Criterion Project #26: DAYS OF BEING WILD (1990)

Days of Being Wild

Spine #N/A

Year: 1990

Director: Wong Kar-Wai

Well, this was a treat.

Before I dig into the movie I’m going to start by saying I don’t want to bog down this write-up with assertations about artistic integrity. After all, who am I to question an incredible filmmaker like Wong Kar-Wai? But since I’m writing about my experience with the films, I have to say the technical tweaks to Days of Being Wild, courtesy of the new restorations presented in the glorious Criterion box-set, are noticeable. Sometimes distractingly so.

I had only seen this film once before and didn’t have a vivid memory of it until I watched it last night for this article. And it didn’t take long for me to remember it. WKW’s style is unquestionably unique and within seconds I was transported back into, well, the world of Wong Kar-Wai. The film is mostly set in Hong Kong in 1960, and aside from the usual anachronisms in period pieces (clothing, cars, the cost of items), the new restorations introduce a green tint to the aesthetic to, perhaps, place it in a different time in history. This is nothing new when filmmakers are part of the restoration process, but at times the color modifications are so glaring they draw your attention away from the mesmerizing visuals, which seems almost impossible for such a hypnotic stylist as WKW. I can understand the look being used to further place this film in a singular time-frame, but in certain instances you almost see a flashing road sign screaming “Green! Green! Green!” (Just look at the still taken directly from Criterion’s website at the top of this page.)

Unfortunately, these modifications got pushed to the front of the conversation upon release of the box-set, and I would say it’s because they occurred 30 years after the film’s release. People raise an eyebrow when an artist tampers with their original work (see also: George Lucas). If the film had been colored this way upon initial release, there wouldn’t be any conversation about the green tint. Because I think it actually works.

One of the central themes in the film is how, and what, we remember. 90% of all films are collections of select moments and events woven together to tell a story, with the filler in between left to our imagination. We witness junctures integral to the plot but rarely see the mundane moments that constitute the majority of our lives in between the big scenes. Days of Being Wild opens with two of our leads, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), contemplating the importance of a solitary minute in time. Yuddy directs Su’s attention to his wristwatch in order to brand that exact moment into her mind. Not because anything momentous occurred in that minute, but because nothing else happens. It’s an act of control.

The fact that nothing consequential transpired in this minute imbues the time-stamp with a different kind of importance. We want every recollective souvenir to have significance, but not every impression is something we wish to remember. Su’s memory is emblazoned with this instance of Yuddy by his association with that moment and it begins what amounts to a tragic story of – the days of being wild.

The majority of the film takes place in the moments in between notable occasions. These are the uglier, but perhaps more formative actions or conversations that occur in our lives. Moments in time you’d rather forget but are no less memorable than the joyous instances. I think you could argue the disastrous heartbreaks are more easily evoked than the triumphs.

To quote Mike McDermott from the poker-themed Rounders (1998):

In ‘Confessions of a Winning Poker Player’, Jack King said, ‘Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career.’

To use that parlance, the minute shared between Yuddy and Su eventually amounts to a tough beat, yet its significance can’t be denied.

The film’s other important theme is time and its connection to memory. Wrist watches and clocks are ever-present, marking the ill-fated romances with particular detail. The importance of a single minute can change the course of your life, for better or for worse. Moments after one romance has dissolved, another begins with a chance encounter only tangentially related to the overall plot. Yet the ramifications of this moment ripple through the rest of the film. Two momentary encounters, one born out of romantic fire and the other from smoldering violence, will irrevocably alter the course of at least four lives.

But, surprisingly, not in a Shakespearian way, as one might assume from that description. The story is grounded in real life while the visual elegance echoes a poetic dream. And this is where the color modifications work for me. The plot concerns, in essence, a wanton love triangle, but the intimate camera work and greenish hues shift the narrative into a sensual, plaintive hypnosis. I can’t overstate how beautiful and ugly this film can be at any given moment. Which, I would assert, is the argument the film is making about time and memory.

I’m avoiding a discussion of the plot particulars because the film isn’t designed that way and would be a disservice to regurgitate the diegesis as it pertains to the purpose. If you’re interested in seeing it, skip the synopsis. The characters are engaging and there is a fascinating narrative that follows through the movie, but I feel it’s more important to ponder what’s beneath the surface and the feeling conveyed when watching the film. It’s constructed of concepts that supersede the plot, often highlighting those moments between action in service of those themes of time and memory.

This aspect is best displayed by the manner in which characters are positioned around the themes. We meet Yuddy and Su Li-zhen at the very start of the film, making you think these two will propel the rest of the story. But the film defies conventions and before long one lead disappears, making room for another character, Mimi (Carina Lau) who, at first, seems superfluous to the story but turns out to be much more critical than we assumed. The film progresses in this manner for a while and then unveils another semi-leading character, Tide (Andy Lau), who crosses paths with the character who disappeared earlier in the film, branching the narrative in yet another direction.

It seems confusing, but within the overall context it makes sense. People come in and out of your life at particular points in time, casting a feeling or a mood and fusing themselves into your memories. And the seemingly extraneous people you encounter in that time become forever imprinted onto that segment of memories as well. WKW even plays with the idea of selective recollection, often obfuscating details much the same way a hazy memory might.

At first Tide is mostly framed from behind, in shadows, or under the brim of a hat. He’s a complete outsider. Just a street cop patrolling the neighborhood who wanders into the story past the 30-minute mark, and just as quickly disappears. Thus, like a trivial memory, his is not a fully realized image. His features are shaded over. His face is only revealed once his impression is stamped into the memories of other characters. And from then on he is shown head-on, forever linked to these people and this time, much like how an important memory would appear in your mind – clear as day.

The film perfectly balances these ideas against the backdrop of fateful romance in 1960’s Hong Kong and it’s as continuously fascinating as it is thematically rich, with the final act proving that life is constantly toeing the line between grimness and beauty. It’s been a while since I watched a film with this incredible depth, or perhaps it’s the first film that has struck my subconscious in such a way in a long time. I think Yuddy speaks for the film when he utters, “You’ll see me in your dreams tonight”, an expression that turns out to be as haunting and beautiful as the movie, itself.

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