“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly, but actually it can take forever” laments a lovelorn heroine in Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy ‘60s romance Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳), somehow neatly encapsulating the director’s entire philosophy. The heroes of Days are obsessed with minutes, seconds, hours, years, the barely perceptible passing of time. Clocks pervade the frame, their violent ticking the most prominent element of Wong’s strangely barren soundscape, a constant reminder of a life slowly etched away ceaselessly beaten towards an inevitable conclusion.
The hero, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), describes himself rather poetically as a bird without legs cursed to fly and fly meeting the ground only once at the moment of his death, an overly sentimental metaphor for which he is later taken to task by the equally rootless Tide (Andy Lau Tak-wah), a former policeman turned sailor who wonders if it’s just a line he uses to seduce lonely women with boyish sadness. We might wonder the same thing as he picks up the lonely Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a Macao émigré apparently unable to sleep, by telling her she’ll see him in her dreams before forcing her to look at his watch for a whole minute as if that after 3pm on April 16, 1960 were now a sacred date forever etched in time. She thought that sounded “so sweet”, but as he later tells her Yuddy is not the marrying kind and she too is trapped inside that moment, often framed behind bars or the tiny window of her box office booth before the door is cruelly slammed on her romantic delusion seemingly by automatic operation of the clock.
In a twist of fate, Li-zhen meets Tide during his previous life as a policeman when she makes a fairly embarrassing attempt to get back together with Yuddy after he reacts coolly to her suggestion of marriage only to discover him with his new love, cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau Kar-ling). “I’m not gonna be as stupid as her” Mimi insists flouncing out of his apartment only to find herself just that, making a desperate visit to Li-zhen at the stadium after the affair has ended to tell her to her back off only for the rather unsympathetic Li-zhen to point out they’ve both been deceived, “he treats all women the same”.
A perpetual lothario Yuddy moves from woman to woman without touching the ground, but his rootlessness is seemingly born of maternal disconnection in his ambivalent relationship with the Hong Kong sex worker who raised him but refuses to disclose the identity of his Filipina birth mother supposedly a noble woman who for unknown reasons paid a foreigner US$50 a month to raise her son. Like the other women in Yuddy’s life, Rebecca (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) does her best to tie him down, apparently unwilling to reveal his origins in fear he’d leave her, but also mirrors him in her constant quest for affection bought from a series of younger men and apparently one older who threatens their relationship in inviting her to a new life overseas. Ironically enough, she soon tells her son to “fly, fly as far as you can” all the way to the Philippines, though Yuddy already suspects he’s been a flightless bird all along, dead from the very beginning.
Yuddy’s search for closure and identity ends disappointment and a painful lack of resolution, as does the nascent romance between the policeman and the box office girl, her mistimed phone calls amounting to a literal missed connection while Tide ponders lost love from foreign seas, and Mimi tragically chases the ghost of Yuddy all the way to Manila pined for by Yuddy’s self-conscious friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) left behind alone. Trapped in the timeless present, they are each denied either past or future, lost in a lovelorn dream of perpetual longing. As if to ram his point home, Wong shows us another clock and then another man we’ve never seen before (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as he gets ready for an evening out, crouching slightly in what appears to be a shallow, sub-divided garret making it clear that these stories have no endings, flying and flying until they hit ground and seemingly born in the air. A woozy, zeitgeisty journey through mid-century loneliness, Wong’s second feature leaves its melancholy heroes consumed by nostalgia for an ill-imagined future unable to escape the cruel tyranny of an interminable present.
Transfer: Among the more faithful of the recent 4K restorations, Days of Being Wild nevertheless shifts to a slightly greener hue in keeping with the house style adopted for the series, adding to Wong’s sense of melancholy nostalgia and perhaps in keeping with Doyle’s original artistic vision.
Original trailer (unrestored, English subtitles)