ays of Being Wild (1990), Wong Kar-Wai’s second movie, is set between 1960 and 1961, and traverses Hong Kong and the Philippines. The film, largely plotless, oscillates from character to character, all of whom are connected whether wittingly or not. It’s most concerned, though, with Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a 20-something-year-old playboy and lady killer whose insecurities, by the
1 Hr., 42 Mins.
Days of Being Wild / As Tears Go By
1 Hr., 34 Mins.
Andrew Lau. But the other reason — and the more plausible one — is that its story, derivative of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), doesn’t much permit the emotional (and if not visceral) urgency Wong’s films have come to be well known for generating.
It stars Andy Lau as Wah, a debt collector working for the mob. As As Tears Go By opens, two things set the steadiness for which he’s celebrated by his employers off course. On his doorstep arrives his second cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), who suddenly announces that she will be staying with him for the next few days to get lung surgery in Hong Kong. Right-hand man Fly (Jacky Cheung), who was already a perpetual goof to begin with, has hit the apex of his acting up — on the verge of being offed by his employers, taking Wah down with him. Because of the Mean Streets parallels — Lau is Harvey Keitel, Jacky Cheung Robert De Niro, Maggie Cheung Amy Robinson — you can anticipate that it’s doom that awaits the majority of these characters, not success.
As Tears Go By visually indicates the intriguing displays of Wong features to come: the careful clinicality of underground meeting places, the saturated intimacy of bedrooms. But not much else about the movie, aside from the arguably scandalous if still-touching relationship between Ngor and Wah, which is the best thing about the feature, is so remarkable. The story, written by Wong and Jeffrey Lau, is told efficiently enough, but there's an imitative undertow that renders As Tears Go By an exercise — a classification that Wong would prove himself skilled at avoiding. Subpar Wong, though, is still a great deal more inspired than what many a filmmaker giving their all and then some could produce.
Days of Being Wild: A-
As Tears Go By: B-
ays of Being Wild, despite not ultimately being exactly what Wong wanted (he originally intended for there to be an immediate part two) was a vast improvement on his first film, 1988’s As Tears Go By. One reason for this might have to do with the fact that Days of Being Wild was the first of many collaborations with the cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who suits Wong’s sensibility much better than
feature’s end, become far more conspicuous than his confidence with women.
The title of the film, which initially hints that this might be a movie about pleasure-seeking, grows particularly tart in its meaning as the dramas progress. I most thought about its implications when confronted with a fable Yuddy often repeats to himself and sometimes to his conquests. “I've heard there's a kind of bird with no legs,” Yuddy says early in the feature. “All it can do is fly and fly. When it gets tired, it sleeps on the wind. This bird can only land once in his whole life. That's the moment it dies.” He uses the story to allow himself to be hedonistic without feeling bad about it. Having only just entered adulthood, it’s worth it, now, to always put self-indulgence first.
These are, of course, only words to live by if the “you only live once” maxim particularly speaks to you. But there are a couple more times the tale is repeated in the movie, and with each retelling does it markedly lose its philosophical gleam. In one instance, Yuddy attempts to tell the story to an acquaintance, only to get ridiculed — “Think you're a bird? If you could fly, you wouldn't have to be here. Go ahead, fly! Show me how you fly” — and in another, just at the end of the film, he realizes that his attachment to it is superficial. “I used to think there was some kind of bird that flew and flew, never touching down until it died,” he tells us. “But that bird never actually flew anywhere because it was dead from the beginning.”
I’m wont to believe that the majority of the characters in Days of Being Wild would roll their eyes at the first iteration of the story. But I’m not so sure they could hear the final version and not be a little affected. These are characters perennially looking for something to improve their lives yet remain at something at an emotional plateau. If they ever feel they might finally move upward, it’s almost inexorable that they immediately, and abruptly, move back down. (They include Yuddy’s pushed-around girlfriend, superbly played by Carina Lau, and his long-suffering best friend, portrayed by Jacky Cheung.)
Yuddy’s neuroses are clearest from the start. He’s adopted, and his appointed mother (Rebecca Pan), a former sex worker — a profession that bothers him — refuses to tell him who his parents are. His anxiety, combined with his dislike of his adopted mom, has led him to a life of empty womanizing. Yuddy’s misogyny is pronounced. He tacitly believes that his days of being wild are synonymous with days of the ill-treatment of women. Pity for him is more natural a reaction than outright sympathy. It's the people either directly or contingently impacted by him, then, who are most heartrending in the movie. They also work to espouse that Wong is not trying to assert that we’re supposed to feel one-dimensionally compassionate for this character in particular but rather that we’re perhaps meant to ruminate on our own lives, thinking about the Yuddys, and the Yuddy-adjacents, who have influenced certain parts of it.
Especially stirring are Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung), a depressed young woman who becomes ensnared in one of Yuddy’s use-and-lose traps and nearly loses herself as a result, and a policeman, only referred to as 6117 (Andy Lau), who serendipitously becomes part of the narrative.
In the film’s best scene, Lizhen, fresh off an emotional confrontation with Yuddy, happenstantially runs into 6117 on the streets. (She’s looking for someone to possibly loan her money for a cab.) They strike up a conversation; he ends up becoming a temporary confidant. Lizhen, abashed about her romantic woes, prefers a blank slate to vent to. The conversation evolves, and both characters come to reveal more about themselves — their backgrounds, their fears, their ambitions. The unlikeliness of their meeting again entails the scene be etched in their (and our) brains — a profound moment never to be recreated.