Wong Kar-wai began his filmmaking career with the 1988 crime drama As Tears Go By which followed many of the conventions of the genre that had been established by the robust Hong Kong film industry. While it exposed the world to what would come to be known as Wong’s signature style, it wasn’t until his second film that the director started finding his own artistic voice through his work. Groundbreaking in many ways, Days of Being Wild changed the landscape of cinema in Hong Kong forever.
Although the film was a commercial failure, Days of Being Wild remains one of Wong Kar-wai’s most important works because it represents an artist’s impatience with the restrictive rules that only serve to suffocate. “Everybody in Hong Kong was making gangster films. I thought, ‘What else can I do?’ So I made Days of Being Wild and borrowed its form from MTV,” the filmmaker later explained. Everyone expected the project to be designed for a mainstream audience due to its star-studded cast, but it ended up deconstructing the cinematic medium itself. Days of Being Wild is now celebrated as one of the first Hong Kong films ever to employ complex postmodern narrative structures as well as unique cinematic devices.
Starring Hong Kong’s queer icon Leslie Cheung (who tragically killed himself in 2003) as the disillusioned Yuddy, Days of Being Wild is a stylishly detached study of unrequited love and youthful ennui. “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams,” Yuddy charmingly tells a complete stranger (Maggie Cheung) and sure enough, that’s exactly what ends up happening. After growing up with a foster mother who only looked after him for the periodical payments she received, Yuddy has been severed from the traditional value systems and from his own identity by the whirlwind of modernity. As a consequence, he develops what Albert Camus calls the ‘Don Juan syndrome’ and searches for meaning in the arms of women he does not really love.
Days of Being Wild is also memorable for being Wong Kar-wai’s first collaboration with the cinematographer who would become indispensable to the director’s vision; Christopher Doyle. Drawing inspiration from the aesthetic elements of South American literature, Doyle constructs a dreamscape that is littered with fragments of memories, love and desire. However, the most overwhelming feeling that is embedded in the very atmosphere of the film is that of loneliness. When framed in that context, all the intersecting stories of human connection and sexual adventures appear to be juvenile attempts to evade an inescapable loneliness. Wong’s highly stylised editing amplifies the fragmentation imposed by modernity, exposing our fundamental isolation.
The film’s effective visual narrative was influenced by an eclectic mixture of sources including the French New Wave as well as MTV. In an interview, the filmmaker elaborated: “Most of the filmmaking in Hong Kong, even now, is very lyrical, very smooth, and always very traditional. Of course MTV has become something very formulaic, but in the late eighties, when it was first shown in Hong Kong, we were all really impressed with the energy and the fragmented structure. It seemed like we should go in this direction. About the step-printing process, in effect, it’s an answer to John Woo’s use of slow motion. We did it in reverse and shot with a faster speed, which turned out to be something like step-printing.”
Existential explorations are omnipresent in Days of Being Wild and they are beautifully paralleled by subtextual elements such as the recurring references to the meaningless passage of time. The constant sound of a ticking clock generates an unavoidable sense of dread in the minds of the audience, forcing them to ask themselves whether they have made the most of their lives. When combined with the oppressive murmurs of rain, the setting for Days of Being Wild transforms into a hellish microcosm of philosophical stagnancy which is characterised by the problematic sexual violence that takes place inside it. Tsai Ming-liang’s 1998 film The Hole borrows liberally from these very concepts for the manifestation of his own dystopian vision.
At the centre of Days of Being Wild is a surreal mythological tale about a bird with no legs which is rumoured to sleep on the wind and never stop for a second. It symbolises Yuddy’s childish dream of rejecting a world that wanted nothing to do with him as a rebellion against his biological mother who discarded him as a child. During his doomed search for subjectivity, Yuddy realises that none of it was ever real. The fictitious nature of the bird dawns on him when a stranger (Andy Lau – the protagonist of Wong Kar-wai’s debut) dismantles the allure of the mythology by telling Yuddy: “You’re just the drunk I picked out of the garbage in Chinatown.” Days of Being Wild’s oscillation between mythology and reality is fascinating because it examines how one shapes the other, a phenomenon that is readily observable in recent films like Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still.
Wong Kar-wai’s meditations are doused in melancholic pessimism but the film perpetuates a brand of optimistic nihilism. It contends that liberation is only possible when one acknowledges and accepts the absurdities of life like the fact that “you could die any minute”. The brief shot of Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau running across the rusty metal rooftop of a railway station towards an illusory horizon sums it all up, giving us a glimpse of what transgressive freedom can look like.
Far Out is currently the BFI media partner for the brilliant Wong Kar-wai season taking place in London, with tickets on sale now. At Far Out, we’ll continue to bring you all the news, reviews and detailed coverage in the coming weeks.