Monday, May 11, 2015

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Directed by: Wong Kar Wai
Runtime: 1hr 34mins
Netflix

In stark contrast to Wong Kar Wai's violent debut film As Tears Go By (yet more fitting with the rest of his filmography), Days of Being Wild presents a fascinating character study of a man stuck in arrested development, who is both psychologically broken and emotionally stunted. And how he causes waves of emotional distress all around him either directly or indirectly. Days of Being Wild is a study of the possible destructive nature of both love lost, and lack of parenting. We see Wong Kar Wai's usual themes of time, and how poor timing can lose the possibility of love. This is a dense film, packed with many themes, and many characters all dealing with the psychological and emotional pain of rejected, unfulfilled love.

The setting is an ode to one of WKW's own lost loves, the 1960's, an era lost to time itself. WKW's love of the this time period includes an appreciation of films of the "Ah Fei" genre. The term "Ah Fei" denotes the 1960's (and films of that era) and refers to young hoodlums. Fei is translated as "fly," and as a genre it refers to stories of youths taking flight to escape their controlling parents where they're free to explore more wild, less acceptable personalities and behaviors. In fact, the Chinese title for the film is A Fei Zhengzhuan, which can be translated as "The Story of an Ah Fei," was also the Chinese title given to the classic 1955 James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause (however, Days of Being Wild is not meant to be a remake, as it shares almost nothing else in common). To carry the Ah Fei metaphor further, the main character York (Leslie Cheung), or Yuddy depending on the version of the subtitles, seems to live by a saying he repeats a couple of times throughout the film,
"I've heard there's a kind of bird with no legs. All it can do is fly and fly. When it gets tired, it sleeps on the wind. This bird can only land once in its whole life. That's the moment it dies."
Like this bird, he refuses to allow himself to be tied down by anyone, which is very fitting of the "Ah Fei" characterization. However, he seemingly can't bare to be alone, he's both attractive, and charming. He has a way with his words, and women seem to fall for him rather quickly. He's a narcissist who has a lot of confidence in his own good looks. The opening scene shows him work his charm on So Lai-Chun (Maggie Cheung). He asks her to watch the clock. They both watch, and wait for a minute to pass by. After the minute is up, he promises her that they are now one minute friends, and he'll always remember her. One minute before 3pm on April 16th now belongs to them as their moment in time. Even after dumping her, he has more clever methods of capturing a girl's attention. As soon as he's moved on from one girl, he works his charm on another, showing his constant need to have someone to be with. Despite this, he pushes everyone away at the first sign of any serious feelings. It's only after So Lai-Chun asks if he'd marry her one day that he leaves her. Similarly, he breaks it off with Lulu (Carina Lau) after things start feeling too much like a real relationship. He can't bare the thought of "belonging" to someone.

After making them angry with his cruel detachment, he doesn't try to stop the girls from leaving . He nonchalantly allows them to pack their things and leave, because he knows they've fallen for him by that point. He knows they'll be back, and even threatens them that if they walk out, they can't come back. It's a thought he knows they can't bare. We know that if they did leave, he'd just find someone else.

When So Lai-Chun asks him if he ever really loved her, he replies, "I can't know how many more women I'll fall for in my lifetime. I won't know which I love most till the end of my life." This neither satisfies So Lai-Chun or Lulu, who happened to be eavesdropping in the other room. It subverts the question to an extent, but does seem to reveal that he counts her among those he has loved. It can be seen as a sign that, despite his coldness toward them, he does care about them on some level. It wasn't what So Lai-Chun was hoping to hear, and it's enough to anger Lulu, but she's already fallen so hard for him, she can't bring herself to leave.

Similarly to the way York wanders from girl to girl, he seems completely rudderless in life. He's devoid of ambition, wandering aimlessly, as if waiting for something to happen. Nevertheless, he's seems completely content to live this way, and even still imagines something great will come along. He even tries to warn the cop turned sailor Tide (Andy Lau) toward the end of the film, that one day he'll soar higher than anyone imagined he would, "just don't be jealous when it happens." Leslie Cheung plays York always relaxed, almost lethargic. Every time we see him, he's reclining in his chair, stretched out on the bed, or slowly shuffling his feet as he walks. However, this endless floating through life is not exclusive to York. Everyone else who appears in the film seems to be similarly rudderless (although none quite as much as York). 

This relaxed lifestyle stands in stark contrast to the bustling Hong Kong of today. The contrast is taken even further in that all these people seem to be living in isolation. WKW portrays their world as a desolate island, much of it seemingly in a dark state of perpetual night. Their small community seems to consist of only the faces we recognize. This type of smaller community is something WKW valued while growing up in the 60's. It served as an inspiration on In The Mood For Love. Here, it's a far sadder element.

For him the 60's is synonymous with his favorite music, and the smaller communities that make up the city of Hong Kong as it was in those days. It lives in his memory, a time no one can ever go back to. These became themes he's often returned to, as well as a time period he often tried to evoke throughout his filmography. In Days of Being Wild, In The Mood For Love, and 2046 this time is translated onto characters living in a constant state of longing (the theme that permeates his entire filmography). Here it's specifically a longing for both romantic love and maternal love. Consider York’s longing to connect with his birth mother, while his adoptive mother longs to keep him (fearing that he'll forget her once he meets his true mother, there's no greater loss than to have been forgotten), then there’s So Lai-Chun’s longing for York which makes her miss an opportunity for love with the cop Tide (Andy Lau), who longs for her after befriending her while she's pining for York. The final love triangle involves Lulu, who hopelessly longs for York, while York’s friend Zeb falls for Lulu.

Despite the numerous side characters, the film itself centers around York (Leslie Cheung). He questions his adoptive mother (played by Rebecca Pan, who speaks Shanghainese throughout the film where the rest of the cast speaks Cantonese) about his real mother, but she refuses to tell him her name or whereabouts. She's an ex-call girl, who raised him, incidentally, to share her ability to seduce the opposite sex, and her lack of need for intimate commitment with any of them. She can also be blamed for his resentment of possessive behavior, which he translates as the prison that is all committed relationships.

His is a search for identity, but his mother is a selfish person. The only thing she's ever had of any meaning or significance is York, and she continually refuses to give him any information regarding his mother. There's a painful reality to each of their plights. In ways, we are all a little messed up by our parentage, but understanding their relationship is essential to understanding why York acts the way he does. His rejection of a serious relationship with any one woman, is a reflection of both his birth mother's rejection of him, and the aforementioned cold, selfish nature of his adoptive mother. It's only after she finds a much younger companion with enough money to take her away from this sad community that she gives up the secret. She's selfishly replaced York with a young companion, and no longer feels she needs him. So she tells him his real mother had moved to the Philippines.

One of the most emotional scenes is a very brief moment in which we see York's back, as he walks in slow motion away from the house where he was to meet his mother. After finally tracking her down, after all this time, he's told she isn't there anymore, but he can feel someone's eyes trying to spy him from the window. He says all he wanted was to see her, but if she refuses to let him, then he won't let that set of prying eyes glimpse his face either. The one thing for which he's been longing has rejected him again, but for the last time.

York's only friend Zeb (played by famous Hong Kong singer Jackie Cheung) is something of an immature younger brother. Zeb looks up to him, and obviously feels he doesn't match up to him. He falls in love with Lulu, the exotic dancer, despite the fact that she's in love with York. She dances for Zeb in the hallway, and he's instantly smitten. However, she only trusts him with her stage name of Mimi, a clear representation of her attempts to keep him at a distance.

Meanwhile, a cop named Tide (Andy Lau starred alongside Jackie Cheung in WKW's earlier film As Tears Go By) befriends So Lai-Chun as she desperately tries to get over York's rejection of her. The theme of time comes into play here as well. It's possible that if not for her feelings for York, Tide and So Lai-Chun could have fallen for each other, but then again, if not for York, they may never have met. Such is life. The sad conclusion to her part of the story has her attempting to call the pay phone Tide told her she could call him on, not knowing that he became a sailor and was no longer in the country. It's a missed opportunity.

Carina Lau gives perhaps the best performance in the film as Lulu, the lovesick girl who's life York destroys. She can't bare to let him go. She tries accusing So Lai-Chun of stealing York, but she sobs uncontrollably when she finds he isn't with her either. He had already left for the Philippines in search of his mother. While she's crying, the shot shows a close up of her face behind a fence. The imagery informs us that she's caged in. She cannot escape her feelings for York. And if we had any doubt, Zeb tries to get her attention but she refuses to pay him any. She's still trapped by her longing for York. 

York also spends some time with the cop turned sailor Tide toward the end of the film. They run into each other in the Philippines. Tide allows him to stay with him despite the fact that he knows exactly who he is. Andy Lau provides a subtle performance that hints at his recognition, and resentment of York. He tells York that he became a sailor because he wanted to wander around and see the world. However, unlike York, he moves with a purpose. After York get's them into trouble with a local gang, the two barely escape by catching a train. York, having been fatally wounded, seems to reconsider his life. It take him till the end to learn the valuable lessons he needed. He finally realizes his motto about the bird was never real, and he was dead inside from the beginning. 

He had claimed that he wouldn't know who he really loved till the day he died. Our only hint is his mention of his memories of So Lai-Chun. Tide refuses to admit that he has feelings for her, but York knows better. He also reveals that he never forgot about her and their one minute friendship. "I always remember what needs to be remembered. But if you see her again tell her I remember nothing. It's better that way for all of us." This statement could both hurt and help So Lai-Chun, but it's perhaps York's only instance in which he shows any concern for anyone other than himself.

This film grapples with the difficulty of longing for another person who will never reciprocate feelings of love. Some simply aren't capable. Others suffer from poor timing. This is perhaps one of the few WKW films where no one is allowed a happy ending, but a few learn valuable lessons, and everyone's changed. However, there is a beauty to the lessons learned by the tragedy of loss. We've all been on one side of this story at some point in our lives. WKW knows that the language of love, even love lost or unrequited, is universal.

Days of Being Wild is WKW's very lose adaptation of Manuel Puig's novel Heartbreak Tango. Puig, an Argentine author, also wrote The Buenos Aires Affair, that inspired WKW's Happy Together. Heartbreak Tango was published in the late 60's and featured a narcissistic man named Juan Carlos, who dies of tuberculosis at the beginning of the story. The narrative is a series of confessions, newspaper clippings, diary entries, letters, and so forth in memoriam of Juan Carlos and how handsome he was. Much like Lulu, Nelida, one of the side characters, still dreams about him and how he swept her off her feet.

WKW's character York matches Heartbreak Tango's ill-fated narcissist, among other similar characters. And while WKW has stated that Latin American music was popular in his community growing up in the 60's, Puig's country of origin (Argentina) seems like a natural inspiration for much of WKW's musical choices for the film. His repetition of languid guitar tracks by Los Indios (Always in My Heart, and You Belong to Me), as well as the more upbeat sounds of Xavier Cugat (My Shawl, Perfidia, Siboney, and Jungle Drums) add to the sense of atmosphere as well as set a leitmotif that he carries over into In The Mood For Love and 2046. Cugat's Perfidia stands out as the song repeated most often across all three films.

At the time Days of Being Wild was a vast change in the typical sort of cinema in Hong Kong. In 1991's Hong Kong Film Awards (Hong Kong's equivalent of the Oscars) It won: Best Picture, Best Director (Wong Kar Wai), Best Actor (Leslie Cheung), Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography (for Christopher Doyle), along with nominations for Best Actress (Carina Lau), Best Screenplay (Wong Kar Wai), Best Film Editing, and Best Supporting Actress (Rebecca Pan). Despite all of this recognition, the film made just $9,751,942 at the Hong Kong box office, which was considered far too low a sum considering the star power appearing in the film.

It wasn't what Hong Kong audiences, or even the producers, wanted at the time, despite a stellar cast of Hong Kong's biggest A-listers. Instead of an action film to follow up his very successful As Tears Go By (WKW's Hong Kong version of Martin Scorsese's debut film Mean Streets), they were given a character driven, art-house indie about longing and rejected love. Instead of big action sequences, it's told in small moments with an emphasis on moments of silence, in which a character don't reveal their true feeling. It shows how easy it is to fill a lifetime with missed opportunities.


Speaking of missed opportunities, the film itself feels like a missed opportunity for WKW. Not that it isn't a good film in its own right, but it certainly wasn't appreciated in its time. WKW had plans of making a part 2 to this film featuring Tony Leung as the main character, however due to the failure at the box office of this film, his support was dropped. Instead of being able to finish part 2 the way he had originally intended, WKW used the final minutes of the film's runtime to fulfill his contract of having Tony Leung appear in the film (as his name had already gone out in the cast list with promotional material). This final scene is set to Xavier Cugat's Jungle Drums, and connects to nothing that's happened previously in the film. Tony Leung's character simply combs his hair, and prepares to head out for a night on the town. In his book, simply titled Wong Kar-Wai, Stephen Teo said, "Episode Two of Days of Being Wild is one of the world's great lost movies, and herein lies the heartbreak that is permanently etched on this final scene."

However, Leung's character is named Chow Mo-Wan, which happens to be the same name for his characters in In The Mood For Love, and 2046In fact Maggie Cheung (playing So Lai-Chun), as well as several other characters, appear in In the Mood for Love, and 2046 under the same names as well. As a result, many view this final scene as an unofficial setup for In the Mood for Love, thus with 2046, these three films form an unofficial trilogy. We never got to see the story that WKW has originally planned, but In The Mood For Love is genuinely accepted as his best film. So I think I can live with the results. After all, these three films give us WKW's signature, iconic style. I'm perfectly willing to accept these as a trilogy, and Days of Being Wild is a densely emotional way to start.