Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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Days of Being Wild (1990). Wong Kar Wai Retrospective 4K Restorations.


Wong's masterpiece is a dreamy saga of love and death

Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) is, according to the title, a hooligan; also a seducer incapable of real commitment to a woman. Rapidly we see this develop with Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), who mans a soft drink stand outside a sports arena. He marches up one evening, pops a Coca Cola, and says that night she will see him in her dreams. He comes back day after day with a confident line, and she falls. Soon they're lovers and she's so gone on him, when she loses her apartment she wants to move in, and proposes marriage. He coldly says no and she leaves and says she's never coming back, as he stands preening in front of a mirror in his undershirt, combing back his shiny hair and Elvis (or Sal Mineo) forelock. We know she won't ever forget him. Christopher Doye's dreamy camerawork, with extreme, dusky closeups and sly, unexpected positioning, introduces a sultry summer Hong Kong of lazy, sexy evenings. Even in Yuddy's first meetings the shots make them look like they're almost kissing. These images are of a piece with those of the pair in bed together. How the camera loves Leslie Cheung's face! It's like a statue you want to make love to, not just adore. The time is 1960 and he's a sensuous, narcissistic James Dean. Cheung is marvelous: this is his movie.

This is where Wong Kar-wai unquestionably and brilliantly became Wong Kar-wai. Collaborating with the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Leslie Cheung, who possesses this role utterly, he made a masterpiece that towers over everything else he ever did.

Can you believe it? Twelve years later Leslie Cheung jumped to his death off a balcony at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. An Asian-American writer quoted in an essay about this film by Gerald Peary says, "The entire Asian diaspora knows that we lost one of our most exquisite pop singers, most seductive sex symbols, most potent gay icons, and most beloved celebrities." He had made 90 albums and 60 films. It's hard not to appreciate this performance even more given the actor's added glamor of doom.

Next we learn who the woman is Yuddy really cares for, is his cold, drunken mother (Rebecca Pan Di-hua). He comes to see her and has the servant bring tea for her hangover. She is a powdered ex-courtesan and, he will discover, has been raising him in return for a monthly income from his wealthy real mother, who is a Filipino aristocrat whose identity she won't reveal but he must have.

For a while he messes around with a loud, demanding showgirl, Leung Fung-ying, aka Mimi (Carina Lau) whom his best friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung) is also in love with. There are great sweaty scenes and mini dramas in the bedroom and outside in the heavy rains of Hong Kong's monsoon season. He doesn't have to work. But his vague identity and inability to commit to anybody eat away at him - or is it simply, as Peary says, "a heavy dose of existential ennui"? Su Li-zhen takes comfort in conversations on the street with Tide (Andy Lau), a stalwart policeman (in a fetching military tan uniform) whose beat is near where she works, another vector in a tale paved with disappointments.

There are all these plot details and more, but it would not be an exaggeration to say this movie is about Leslie Cheung's cheekbones, his lips, and his dreamy, heavy-lidded eyes. And Christopher Doyle's camerawork makes that clear; I guess he makes it happen; because no ordinary mortal, no matter how sexy and handsome, has the magic aura Cheung gives off in Days of Being Wild.

Days of Being Wild 阿飛正傳 , Ah Fei jing juen ("The Story of a Hooligan"), 94 mins., it opened theatrically in Dec. 1990 in Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, and it's international premiere was at the Berlinale Feb. 1991, followed by Tokyo, Toronto, and Nantes. New York City opening Mar. 1991. It has been repeatedly rereleased in the 2000's, with reviews resulting in a current Metascore of 96 (so I guess the critics agree with me).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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