[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: "When did everything start to have an expiration date?" That's a question posed by a lovelorn cop in Wong Kar-wai's 1994 film Chungking Express, and in a sense that line is a snapshot of what Wong's films are all about. In the 20 years and change that Wong has been directing, he's developed several signature flourishes that make his films instantly recognizable—from his striking use of deep, rich colors, to his affinity for repetitive musical sequences, to his judicious use of slow motion for emotional effect, and many more—but at the core of Wong's filmography is an acute awareness of passing time and a palpable yearning for things just out of reach. In the line above, the cop in Chungking Express is ostensibly referring to the expiration dates on cans of pineapple, which he's using to mark the days since his girlfriend dumped him, but in actuality he's referring to that failed relationship, to his (somewhat) fleeting youth (he's approaching his 25th birthday) and to the deadline he has created for his girlfriend to reconsider and take him back. In the cop's mind, at least, whether they will be together has as much to do with when as with why. Or put more simply: if timing isn't everything, it's a lot of it.
That theme pops up again and again in Wong's films. Roger Ebert zeroed in on it in his 2001 review of Wong's In the Mood for Love when he observed of the two lead characters, "They are in the mood for love, but not in the time or place for it." While that's particularly true of Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, it could readily be applied to almost all of Wong's lead characters. In this conversation we're going to discuss Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love (2000), 2046 (2004) and My Blueberry Nights (2007), and over and over again we'll see characters united by emotion but kept apart by timing. So I'd like to open by asking you the following: Do the recurring themes of Wong's body of work strengthen the potency and poetry of the individual films or water them down? Put another way, are Days of Being Wild and Chungking Express enhanced by In the Mood for Love and 2046 or obliterated by them, or are they not significantly affected one way or the other?
Ed Howard: That's a great place to start, because Wong is one of those directors who often hardly seems to be making individual films so much as releasing fragments of one larger film that encompasses his entire career thus far. 2046 is more or less a sequel to In the Mood for Love, and characters in both films are slightly altered versions of people who appear in Days of Being Wild, but those aren't the only Wong films that seem part of a coherent larger universe. He returns again and again to his familiar stock company of actors, who often reappear from film to film playing the same characters, or variations on the same characters, or different characters with shared names. His films are linked in countless ways; that line about the expiration date is repeated in Fallen Angels (1995), which includes a character made mute by an accident involving expired pineapple. Similar repetitions and echoes recur throughout his filmography. It's hard to think of another contemporary director whose films are quite so thematically consistent or as intricately interwoven with one another.
The effect is cumulative, to the point where I wonder if Days of Being Wild is the Wong film that affects me least because it's really not quite as good as the others, or merely because it doesn't have the same already-constructed framework of associations, characters and emotions to build on. By the time Wong gets to 2046, the effect is dizzying, a wild patchwork of references and vignettes that swirl in a vibrant color wheel around the same story that Wong has been telling over and over again throughout his career, a story of missed connections, longing and desire, unresolved dramas. Wong's characters are often haunted by their pasts, so it's appropriate that the films—and especially 2046—are also haunted by the past, by the films Wong has already made and the characters he's already created. When Lulu (Carina Lau) appears in 2046, she fills us in on what happened to her after the events of Days of Being Wild, and her story is unquestionably enriched by the knowledge of her character from the earlier film. If one hadn't seen Days of Being Wild first, her story in 2046 might be just another element in that film's array of people desperately seeking love and connection, but with the earlier film as a reference point it's heartbreaking to realize that so many years later, Lulu is still looking for a "legless bird," a restless, dangerous, passionate man to replace the one she'd loved and lost so long ago.
The flipside of that argument, perhaps, is that Wong's films are so interconnected that one has to see them all, or a lot of them, to get the full effect, and that those who don't make that commitment might be a bit adrift with any given individual film. Certainly, it's hard to imagine getting a whole lot out of 2046 without having seen many of Wong's earlier films first—it's a loony apex of self-referentiality. Maybe that's a limitation, but I don't see it that way. Entering Wong's world is always a pleasure, and his cast of characters and types—restless romantics, would-be noir adventurers, lovelorn cops and self-consciously posing criminals—all seem to be engaged in a search that, for Wong, might just be the essence of being human. The searching, restless quality of his films and his characters, the desperate desire for love, is a core human quality, which Wong's characters simply express in more eccentric and dramatic ways than most, and Wong matches their inventive romantic gyrations with an equally exaggerated, expressive style. Film and characters together are striving for connection, remaking the world through the eyes of one hopeless romantic after another.
JB: I'd love to disagree with you just for the sake of argument, but we're of the same mind on this one. As you suggested, Wong seems to be creating one sprawling work—a feeling that is enhanced not only by the ways that his films overlap when regarded from a distance, but also by the episodic construction of his individual films, wherein narrative cohesion is often flimsy at best. While In the Mood for Love tells one story from start to finish, the other pictures we're discussing include abrupt shifts in narrative focus and even tone, to the point that when reflecting on Wong's filmography it feels more natural to think of each vignette within its own organic narrative and thematic margins, rather than according to the boundaries created by the opening and closing credits. One could argue, for example, that the story of the cop in Chungking Express would fit just as nicely into Days of Being Wild or 2046. Wong's vignettes are malleable that way, to the point that their assemblage within any given film seems almost arbitrary. It's an effect that reminds me, strangely enough, of the way that so many of Woody Allen's whiny rants on love are so readily interchangeable from film to film—any exchange from Manhattan could easily fit into Husbands & Wives or Deconstructing Harry, just to name three.
Actually, maybe that isn't so strange. After all, Allen's films are often criticized for their repetitiveness, which is also a complaint I've heard aimed at Wong's body of work. We agree that the cumulative effect of Wong's films enhances the individual works, but what if Wong were as prolific as Woody? At that point might the magic spell be broken even among his most ardent fans? I'm sure some would argue that Wong has made enough films to have already answered that question. But before we jump to the end, let's begin with what for our purposes is the beginning: Days of Being Wild. You already mentioned that it's the film that affects you least, but why? Is it because it doesn't benefit from the momentum and background of the subsequent films? Or is it underwhelming all on its own? And if so, how?
EH: It's hard to pinpoint exactly why Days of Being Wild doesn't quite move me like Wong's other films. To be sure, there are wonderful moments in this film. The opening scenes, in which Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) seduces Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) through cocky persistence and smooth talk, are delightful, especially his romantic gesture of spending a minute watching the clock with her, telling her he'll remember her forever because of that minute. (That all of this later turns out to be just the game of an unregenerate ladies' man doesn't quite erase the romanticism of those scenes.) There's also the wonderful sequence in which Li-zhen spends the night walking around town with the cop Tide (Andy Lau), talking through her heartache and sadness with him. It's a beautiful sequence, with a late-night noir atmosphere as the two near-strangers stroll through the dark and empty town with its rain-slick streets.
The imagery in this film is gorgeous throughout; this was Wong's first film with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has shot nearly all of Wong's subsequent films, and it's the beginning of a very fruitful creative partnership. The lush green jungles of the Philippines, where Yuddy eventually goes to find his birth mother, seem to hang over the film like a premonition: the credits roll over a tracking shot of the jungle, thick and wet, with layered shades of green, and this image is reflected in the overall green tint of the film. It's as though that jungle aura has subtly infiltrated the city, overlaying these urban spaces like a damp blanket.
So the film's atmosphere is certainly enthralling, and it has sequences that are as potent as anything in Wong's later work. If it's still a little underwhelming, I think it's because I just don't connect with these characters as deeply as I do in Wong's other films. Li-zhen has more substance here than Maggie Cheung's rather generic yearning girlfriend in Wong's debut, As Tears Go By, but she's still fairly one-dimensional, and the same could be said of Corina Lau's Lulu; both women are defined almost exclusively by their desire for the male protagonist. There's not as much of the eccentric character detail that fleshes out the similar romantics and heartbroken drifters of the later films, and the result is that the film feels like a stripped-down template for a typical Wong scenario. The later films were built on top of this foundation, and the flourishes and elaborations of the films to follow are what make them truly special. Wong's best films are highly specific in their examinations of the desire for connection—one character channels his loneliness into the collection of pineapple cans, another rearranges the apartment of the object of her desire, another recasts his life and loves as a sci-fi adventure story—and Days of Being Wild, for all its admirable qualities, is comparatively lacking in that specificity.
JB: Indeed, there's a kind of directionlessness to Days of Being Wild that keeps it from feeling centered on its axis. The film's core themes are the same ones we outlined earlier, and yet both times I've watched it I've come away uncertain as to what it's really "about." Over the final 20 minutes, there are several moments that feel like the period at the end of the sentence, only to turn out to be commas or semicolons: Yuddy walks away from his mother's home, not allowing her to see his face; Yuddy leaves Tide's hotel room with both of them now remembering one another (or maybe not) from Hong Kong; Yuddy gets shot on the train; Yuddy's mother, in a flashback, watches her infant son being taken away from her; Yuddy, in voiceover narration, has his epiphany about the bird with no legs; Yuddy and Tide talk openly about the woman that unites them; and the phone rings at the booth where Tide told Li-zhen to call him. Each of those moments feels like good places to end the film, and yet it keeps going. And while it's not my place to argue how the film should end, I've never felt a clear sense for why it keeps continuing, especially given its ultimate destination (more on that in a moment). Those final 20 minutes feel slapped together, strongly at odds with the first half of the film in which many scenes are unnecessarily drawn out. (I want to slam my head into the wall each time Yuddy's "aunt" delivers one of her "haven't we covered this already?" monologues about why she won't help Yuddy find his mother.)
I wholeheartedly agree with you that there are terrific moments within the film—a few of them moments that, not surprisingly, are part of the requisite mini-montage that precedes one's ability to press "play" on the DVD menu: Yuddy's goofy-suave dance of solitude in his apartment; Lulu seductively swaying her hips in front of Yuddy before they have sex; Lulu, glammed up, strutting into the frame in search of Yuddy; and of course those treetop shots of the Philippines. And you've mentioned some other great scenes on top of those. But compared to the rest of Wong's work, everything seems a click or two off. Take, for example, that over-the-shoulder shot of Lulu strutting toward the door in search of Yuddy: earrings dangling, cigarette in her lips, the bright door reflecting enough light to create an alluring silhouette. Lulu throws open the door and Wong rack-focuses to Zeb (Jacky Cheung) sitting in her dressing room, and then rack-focuses back to Lulu, her face turned toward us over her shoulder so that we can see her bright red lipstick and blue eyeliner. It's a stunning shot—and yet it's not quite in focus. Not at first. That might seem like a petty criticism, especially in isolation, but it's the kind of inexactitude that you couldn't imagine from Wong in the ever-so-precise In the Mood for Love. (To think about it another way: the classic reveal of Harry Lime in The Third Man wouldn't have the same panache if the camera needed a moment to focus on Orson Welles' face.) It's still a great moment within the film, but it's one with a small yet glaring imperfection.
I feel the same about the way Wong handles a subsequent scene between Lulu and Zeb at the restaurant, immediately after their violent confrontation in the rain when Lulu scolds Zeb for thinking he can become Yuddy just by taking his apartment and his car. The restaurant scene begins with Zeb putting a large wad of cash on the table in front of a depressed Lulu and then sliding into the booth. "What's with all this money," Lulu asks. After a long silence, Zeb replies: "Like you said, you've got to deserve something." Zeb's body is slightly turned away from Lulu, his eyes searching the ceiling for words. "He looked real good in the car," Zeb continues, in reference to Yuddy. "I looked like a joke. So it was better just to sell it." Again there's a long silence. Zeb's sadness and longing hang there like the moisture in the air. He wishes he were Yuddy, wishes Lulu wanted him like she wants Yuddy. It's a moment that comes almost out of nowhere (Zeb is a minor character), but it might be the most poignant moment in the film. And yet from there Wong employs an awkward cut to look Zeb in the eyes, from Lulu's point of view across the table, as he convinces her to take the cash and go to the Philippines in search of Yuddy. It's a simple cut to a sensible enough camera angle, but with that cut the mood is broken. The subsequent shot doesn't seem like a new point of view but like a new take, a new scene, a new moment. It's like hearing a record skip.
Days of Being Wild seems undone by similar small but significant scratches that repeatedly taint the atmosphere that Wong is attempting to create. Wong frequently recreates that atmosphere—because that's one of his greatest gifts—but soon it's lost again, or it seems disjointed from the rest. The final scene is a perfect example of the latter: After the aforementioned moment when the pay phone rings in the sad darkness, Wong cuts to a well-dressed man sitting on a bed, filing his nails, getting ready for a night on the town. The room is dark. Is it Yuddy? Is he still alive? Is it Tide or Zeb; have they become what Yuddy was? No, no, no and no. Instead it's a character we've never seen before (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), who primps and preens for about two-and-a-half minutes to the sound of Xavier Cugat's haunting "Purfidia," before turning off his bedroom lamp and walking out of the frame, ending the film. According to a typically thorough post by David Bordwell, that last scene was intended as a prequel of sorts for a sequel that never happened, but nevertheless it's the final scene of this film. And I'm curious to know what you think about it, and whether it's damning that two-and-a-half of the film's most engaging minutes really have nothing whatsoever to do with the film itself.
EH: I think it's pretty typical of this film which, as you say, has lots of interesting images and moments but often leaves them dangling, disconnected from one another and from the film as a whole. The last twenty minutes or so—which, I'll be honest, were utterly baffling to me the first time around—are especially disorienting, and not just because of the elliptical storytelling or the sudden introduction of Tony Leung Chiu Wai's unnamed character. The scene where Yuddy triggers a shootout with a group of thugs and gangsters is a sudden and bizarre diversion from the tone of the rest of the film, like it was pasted in from a wholly different film. Wong had a background in Hong Kong crime dramas, first as a writer and also in his directorial debut As Tears Go By, and this scene makes it clear that those films were still a lingering influence in his work, one he'd soon submerge much more deeply. (Another obvious reference point is Taxi Driver, and Scorsese in general, especially in the use of music.) Violence often erupts suddenly in Wong's work, fast and frantic, but in the later films such incidents become less common, and when they do happen they're jarring because of the violence and its effects on the characters, not because, as here, there seems to have been a stylistic tear in the surface of the film itself.
That's not the only sign that in Days of Being Wild Wong was still pulling together the elements of his style into the coherent—but eclectic and unpredictable—aesthetic that would fully gel with his next film, Chungking Express. It's funny you mentioned Orson Welles, because sometimes Days of Being Wild seems modeled on the angled cameras and striking framings of Welles the director, with the camera frequently either looking down on the characters from a skewed godlike perspective or craning up at them from the gutter. At one point, as Tide walks away from Li-zhen into the night, the camera suddenly positions itself, for no apparent reason, down by her legs as she leans against a wall; for a moment, the composition allows this shy, awkward young woman to become a femme fatale, her bare legs towering over the decreasing figure of the cop as he strolls away down the street. In other scenes, Wong's visual language references the conventions of melodrama, particularly in all the mirror shots in which the characters aren't seen directly, only their reflections appearing from odd angles. Yuddy's "aunt" and Lulu are especially suited to melodramatics, and it's fitting that they're often the characters associated with mirrors in this film—most notably when Lulu, enraged over Yuddy's sudden departure for the Philippines, throws everything off her dressing table and shatters her mirror at the nightclub where she works.
Even if everything doesn't quite fit together in this film, the stylistic clashes are fascinating, and there's a sense that Wong is discovering and assembling for the first time the distinctive elements of his personal style. The joy of the filmmaking is palpable, as when Wong and Doyle construct a bravura tracking shot that follows Yuddy up multiple flights of a staircase and into the train station bar where he'll soon be embroiled in a shootout. It's the flashy look-at-me maneuver of a director announcing his presence with a style-for-its-own-sake flourish. There's a similar joy in the sequence of Lulu dancing for Zeb in the stairwell of Yuddy's apartment, raising her arms above her head and swinging her hips seductively. It's the moment when Zeb falls for her, and the camera peeks down on the scene from above, glancing over Zeb's shoulder to convey a sense of his perspective, the dizzying angle creating a sensation of vertigo, as though the smitten young man might fall, or leap, into his feelings of desire and love. I feel like I could just keep picking out these moments, because this is a film of moments, where the individual elements never quite cohere into a whole. In subsequent films, I think, Wong would figure out how to maintain that emphasis on the heightened reality of individual moments while slowly accumulating those details as part of a larger picture; here, many of the details are compelling even if the film as a whole doesn't have that cumulative impact.
JB: There's no question that Wong learned to better maintain the tone of his films—even with significant shifts in point of view—in subsequent efforts. Like you, when I watch Days of Being Wild I find it fascinating to see an artist discovering his form in the film's thrilling moments, but I find the stylistic clashes far too jarring to feel that the film is thrilling on the whole. The outbursts of violence are a good example. The film has three of them, and while the first one is poorly staged (Yuddy's assault on the lover of his "aunt" is one of the least convincing ass-whuppins this side of the hurtin' that Sonny Corleone puts on his brother-in-law in The Godfather) and the third one is curiously extreme (the shootout), the second one is rather well done: Zeb striking Lulu in the middle of a rain storm and knocking her to the ground. But the scene doesn't quite work because it doesn't feel earned. We just haven't seen enough of Zeb or Lulu to be emotionally invested in either of them, and so it plays like a narrative aside. It's a potentially great scene, it just isn't great in this movie.