Saturday, August 28, 2010

Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild (1990)

The most impressive shot is an amazingly long tracking shot down a Manila street, up some stairs, and through the second floor of a railway station. It's a tour de force, but me and the Mrs. disagreed on its effectiveness: I thought it was so amazing that it crossed the line into stunt territory - by the end I was just wondering how they did it, imagining how they must have cued the actors to start moving and speaking when the camera entered the room, etc. Mrs. Sgt. T just thought it was an amazing shot.

That was the only thing I thought overdone about the movie, though, and I can forgive it as a moment of exuberance by an artist just starting to glimpse his potential. Days of Being Wild is, as everyone seems to agree, where Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai; I'm not sure I completely agree (I certainly enjoyed As Tears Go By, and saw a lot of Wong's trademarks there, I think). But it is a great film, and a departure from his last, and the thematic and stylistic connections with In the Mood for Love are obvious.

No doubt a lot of what makes it the real arrival of Wong Kar-wai is that it's the arrival of Christopher Doyle. I now realize how much credit he deserves for Wong's success. I liked the visuals in ATGB, but they're nothing compared to this: instead of the steroidal neons of the earlier film, we get bled-out browns and grays and greens that manage to suggest both passion and confusion. The Philippine jungle seen at the beginning and end of the film is a great example: instead of lush, tropical colors we get an almost sickly washed-out green, simultaneously suggesting the milky richness of nephrite and a kind of spleeny bitterness...

The look of the film I don't find nearly as stylish as In the Mood for Love, but the themes here don't call for that anyway. Instead of tidal passions barely repressed, here we have outpourings of emotion with nowhere to go. So instead of opulent, entrancing surfaces we get confusing mixed hues and textures. Combined with the frequently odd camera angles and perfectly unbalanced compositions we have a a perfect visual representation of passions too strong and untamed to be dressed up. It's a monsoon movie. The best scene is the first one between Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau, at night in the rain, her heart aching so bad she can barely think, her face shining between thick black shadows of buildings, his face barely visible under his shiny black policeman's hat...

Doyle's visuals serve Wong's new narrative technique perfectly. I'm not sure if it's a technique; abandonment of narrative is what I want to say, but that's a little too extreme. It's just that he's decided that he's really only interested in the emotions, and he jettisons all the realistic story details that a normal movie would include, but that are really irrelevant to understanding the emotion. We know next to nothing about Maggie Cheung's character: we get only the barest bits of information about her background, and the passage of time in the movie is so murky (despite the camera's obsession with clocks) that we don't know much about how she gets from one emotional state to another. What we know about her is mostly how she feels: tentative love, passionate heartbreak. The same goes for all the characters.

To me this meant that the movie struck me as melodramatic, in the best possible way: its emotions (not just Maggie Cheung's, but Carina Lau's and of course Leslie Cheung's as well) are almost operatic in their intensity and abandon. Mrs. Sgt. T, however, said she was impressed by how emotionally dry the film was - certainly it depicts strong emotions, she said, but with a curious distance. I can see that, too, kind of: it's almost as if the radical foregrounding of the characters' emotions at the expense of the realistic details of their lives objectifies those emotions, rendering them static icons of emotion, rather than states of feeling that people pass through.

Thoughts On Stuff's Patrick-san accounts for the movie, and its place in Wong's ouevre, much better than I can. His post is worth a read.

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