By) and Days of Being Wild. His shots are longer and more fluid. He melds genres in a new and important way. He references legendary directors like Douglas Sirk by placing flowers and fruits bowls in Yuddy’s mother’s apartment. The script reads like a series of poems, each one more moving than the next. The intensity of the emotions onscreen and the way they fuse with the wardrobe, setting and photography turn Days into Wong’s most under-appreciated gem.