Days of Being Wild
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In the culture of Hong Kong pop cinema of the eighties and nineties, Wong Kar-Wai is a maverick. As directors like Tsui Hark, John Woo, and Johnnie To were reinventing action movies and big screen spectacle with whooshing camerawork, dynamic editing, and action exploding all over the frame, Wong was casting the stars of those films in more intimate and impressionistic films with woozy color, dancing camerawork, and jagged editing, appropriating music video stylings for arthouse films with a pop sensibility.
Days of Being Wild (1990), Wong's second feature, follows a half dozen characters and their wandering lives in 1960s Hong Kong. Pop singer and heartthrob matinee idol Leslie Cheung is all narcissism and insolence as a lothario who seduces lonely shop girl Maggie Cheung (who Wong helped elevate from popular movies to serious drama) and sneering, shallow showgirl Carina Lau. Andy Lau (another pop singer turned matinee idol) is the cop who watches over Cheung, Jacky Cheung (best known as a comic actor) is bittersweet as a sweet-natured idiot and Leslie's doting best friend, and Rebecca Pan plays Leslie's aging, alcoholic foster mom, who holds on to her "son" by withholding the name of his real mother.
Wong named the film after the title that Rebel Without a Cause (1955) received for its Chinese release. "Rebel Without a Cause in Chinese becomes "our faith," which is a term that was used very typically in the sixties about kids like James Dean, or kids who imitated James Dean," explained Wong in a 1998 interview. The title was not a reference to the original film but to the era of the sixties.
Days of Being Wild marks Wong's first collaboration with Christopher Doyle, the celebrated cinematographer who went on to shoot six subsequent films with Wong, including Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000), in addition to such disparate directors as Gus Van Sant (Psycho , Paranoid Park ), Zhang Yimou (Hero, 2002), and Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002). Doyle perfected Wong's signature skip-frame technique (which Wong described as his answer to John Woo's slow-motion action) in this film and delivered the woozy color and intimate yet removed handheld photography that defined Wong's style in future productions.
Some of these stylistic choices were born of necessity, as so much of the film was shot in tight quarters and small spaces with Doyle squeezed into corners with the camera. Some were a matter of experimentation and exploration, as Doyle played with different filters and lighting designs to get the green cast over the film that Wong desired. Wong shot multiple takes of most scenes, more than fifty in at least one reported case. "Maggie Cheung hated me at the time, because we were often doing retakes for technical reasons," remarked Doyle to Fredric Dannen, but just as often, Wong kept shooting to "discover" the film he was making. As Doyle puts it, "you're always looking for the film."
"To me, the most important thing about the script is to know the space it takes place in," explained Wong to interviewer Laurence Tirard. "The space tells you who the characters are, why they're there, and so on." Days of Being Wild was shot in small rooms, impoverished living spaces, and practically deserted locations, spaces that suggested the characters were trapped or lost and established the languorous atmosphere of longing, disconnection, and emotional isolation. "I think I started to know what I was doing in the middle of Days of Being Wild," admitted Christopher Doyle in a 2004 interview.
The score is comprised of lush instrumental music, from Hawaiian exotica to groovy lounge music, but the patter of rain, ticking clocks, echoing footsteps down empty hallways and alleys, and the squeak of windshield wipers are just as much a part of the film's defining music. "Music is like a color," according to Wong, and here they add more shades to the palette of ravishing colors, seductive rhythms, and the elusive emotional undercurrent under the impassive faces of the cast.
While not a commercial success, the film swept the Hong Kong Film Awards with five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematographer, and Best Actor (Leslie Cheung), and made Wong's reputation around the world, launching him a rich career of enigmatic, impressionistic, sensual films about yearning characters and unconsummated affairs where the cinematic textures are just as expressive as the performances.
By Sean Axmaker
Hong Kong Babylon, Fredric Dannen. Hyperion, 1997.
Moviemakers' Master Class, Laurent Tirard. Faber and Faber, 2002.
Interview with Wong Kar-wai by Han Ong in Bomb no. 62, Winter 1998.
Author interview with Christopher Doyle, 2004.