Days of Being Wild is the movie with which Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai—the most influential, passionate, and romantic of neo-new-wave directors. Wong called his second feature “a reinvention of the disappeared world.” Like most of his films, Days of Being Wild might be called In Search of Lost Time; in a sense, its belated New York theatrical premiere is time regained.
Arguably this is the key movie in Wong’s oeuvre, as startling in its context as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Breathless were in theirs. Revived (with vastly improved subtitles) some 14 years after it first stunned Hong Kong critics, Days of Being Wild is a sort of meta-reverie populated by a cast of beautiful young pop icons—Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Andy Lau, and briefly, Tony Leung—acting like movie stars. Days is also Wong’s first film to have been shot by Chris Doyle, and the voluptuous shadows, neon color schemes, and underwater atmosphere of Doyle’s cinematography would define Wong’s elusive Hong Kong forever after.
Set around the same period as American Graffiti (or Edward Yang’s retro youth epic A Brighter Summer Day, made in Taiwan the next year), Days of Being Wild makes similar use of dated cool and old cars. The very first shot smacks your eye with a redder-than-red Coca-Cola cooler. The title evokes the one under which Rebel Without a Cause was released in Hong Kong. But this is an unfamiliar and perhaps imaginary nostalgia. In his film notes, Wong reminisces about 1960: “I used to recall, back in those days, the sun was brighter, the air fresher, with distant noises from wireless sets flowing down the streets. . . . One felt so good it was almost like a dream.” For him it was: He was born in Shanghai in 1958 and moved to H.K. with his family at age five.
Suavely achronological, Days opens with a tracking shot through some verdant jungle that cannot be temporally identified until the movie’s gangster-flick finale. Everything else is flashback. Moving from small, humid rooms to rigorously controlled exteriors, the principals suggest a group of time travelers transported into a past that can’t be inhabited. The empty stadium where Maggie Cheung works the concession counter might be ruins. The youthful demographic further abstracts the universal obsession with personal history. Leslie Cheung’s character, a pomaded lady-killer and underworld tough, is the only one with a parent; that she is his adoptive mother only serves to render him more a little boy lost.
Leslie Cheung’s character is searching for something unknown left behind in an unknowable time. But those familiar with Wong’s subsequent films will find that his preoccupations are all in place—veiled by a delicate fog of fleeting relationships, unfulfilled longings, and missed opportunities. Here too are his characteristic strategies—the cast of beautiful loners, the memories delivered in voice-over, the abstractly exotic music. (Save for one Django Reinhardt piece, the Hawaiian cha-cha score comes from a compilation album by Xavier Cugat.) In the Mood for Love very nearly remakes Days of Being Wild—and the as yet unreleased 2046 even more so. In some respects, however, Days is a more radical achievement than those that would come later.
For one thing, there’s a headier sense of simultaneity. Difficult to follow on a first viewing (although not thereafter), the movie may feel shifty as smoke, but it’s composed entirely of straight cuts. The various flashbacks and flash-forwards are marked by abrupt transitions that give no indication of elapsed time. This succession of privileged moments is less evocation of the past than nostalgia for the present. Time is fragmented in the service of an Eternal Now, and yet there’s a Zeno’s paradox effect in which that Now instantly evaporates. Clocks are ubiquitous, and the key scene has Leslie Cheung’s character seduce Maggie Cheung’s by tricking her into spending a minute constructing a memory of those 60 seconds.
Wong originally wanted a Days of Being Wild sequel haunted by its dead protagonist. Leslie Cheung’s untimely passing renders that ambition additionally poignant. But as in all of Wong’s movies, you can’t go home again.