Thursday, April 10, 2014

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild is vital in and of itself and in its context. As a film it's a gorgeous, somber evocation of love, longing, and fleeting time, while also displaying a narrative and technical design that astonishes in its simple/complex simultaneity. Yet it's also the first great film from Hong Kong master-of-romance-and-style Wong Kar Wai, as well as the first of many collaborations with ace cinematographer Chris Doyle and star Tony Leung. 

Like its informal followups, In the Mood for Love and 2046, Days of Being Wild is set in the 1960s, and Wong makes as good a use of the decade as any filmmaker I can think of. I say this because he brings a very distinctive look to it while also using the period to express a key theme in all his work: the fail to reconcile desire and the unstoppable passing of time. Stylistically, he's going for the cool, trying to capture the chic and the elegant that fashion enthusiasts often associate with that decade (he loves, for example, to photograph men in suits smoking in the rain, or to show those snazzy 60s vehicles in a downpour at night, their headlights making the falling drops look like glistening shattered glass). In his review of the film, J. Hoberman includes a quote from Wong that helps to explain his visual use of the '60s:
"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." 
While the sun and the fresh air don't really apply to Wong's vision, the like a dream most certainly does. What, then, ultimately makes his work so moving is that he juxtaposes this dream-like, romantic template with groups of characters who can't seem to accept that time is moving on until it actually does and it's too late to fulfill their desires. Wong's characters are like metaphors for the way he himself once viewed the 60s: they're caught in time, a dream world, and because they refuse to acknowledge reality, they end in a painful middle-ground, unable to make good decisions or follow through with their inner-wishes. Wong's detractors have accused him of being a little shallow, putting too much emphasis on mood and not enough on ideas. Yet his stress of mood is exactly what makes his work so complex: the mood, brought out most in his elegant, lugubrious compositions, reflects his characters' inner worlds, they're inability to mix thought with their feelings. And that introduces a key distinction: If a movie depicts characters who don't utilize their intellects, that does not make the movie itself non-intellectual. While Days of Being Wild presents some extenuating circumstances that influence the way its characters go about trying to love each other, essentially I think they're victims of the same problem as Chow and Su in In the Mood for Love. It's a little like the dissociation of sensibility that Eliot describes, and how John Crowe Ransom relates it to romance in his great poem "The Equilibrists":

                                              And rigid as two painful stars, and twirled 
                                              About the clustered night their prison world,
                                             They burned with fierce love always to come near,
                                             But honor beat them back and kept them clear

I think what makes Days of Being Wild such a strong film-and better, I believe, than In the Mood for Love-is that it takes this idea of lost sensibility and then uses some extenuations to make the story more complex. While In the Mood for Love was basically a poem-almost like a cinematic version of "The Equilibrists"-Days is more of a complex narrative. What makes it most interesting is that its playboy protagonist, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) has an excuse for his behavior (the essential idea of the dissociation of sensibility is that the victims don't quite know what's wrong). He's fairly despicable, taking home women (in this case a a bar girl named Li and a Cabaret dancer, Mimi), treating them like gold, and then breaking their hearts. He does this, we eventually learn, because he's conflicted about his adoptive mom's refusal to give him information about his real-life mom. It's a bit strange, and takes so psychological pondering to possibly see how the connection works. Thus, rather than just being about passion and passivity (the two major themes of In the Mood for Love), it adds this extra element of familial angst and the desire to know, and then shows how we use these anxieties as justifications for our other actions. The point, then, is that Yuddy's excuse for abandoning Li and Mimi is invalid, yet still human, and thus quite moving.

Wong's presentation of these issues comes across as effortless, which is all the more impressive considering that he has two other male characters (Yuddy's close friend, who secretly loves Mimi, and a policeman who falls for Li) to fit into the narrative. What's brilliant about the movie is that while Yuddy gets the most screen time, all the characters are strong enough that they could be the main protagonist. It's a little like Shakespeare in that each character is vital for the story's ultimate effect, and as individuals they could be the subject of essays. 

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