Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. This March, we revisit the sumptuous, romantic, deeply humanistic works of Hong Kong’s favored son, Wong Kar-Wai. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Watching any Wong Kar-wai movie in 2021 hits differently than it might have in almost any other year. He’s a director known for exploring loneliness and to watch it at a time when all of us without question are among the loneliest we’ve ever been is a striking experience. We’re now a year into a pandemic and despite the vaccinations on the horizon, it feels like it has no end. We’re counting the time since we last hugged or kissed our loved ones in months and even years at this point instead of hours.
Watching Days of Being Wild today, all those feelings unfurled like one of the tortured romances on screen, the ache striking you in a different part of your heart.
The film might have been Wong Kar-wai’s second feature, but it’s long been considered the first true Wong Kar-wai film. It burst onto the Hong Kong film scene in 1990 as a lush and moody treatise on a specific kind of romantic melancholy that Kar-wai would continue to explore throughout his career. It was also his first pairing with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, whose gorgeous and vivid photography would come to define the director’s style. But its treatment of romance is a bit different than his other efforts and perhaps it’s helpful to first see some of what it’s “not.”
It’s not Chungking Express because its narrative is not split into vignettes, nor are the circumstances as quirky or as contrived—though to be clear, this is no sleight against Chungking. That film was very much chasing a heightened magic feeling. Days of Being Wild however cannot find the humor in its loneliness or the playfulness in its longing. Its scenes instead become moments that blur together and overlap. Where Chungking looks toward the future, complete with specific dates that one is waiting for (think of the cans of pineapple, the airline ticket), Days is stuck. One of its only markers of time is the constant repetition of the 3:00 hour, which makes it feel like time isn’t really passing at all.
It’s not Happy Together because it’s not centered on a single relationship between a couple over time, through seasons, jobs, and life changes. There is no true core couple at the heart of Days of Being Wild. The romantic relationships we do see feel intimate, but also like we’re missing part of the picture. It’s more like watching asteroids being captured by an orbit, before breaking free and flinging back out into the vastness of space.
And it’s not In the Mood for Love, because Days of Being Wild is not about requited yearning. These people aren’t quite bound together through their mutual loneliness because no one’s ever on the same page. Instead, it’s more about the constant mismatch of everyone’s loneliness butting up against each other where time passes steadily, but without distinction.
So what is Days of Being Wild then?
A lush and moody treatise on a specific kind of romantic melancholy that Kar-wai would continue to explore.
At its most simplistic, it’s a film about a group of twenty-somethings as they struggle with the aforementioned feelings of loneliness and longing. They lounge about in various shabby apartments and soul-sucking jobs, all filmed in gauzy shades of green while they suffer from terrible yearning. Yuddy or “York” (Leslie Cheung) sits neatly at the center of the story, the planet whose pull keeps capturing others in its orbit. The film explores his effect on the people in his life, specifically the women whose hearts he breaks. His first lover, Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung), is innocent and sweet, while his second, Mimi (Carina Lau) is a dazzling cabaret dancer. But both women ultimately love York more than he loves them. And when he isn’t chasing women or spurning them, he’s butting heads with his adoptive mother and wondering who his real family is.
But the details of these things are almost unimportant. What makes Days of Being Wild so affecting right now is how much of the narrative outright relies on the chance meetings of strangers. You bump into someone on the street and maybe you start to talk. You buy a Coke from the clerk and when you meet eyes, you realize she’s beautiful. Maybe you start to buy a Coke there every day, just to talk to her again. Maybe you make fast friends with a stranger at the bar. Kar-wai loves the way the simplest acts can change the course of a person’s life. But that makes sense as the appropriate fantasy for a director who is so amazing at capturing the cramped feelings of isolation and the elation that comes with a moment of connection.
Because what we’re really talking about is the possibility of escape from that very isolation.
Needless to say, it’s been a year since any of us have had truly meaningful contact with a stranger. The genuinely delightful, unplanned interactions that you can have in your day to day have been missing from our lives for months. You can’t have a pleasant conversation with someone on the bar stool next to you, because there are no stools we can sit on, nor bars to enter. You can’t smile at someone across the room because you’re wearing a mask. You can’t see their face and they can’t see yours.
Fear of the virus has us pulling away from everyone we don’t know, either to protect them or ourselves. And as I watched Days of Being Wild unfold, I was not focused on romantic love lost, but a loss of my connection with strangers. A loss of possibility itself.
Amanda Mull recently wrote about the shift in The Atlantic, describing how we miss “the people on the periphery of your life—the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line, the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator.”
It’s something many people used to complain about, but it’s a loss we all feel keenly, even when we don’t realize it. And in Days of Being Wild, it goes a step further, reminding us not just of those we miss, but the opportunities to meet people at all that no longer exist. And without those opportunities, there is no fantasy, no escape valve to isolation. While Kar-wai has always been brilliant at exploring the melancholy loneliness we’re all susceptible to, there’s no way he ever could have imagined the way this work might resonate today. He couldn’t have predicted the fog of loneliness that would descend over the globe. Or maybe it was just something he understood implicitly. And we are all the more lucky to have it reflected back to us.