Review: Days of Being Wild (1990)

Days of Being Wild is one of the early films by renowned Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai. It has all the trademarks of Wong’s later works, such as Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love. But despite being less well-known in the West, Days of Being Wild is certainly no less impressive than any other film by Wong. It is a beautiful movie that features unforgettable characters played by some of Hong Kong’s best actors and actresses working at the time, including the late superstar Leslie Cheung.

York is a young man whose only purpose in life is to find out who his real mother is. He has relationships with a candy bar assistant and a nightclub dancer, whom his best friend Zeb has also fallen in love with. When he finds out that his mother lives in the Philippines, he leaves Hong Kong and embarks on a journey to find her…

I have to admit that when I first saw Days of Being Wild at the cinema back in 1990, I did not like it very much at all. The main reason being that it was simply too different from the other Hong Kong movies that I was so used to seeing. The pacing felt so slow and the narrative seemed sketchy. At the time, the audience in Hong Kong generally shared the same reaction towards the film, even though it was widely praised by film critics.

It was actually on second viewing that I really fell in love with this film. Knowing what to expect, I was then able to appreciate the many quiet and slow moments, and understand the emotions shown on the characters’ faces. I was also able to put together the fragmented narrative into a coherent whole, and even started to feel the emptiness of people’s lives back in the 1960s.

Leslie Cheung gave a career-defining performance that truly identified him as an amazing actor. Of course, he went on to play many memorable roles and established himself as one of the best Hong Kong actors ever. But in my opinion, his mesmerising portrayal of the lost and tortured character of York in this film was his greatest performance ever. The rest of the cast is also stellar, and include big name stars Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau and Tony Leung, and the performances are all absolutely superb. This collection of actors and actresses really reminds me of the glorious days for Hong Kong movies in the 1980s and early 1990s. While some of them, for example Andy Lau and Tony Leung, still have an active acting career, we hardly ever get to see such a star-studded line-up in Hong Kong movies nowadays.

The production design is top notch, with meticulous attention paid to even the finest details, with things as seemingly minor as a watch, a cup or even the paint on the wall all clearly having been carefully considered. There are no computer graphics here, just the film crew using their superb skills to create magic. The art director William Chang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle contribute enormously in making this film so irresistible, and both of them went on to collaborate with Wong Kar-Wai on many of his subsequent films.

The ending is worth a special mention. Now considered a classic scene, it may on first viewing appear abrupt and unexpected. There is a good explanation for that though. Days of Being Wild was originally intended to be (and promoted as) the first of a 2-part movie, and part 2 was to focus on Tony Leung’s character. Sadly, the second movie was never made due to financial losses experienced by the film company, which was the result of the movie’s lacklustre performance at the box office. Interestingly, some people believe that the characters played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love were in fact the same characters that they played in Days of Being Wild.

Days of Being Wild is a true masterpiece. For years now, it has stayed my favourite film by Wong Kar-Wai, and is still sitting firmly in my list of top five favourite Hong Kong movies. It is a truly incredible cinematic achievement, and it offers the opportunity for viewers to see again the wonderful acting by Leslie Cheung, who sadly took his own life in 2003. If you like Gor Gor (Leslie’s nickname), films by Wong Kar-Wai, or Asian art house films in general, this most remarkable film is not to be missed.

10 minutes spent staring at the watch out of 10.
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