Jacky Cheung

Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong Kar-wai)

Director Wong crafts Days of Being Wild as a series of vignettes, only with the film’s principal character never the protagonist of any of these vignettes. Wong and editors Kai Kit-wai and Patrick Tam go for lyrical transitions (or none at all); combined with the emptiness of Wild’s Hong Kong (busy places at times they aren’t busy), there’s palpable mood. Terry Chan’s music, which evokes sixties pop (only desperate), is also essential.

That main character who never gets to be protagonist is Leslie Cheung. He’s a lothario–the film opens with his seduction of shopgirl Maggie Cheung before he moves on to dancer Carina Lau. The first act of the film, which establishes all the characters, is the most unlike the rest. Wong makes verbal reference to off-screen characters who later become important, he makes sure the viewer understands all the relationships. The vignettes don’t start until the second act (so I guess Leslie Cheung does get to be the protagonist for a bit in the first act).

But once the vignettes start, beginning with Maggie Cheung’s return to the film and her friendship with Andy Lau (as the police officer whose beat includes Leslie Cheung’s building). Then it’s Carina Lau’s turn. She sort of shares her time with Rebecca Pan (as Leslie Cheung’s adoptive mother).

Wong isn’t concerned with making his characters likable. No one likes Leslie Cheung, not even his friends–Jacky Cheung, as his sidekick, is just as much a conquest as any of the women–but Carina Lau’s pretty awful too. Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau could both be read as saints, but Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle don’t much go for sainthood. There’s darkness and fuzziness to everyone, with the possible exception of Pan. Even though she should be despicable (she bought Leslie Cheung from his birth mother), she’s still extremely sympathetic. Maybe because she’s so self-aware.

Great performances from Carina Lau and Maggie Cheung. Leslie Cheung and Jacky Cheung are both effective, but–until the third act–the real problem with Wild is Leslie Cheung’s far from the most interesting character Wong’s got going here. Even though Andy Lau’s got a bland role to play (sturdy guy), he potentially has a lot more depth than Leslie Cheung.

Then the third act comes along and Wong decides he wants to try out an entirely different kind of film (stylistically, each vignette has its own feel) and it doesn’t work out. Maybe because it’s Andy Lau’s vignette about how he runs into Leslie Cheung later on and they have a misadventure. It feels forced. Everything else is organic. That final vignette, with its melodramatic action, just doesn’t work out.

By the time Wong brings everyone else back in for the wrap-up, it feels like he’s trying to cover. He can’t.

Days of Being Wild is still a beautifully made film, beautifully constructed narrative. It’s just the plotting (and perspective) where Wong is off.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wong Kar-wai; written by Wong and Jeffrey Lau; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by Kai Kit-wai and Patrick Tam; music by Terry Chan; production designer, William Chang; produced by Rover Tang; released by In-Gear Films.

Starring Leslie Cheung (Yuddy), Maggie Cheung (Su Li-zhen), Andy Lau (Tide), Carina Lau (Leung Fung-ying), Jacky Cheung (Zeb) and Rebecca Pan (Rebecca).


Ashes of Time (1994, Wong Kar-wai), the redux edition

I never know how to describe Ashes of Time. The first–and probably last–time I tried, I described it as a mix of Magnolia and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As difficult as it is to describe, it’s got to be impossible to advertise–a character-based martial arts film, where fight scenes lack any visceral impact. Wong stylizes them, but not for any entertainment value. Given he’s become a more recognized and marketable filmmaker since the film’s initial release, as this “redux” edition started, I wondered if he’d tried to make it more palatable to any of the fans he picked up following that Norah Jones music video he made.

Pleasingly–and surprisingly–he did not. Ashes of Time is as hostile to the passive filmgoer as ever.

What’s most amazing, in terms of the narrative, is how Wong approaches his storytelling. The film opens with a few minutes, then skips ahead an indeterminate period of time. Wong separates the film into seasons (a possible addition to the redux edition, but I’m not sure) and, at the third of five seasons, foretells the protagonist’s future. It’s a strange and wonderful move, playing with the point of storytelling–if the reader knows the ending at the beginning, it’s going to change how he or she experiences the narrative–but to reveal the ending as an aside, it’s an entirely different effect. In Ashes of Time, it contributes to the film’s surreality.

The film’s visual style is one of its most hostile features. Set in a panoramic desert, in a small village, Wong never shows the village in an establishing shot. The desert never gets a vista shot for narrative’s sake. There’s only one time he even comes close and then it’s to emphasize the shot’s singular presence in the film. Much of the film takes place inside Leslie Cheung’s house, which is occasionally seen from the exterior but certainly not long enough to give the viewer any real sense of it.

There’s a wonderful scene between Cheung and Brigitte Lin where it’s nothing but close-ups.

The film’s actors have a rather awkward task here. There are lots of monologues, lots of close-ups–Maggie Cheung basically just has a long, single shot monologue. They’re in ornate costumes, playing these historical, mythic characters, but delivering these humanizing, rendering lines. In addition to delivering the majority of these monologues, Leslie Cheung narrates almost all of the film–both exposition and internal reflection–giving him the hardest task.

Both the Tony Leungs–Chiu Wai and Ka Fai–have good roles. Chiu Wai has the flashier role, but the importance of Ka Fai’s performance gradually comes through. Lin’s excellent, as is Charlie Yeung in a smaller role. Maggie Cheung’s monologue–her delivery of it–is invaluable.

While Christopher Doyle’s photography is–as always–wonderful, it’s the editing here. William Chang and Patrick Tam out do any expectation. Ashes of Time gets better as it moves along, every pitch perfect. The omnipresent musical score–from Frankie Chan and Roel A. García–transports the viewer into Wong’s created world. While he based it–loosely–on a novel, what Wong does in Ashes of Time is create a setting the viewer cannot be familiar with, but can’t be foreign in either. It’s an immersive experience, one requiring active participation with wonderful result.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wong Kar-wai; screenplay by Wong, based on a novel by Louis Cha; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by William Chang and Patrick Tam; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau, Jacky Pang Yee Wah and Wong; released by HKFM Releasing.

Starring Bai Li (Hong Qi’s Wife), Jacky Cheung (Hong Qi), Leslie Cheung (Ouyang Feng), Maggie Cheung (Brother’s Wife), Carina Lau (Peach Blossom), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Blind Swordsman), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Huang Yaoshi), Brigitte Lin (Murong Yin / Murong Yang) and Charlie Yeung (The girl).


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