Renowned director Park Chan-wook, known for the acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, first pursued a career as a film critic. We are pleased to present Park’s reviews of A Better Tomorrow 3 and Days of Being Wild, in conjunction with the M+ Cinema programme, Devil in the Details: The Cinema of Park Chan-wook. Park’s reviews offer a captivating glimpse into his perspective on Hong Kong cinema.
Days of Being Wild indirectly reveals the deep subconscious feelings Hongkongers held towards the China handover in 1997. Even though the city’s political reality is never mentioned in the film, traces of it can be found throughout the story, which revolves around a love pentagon. First of all, the story is told in the past tense. As the story progresses, occasional monologues become narrative links that hold the film together structurally. The characters played by Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, and Maggie Cheung all use monologues to look back on the past in some way, and the audience does not know when such retrospection will occur. All we know about the characters is their past, and their past is more like a chaotic dream than a fond memory. Better than a nightmare but darker than a sweet dream, Days of Being Wild is an enigmatic and trancelike fantasy.
This technique of looking back at the past to create a dreamy atmosphere to present reality is nothing new in Hong Kong cinema and had already been used in films such as A Better Tomorrow III. The idea that escaping Vietnam is tantamount to escaping Hong Kong can also be found in the film Bullet in the Head, which exudes a nightmarish atmosphere. However, Days of Being Wild seems to use the past to escape the present and hides in a dreamlike world to forget reality. Another important theme is the characters’ pursuit of the past. All of them are bound by something that happened before. Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) never gives up on finding the truth about his birth; Tide (Andy Lau) holds on to his short-lived encounter with Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung); Li-zhen cannot let go of her moment of romance with Yuddy; Fung-ying (Carina Lau) also cannot give up her love for Yuddy; while Zeb (Jacky Cheung) holds on to his friendship with Yuddy. These decisions all lead to tragic fates for the characters. After meeting his birth mother, Yuddy launches into a monologue as his mother watches him from behind and his movements are suddenly slowed. The slow motion, coupled with the almost mocking music, makes his dignified strides suddenly appear funny and pitiful. In contrast to the energetic way he approaches Li-zhen in the first scene, Yuddy can barely walk forward in this scene even though he is eager to move his feet. It’s as if he is a prisoner of the past. But what is the point of the past? Yuddy and Li-zhen say they’ve forgotten about their encounter at 3pm on 16 April 1960; Tide says he never met Yuddy; Yuddy’s birth mother denies her existence to her son; Zeb sells his friend’s car to help the woman he loves; Fung-ying wanders the streets of a foreign country, looking for her deceased lover. When Tide is waiting for a call, Li-zhen does not call. And when Li-zhen calls, Tide is no longer there. With their pasts forcibly denied or shackled, these characters seem to have no hope of a future. One way or another, despair for them does not come from the past but from holding on to the past. In one scene, Yuddy says: ‘From now on, we’re friends for one minute. This is a fact. You can’t deny it, because it has already happened.’ Later, Li-zhen says: ‘I always thought one minute would fly by. But actually, it can take forever.’
The characters find themselves in specific environments and express themselves in specific ways at different times throughout the film. Their agoraphobia triggers a sense of claustrophobia for the audience. They always live in suffocating spaces that seemingly symbolise their limited future. For example, the final scene with Tony Leung’s character takes place in a room so narrow that his head touches the ceiling. This room also symbolises Hong Kong. The dim lighting and the use of a telephoto lens give the interior scene a shallow depth of field that emphasises the sense of isolation between characters. If the camera doesn’t shift its focus, communication between people in close-up shots and those in long shots seems impossible. And when the characters flee to the Philippines, death follows. The restaurant where the gunfight takes place is like an open square. Conversely, the place where Yuddy and Tide sit and talk about Hong Kong is a small inn. The longest lens is cleverly used here to emphasise the narrowness of the space, where the two characters discuss time and life. Yuddy later dies in an even narrower space on a train. The doors on the train are all open, and it is a vast jungle outside. The train’s third-class carriage leads him to the open space of his dreams—the vast sky where the legless bird must keep flying. We don’t know where this train will end up, but it will definitely be somewhere stranger than Hong Kong.
This review was originally published in The Discreet Charm of Watching Movies, a collection of film reviews written by Park Chan-wook, in 1994. The English-language version of this text was translated from Korean by Teng Yujung and edited by Dorothy So.
All images: Still from Wong Kar Wai's Days of Being Wild (1990). Photo: Courtesy of Media Asia Film Distribution (HK) Limited