Wong Kar-wai's first film, As Tears Go By, was a cookie-cutter crime drama that borrowed heavily from Scorsese's Mean Streets but left out all of the original's flair. It did, however, introduce some of the director's visual preoccupations, chiefly his expressive color palettes. But it was his second feature, Days of Being Wild, that crystallized his style -- lush visual poetry, elliptical character dramas, the way we, not just the Chinese, guard ourselves with perceived "appropriate" behavior even we are bursting with passion -- and announced the arrival of the first Hong Kong director who could rival the skills of the contemporaneous Fifth Generation filmmakers. A depiction of rejection, empty hedonism and the tragedy of dreams, Days of Being Wild is a devastating reverie worthy of the auteur who would go on to make even more draining masterpieces.
Set in 1960, Days makes inescapably clear the director's nostalgia. It opens with a shot of a red Coca-Cola cooler, made somehow to look redder than anything you've ever seen. A handsome, mysterious young man, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), enters a stadium concession stand and chats up the clerk, Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung). She rebuffs his advances, but he returns, again and again, until she at last relents. Wong cuts to a breathtaking shot of the two post-coitus, giving off such heat that the mise-en-scène takes on a muggy, humid quality. The moment is short-lived, however, as Yuddy promptly trows her out, already bored.
As we shall soon see, this is Yuddy's M.O. He has an ambiguous, rocky relationship with his adoptive mother, an aged whore who was once a high-class escort, accompanied by a pimp Yuddy will find any excuse to beat. She will not tell him about his biological mother, and Yuddy projects whatever buried feelings he has onto the women he seduces and discards. Or perhaps not; a Freudian analysis seems to simplistic for so evocative a film.
Yuddy stands in the center of a group of people joined by their collective sense of longing and trepidation. Su falls into a deep, reclusive depression, and Yuddy's new squeeze, the outburst-prone bar dancer Mimi (Carina Lau) outwardly emotes at her mistreatment. Both women look for love but find only the blank wall that is Yuddy, but they find no reprieve from their sorrows from any other the other men -- Zeb (Jacky Cheung), Yuddy's street hustler friend lovesick for Mimi, nor Tide (Andy Lau), a police officer who wants to become a sailor. These people all want something they can't have, save Yuddy, who understands that to want nothing is to have everything and to want it all is to be left empty-handed. As he and Zeb ride a train after a violent confrontation in the Philippines, Zeb thunders that they almost died because of Yuddy. "You can die any minute," Yuddy retorts; he knows the future is uncertain, and that is the only certainty in his life.
He's portrayed with a bravura performance by the late, great Leslie Cheung, who channels a bit of the three main late-'50s, early-'60s rebels -- James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones and especially Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (his constant hair-combing recalls to an extent Michel's habit of running his thumb over his lips) -- Cheung adds that degree of tragedy to a man hell-bent on self-destruction. He does not break down like Jim Stark, nor is his detached image a hip feint like Michel's; no, this is a man truly cut off from the world around him, who accepts that there's no time like the present and thus sets no goals for himself and rejects anything that might pin down his future. Cheung's connection to on-screen rebels also reflects his days as a pop star; indeed, any fan of Hong Kong cinema should be delighted to see baby-faced versions of Leslie, Jacky, Maggie, Carina Lau, even Tony Leung in a cameo at the end, all of them known at the time as pop icons or kid TV stars putting in serious dramatic work.
However, the chief draw of the feature must be its astonishing visuals. Days marks the start of the bountiful collaboration between Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, beginning a modern director-cinematographer relationship offering the most rewarding aesthetic partnership second perhaps only to the Coens' work with Roger Deakins. Some shots are simply perfect, such as a shot of the adoptive mother lying on a bed gazing at herself in a mirror. Surrounded by the pale, sickly fluorescent green glow that would pervade Chungking Express, she looks like a well-preserved corpse in a museum, a relic of some long-ago epoch were her kind were regal but now simply something to be ogled at through glass. In Yuddy's haste to break free of his mother, we should not forget this image and realize that she, too, didn't get what she wanted out of life.
Days of Being Wild is not only a touchstone of the auteur's career but a landmark of Hong Kong cinema, one that took its primarily Western influences, mixed them with the unique cultural aesthetic crafted by Tian Zhuangzhuang and particularly Zhang Yimou, and spit out arthouse beauty universally appealing to cinephiles (though the film did flop upon its original release). It frames its characters in mirrors, reflecting their images back at them, and to us. The film is all about images, the way that we perceive them and remember them. When Yuddy at last convinces Su to go home with him, Wong inserts a shot of a clock, a dull thud amidst the visual poetry that marks the time and date of the event, as Su will never forget when she allowed herself to be abused. Wong also frame his characters quite often behind bars of some kind, containing them as they trap themselves in their tangled web of desire and loathing. The entire film is a flashback, traversing different point of views and unfocused time duration, but the message is clear: with Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai displayed a deep understanding of the cinema, that when all else is stripped away, we still have images, and thus we must derive our emotions, our very being, from them.