IT MAY HAVE been released in the olden days of 1991, but Wong Kar-Wai's "Days of Being Wild" remains pulsatingly contemporary. For one thing, its themes of passion, heartbreak and the inexorable passage of time are eternal. And there's a timeless kick to the Hong Kong filmmaker's style: a sweet and pushy insistence, a young artist's complete, heedless confidence in filming anything that appeals to him. Wong assumes what inspires him, no matter where the story takes him, will do the same for his audience. It's a fascinating ride.
Back then, not everyone -- among those who even got to see the movie in its limited art house release -- got his free-form sensibility. Maybe now, as the world has become increasingly comfortable with fast-paced visual abstraction in the most mundane of TV commercials, many more will appreciate this underappreciated rerelease.
Leung Fung-Ying (Carina Lau, left) falls for Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) in Wong Kar-Wai's 1991 film "Days of Being Wild."
On April 16, 1960, a young man (Leslie Cheung, who died in 2003) pops open a bottle of Coke and gets fresh with the woman behind the counter, Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung). He tells her to look at his watch. For a full minute. She does so, somewhat reluctantly. When the minute is complete, he informs Lizhen, their 60-second moment has been enshrined forever. He notes the date, April 16, 1960.
It's enough to make Lizhen fall in love with him. But Yuddy is a moody, fickle man in a strange love-hate relationship with his foster mother (Rebecca Pan), an aging Hong Kong prostitute, and is obsessed with finding his real mother, a Filipino. He soon ditches Lizhen and, in his callous, serial way, takes up with the somewhat comical drama queen Leung Fung-Ying (Carina Lau), who goes by several other names, including Mimi and Lulu.
Fung-Ying, too, is doomed to pine hopelessly for Yuddy. And in this movie's narrative leap-frogging from one romantically gloomy situation to another, we meet a friendly policeman (Andy Lau) named Tide, who falls in love with Lizhen. But he must content himself as her platonic solace. There is also Zeb (Jacky Cheung, normally a comic actor), who worships Yuddy, desperately trying to download his mystique. He has to settle for inheriting Yuddy's cool car. In the end, he sells it and gives the proceeds to Fung-Ying so she can chase after Yuddy, who's now bound for the Philippines.
Switching moods from silent-movie-style romanticism to B-movie pulp, Wong takes us from an initial matinee-idol romance to a grimmer story of emotional suffering. He smothers us in unrequited love, self-absorption, romantic sacrifice and what seems to be ubiquitous frustration. Wong is obsessed with time. This is a movie of clocks, of significances attached to temporal passage. What carries it all is the feeling. Wong proves that all you need is the camera, beautiful people and manic inspiration. The story may seem mundane on paper, but Wong makes it seem almost sublime simply by dint of its spirit. You don't follow along so much as feel along.
Like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wong is a genius of artistic resourcefulness, making much out of spare locations. And like Fassbinder, he finds an elusive, painful humanity in these small, cramped places. This makes the emotions even more concentrated. Almost everything in "Days of Being Wild" is filmed in claustrophobic rooms, hallways or street corners. There's a sort of no-budget, corralled intensity to everything. He tells much with a little. A few passing shots of palm trees and the presence of a single fan in one room, for example, are all he uses (and needs) to convey a permeating humidity and steaminess.
This sultriness is precisely the right atmosphere for the gorgeous matinee idols in the movie. Leslie Cheung (formerly Cheung Kwok-wing who switched to Leslie Cheung in honor of Leslie Howard of "Gone With the Wind") suggests an Asian, sleepy-eyed Peter Sarsgaard, forever combing his hair in front of mirrors. And Maggie Cheung has an incredible porcelain-doll beauty, her hair falling continually over her face. You could watch faces like these doing anything.
There's an especially haunting feeling about this movie, now, in light of Cheung's death. Perhaps the most poignant moment is when, as Yuddy, he mentions hearing about a bird with no legs that is forced to spend its whole life flying. When it finally lands, it dies. On April 1, 2003, Cheung, who had been suffering from acute depression, leapt to his death from the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong. Thousands of people came for the funeral. One of Hong Kong's most beloved birds had made its final landing.
DAYS OF BEING WILD (Unrated, 94 minutes) -- Contains sensuality and violence. In Cantonese with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.