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Purely from a business perspective, Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild wasn’t quite the hit people expected it would be when it was released in Hong Kong in December 1990.
With some of the hottest Cantopop stars and actors — including the late Leslie Cheung in the lead alongside Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau and, in that famously enigmatic final scene, Tony Leung — in the cast, the expectation was that the film would be huge. But perhaps the people crunching the numbers hadn’t quite expected a feature so liberated from the constraints of traditional storytelling, a collage of moods and textures, of yearning and unrequited or quietly frustrated feelings.
The film’s evanescent quality is now a Wong hallmark. But in the early 1990s this felt new and unexpected and something mainstream audiences weren’t quite ready for. The gloomy and hurting story of Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) — an illegitimate child, underworld figure and serial womanizer in 1960 Hong Kong who leaves a series of broken hearts in his wake — was only the screenwriter turned director’s second feature, but it contains almost everything that we now think of as typically Wongian. It was his first film shot by Australian director of photography Christopher Doyle, who would go on to shoot much of Wong’s subsequent output, including In the Mood for Love and 2046, with which this film forms a trilogy of sorts.
Doyle’s work sets bright neon lights against enveloping, velvety shadows and uses handheld cinematography to create a sense of piercing and soaring intimacy, with the camera seemingly moving not just in step with the characters but with the way they breathe. Wong’s directorial debut, 1988’s As Tears Go By, which also starred Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau, had been a considerable hit when it was released two years earlier, but surely the fact it was a fresh take on a familiar genre — the Hong Kong gangster flick — had something to do with that.
Perhaps bolstered by the reception of that film, Wong zoomed in on what interested him most for his more idiosyncratic follow-up, moving the triad tropes to the background. This narrative outline would also form the basis of many of the director’s future films, and though some might have turned out better or have become more celebrated, Days of Being Wild — the name was inspired by the Chinese title of Rebel Without a Cause — will always be the first feature that acquainted the world with the singular universe of Wong Kar Wai.
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