Wong Kar-wai’s rise to international fame might have begun with Chungking Express (for art house fans) or In the Mood for Love (for most viewers). But the work that sealed his status as an auteur was, without a doubt, Days of Being Wild. Despite a star-studded cast, the film featuring just characters without a complete plot or storyline, makes no attempt to pander to public tastes. Given Wong’s fame, it was an unexpected flop at the box-office in Hong Kong and even got tongues wagging.
Wong’s oft-criticized ‘high shooting ratio’ and his non-linear narrative style are incongruous with mainstream industry practice and popular viewing habits. But the finesse of his cinematography, art direction and soundtrack, the fluid mise-en-scene, and unprecedented performances by the cast combine into a brilliant cinematic style recognized by all. Days of Being Wild also saw the creative ‘golden triangle’ of Wong, Christopher Doyle (cinematography) and William Chang (art direction), which went on to become coveted artists in the international art house film market.
The unorthodox creativity and exceptional artistry of Days of Being Wild shows that it inherited and brought to completion the unfinished business of Hong Kong New Wave Cinema of 10 years before. After a decade of skills honing in a booming market, actors and crew were now competent enough to realize Wong’s creative vision. The film’s appearance also predicted the demise of mainstream Hong Kong cinema in the 1990s as the city and its film industry stepped into a period of transition up to 1997.
Days of Being Wild is infused with a sensitivity to the passage of time and a clinging on to emotional memory that have become Wong Kar-wai themes thereafter. At the time, they were echoes of Hong Kongers’ sentiments under the looming 1997 deadline. Leslie Cheung, who has a love-hate relationship with his foster mother and after a failed mission to find his biological mother, drifts in self-imposed exile, is a metaphor for the city caught between the two sovereign states of China and England.
Set in the 60s, the film is filled with signifiers of nostalgia (props, costumes, music, scenery). Reminiscence is but a lament that the good of the present will not last. And Days of Being Wild is but an elegy for a Hong Kong caught between 1989 and 1997.