Wong Kar-wai never really ‘went away’ in the cultural consciousness, but with several new projects in the pipeline, a recent NFT venture, restorations of his work and the release of a lavish box set of his films on the boutique home video label The Criterion Collection (and locally, a retrospective touring Australia earlier this year in between long lockdowns) it feels like the director has lately moved closer into the spotlight. It could also be that tales of stifled or deferred desire and longing hit harder in an era defined by isolation and social distance; it can't hurt that the tactile visual splendour and eroticism that characterises Wong’s work feels even more of a balm in a modern cinematic landscape dominated by sexless, digitally-augmented Disney franchises.
One doesn’t need a Hollywood scapegoat to make a case for Wong (who’s deftly negotiated art and commerce for his entire career) but even with renewed interest in his work, consensus still holds 1994’s breakthrough Chungking Express and especially 2000’s In the Mood For Love as his identifiable twin peaks. Both are great places to start, no doubt, but watching his first two features back-to-back tells its own story of repressed yearning finally articulating itself, with the romantic sensibility at the edges of 1988’s generically engaging As Tears Go By fully blooming in the free-flowing, dreamlike Days of Being Wild.
A film that resonates as a blur of backlit steam, neon smears and arterial spray well after its narrative details have faded from memory, Wong’s debut riffs on Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise while delivering the goods as a standard Hong Kong crime melodrama. Set in the city’s criminal underworld, young mob enforcer Wah (Andy Lau) tries to keep his hothead protégé Fly (Jacky Cheung) in check, while falling for his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) who shows up unexpectedly at Wah’s apartment, presciently masked and under orders to self-isolate due to a malfunctioning lung that requires medical treatment.
Amidst some kinetic brawls that suggest Wong would’ve been a perfectly good action filmmaker had he chosen that path, there are several scenes that hint at the filmmaker to come, particularly a stretch in which a Canto-pop cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” is structured around the hesitant lead-up and disorienting aftermath of a slow-motion phone booth make-out between Wah and Ngor. Wong’s burgeoning pop-artist sensibility is on display from the first image of a stack of monitors in a store window uniformly displaying images of passing clouds, and there are fragmentations and abstractions of familiar urban sights throughout (the red and yellow hues of buses passing in close range, and a climax that makes use of a row of translucent orange drapes).
For the woozy, character-hopping Days of Being Wild, Wong teamed with Australian ex-pat cinematographer Christopher Doyle, and together began one of modern cinema’s most fruitful ongoing cinematographer–director collaborations. Set mostly in early-‘60s Hong Kong, Days reverses the mood-to-plot ratio of its predecessor (both could have easily switched titles) in its story of playboy Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) romancing both the demure Lai-chen (Maggie Cheung) and the brash cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau), while receiving word from his adoptive mother about the whereabouts of his biological mother, a wealthy aristocrat living in the Philippines.
What’s immediately striking about the film is the intense intersubjectivity of its storytelling and Wong’s confident sense of narrative digressions, always wedded to Yuddy’s impulsiveness even during long sections of the film in which he’s absent. The best of these scenes, and one of the best in Wong’s entire filmography, involves the jilted Lai-chen establishing a tentative connection with a local policeman (Lau) as they stroll a rain-slicked street at night, captured in a single take from a slightly raised angle, the light reflected in the wet receding hypnotically behind them. They start with small talk that expands into discussions of the worldly realities of class differences (“All the other guys got new uniforms every year but I had to wear the same one... that’s when I realised I was poor”) to musings on time and memory (“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly, but actually it can take forever”, says Lai-chen). The scene reunites Lau and Cheung from As Tears Go By, and is all the more poignant if watched in succession.
Once Yuddy learns of the potential whereabouts of his biological mother, a redemption story almost emerges, but Wong wisely leaves it ambiguous as to whether he’s worthy of being redeemed. Like its central relationships, the film moves in desultory fits and starts, and between cramped interiors and expansive tropical panoramas, but does so consistently enough to achieve a rhythm; whereas Tears resonates as a blur unintentionally, Days does by design.
The latter film ends on a cryptic note, with Tony Leung introduced like a new Marvel character for what was in fact supposed to be a follow-up that would never materialise; debonair as ever, cigarette dangling from lips and primping himself in a low-ceilinged room as he gets ready for a night out. With hindsight, there are poignant ironies at play: Leung would, in fact, recently become subsumed into the Marvel Universe (as the Mandarin in this year’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) but would also become Wong’s most loyal returning player, even as he’s teased as another potential heartbreaker in a film – and filmography – not lacking for them. Beyond whatever interpretation you assign to that coda as it stands, it’s only fitting that Days of Being Wild ends with a broken promise.
Watch ‘As Tears Go By’
Hong Kong, 1988
Genre: Drama, Action, Thriller, Crime, Romance
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Alex Man, Ronald Wong Ban
Watch ‘Days of Being Wild’
Hong Kong, 1990
Genre: Drama, Romance
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Carina Lau, Rebecca Pan, Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung