For some, 2007’s My Blueberry Nights confirmed a lurking suspicion that Wong Kar-wai—one of the rare celebrity directors in contemporary art cinema—was always an emperor with no clothes. Landing on our shores serving clichés of Americana instead of eye-popping images of urban Asia, the film at its worst came off as self-parody, as if it were exposing a shallowness in his work that had previously been masked by subtitles. If Wong’s career can be divided before and after 2000’s In the Mood for Love on the basis of that film’s aesthetic ambitions and the heightened international recognition it earned him, then the first real dud of his career seemed to bring this exciting new chapter to a screeching halt. And if last year’s retooled Ashes of Time comforted us with evidence of his past, precocious mastery, the recycled material also made it appear that his well of ideas had finally run dry.
So it looks like the WKW brand-name in erotic longing might be losing its edge. But even if an artist’s reputation is subject to such lapses, sometimes it is an audience’s job to refresh its memory and return to the source. 1990’s Days of Being Wild, the sophomore effort that established wandering souls and romantic misconnection as Wong’s enduring fetish subjects, still reverberates with some of the most haunting passages in any Hong Kong movie—and of course it is this colonial city, as much as the ache of love itself, that provides the cause for swooning.
How does Wong relate to this myth of a place? Looking back at his early work, it seems not entirely unfair to claim, as the detractors did after seeing My Blueberry Nights, that Wong’s iconic status has always been dependent on an exploitation of the “exotic.” After all, that loaded term simply denotes a form of disassociation, and the emotional thrust of Days lies in its evocation of how memory mists over, how we become unglued from time and space, and how the most intense forms of nostalgia can make home as alien and alluring as an undiscovered country. The act of locating the exotic within one’s own lostness, and the recognition of how movies can both facilitate and express that: these aspects make Wong’s masterpieces as culturally specific as they are internationally appealing.
While these films may be revered as hipster currency in the West, certain of their glories go straight to the heart of Hong Kong and worldwide Cantonese viewers. An award-winning hit in Asia that only received a theatrical release in the U.S. 14 years later, Days shows Wong beginning to treat the mechanics of plot as secondary, weaving emotion from two imagined golden ages in Hong Kong’s social and popular culture. The first of these eras provides the setting—the Sixties—which Hong Kongers remember as a pivotal moment just a decade after immigrants from Communist China set off a population boom. This was a time when a new local identity was being forged and the economy was experiencing rapid growth alongside other great Asian metropolises.
Though the film represents the summit of the postcolonial-nostalgia cinema prevalent in the Eighties and Nineties (other examples include Stanley Kwan’s Rouge and Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father), it isn’t interested in inundating us with period detail or social observation, since the spaces are more spectral than physical, less lived-in than wafted-through. The past is imagined as a pool of nocturnal light, with streets and buildings often eerily empty, and the architecture telegraphing the city’s schizophrenic Chinese and colonial influences. Wong has often rejected sociopolitical interpretations of his films, either in the attempt to maintain their glamor or to keep from offending any of his pan-Asian fans. To a degree he has a point, for what he captures here are not convincing recreations or real-life political issues, but rather that sense of holding onto an idealized notion of the good old days while only vaguely remembering what exactly made them good. This is memory as an aesthetic, as pure sensation. On the other hand, the films are indeed social visions, at the very least because of the unusual way they operate emotionally. Feelings that attach themselves to individuals are not so much effectively dramatized, like in a typical melodrama, as they are given embodiment as symbols and gestures, before being absorbed into a greater collective sorrow pulsing beneath the surface.
The second golden age that Days inhabits is perhaps only apparent in retrospect. How to explain it, except to say that Leslie and Maggie Cheung seemed in my teenage years—as they did to many Cantonese moviegoers—to be two of the all-time sexiest screen presences, and that it was Wong throughout the Nineties who helped complete the groundwork for their stardom by recasting them as pop-art deities. In the often-reprinted close-up of the two lying in bed in post-coital rapture, Leslie in profile gently pecking all across Maggie’s gorgeous open face, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle became the heirs of Von Sternberg or George Hurrell, architects of a new Chinese sexuality that was as languorous, poetic, and measured as it was recklessly passionate. Gathering together an astonishing percentage of the top-tier idols of what is surely a bygone era, and having them act and pose with an intensity viewers had not been accustomed to seeing them deliver, this film stands today as one of the ultimate reminders of Hong Kong charisma at its peak, during a period whose diverse personalities equaled those of classic Hollywood.
Wong’s still-unmatched assemblage of Hong Kong actors could be read as one of the last blasts of creative talent and homegrown beauty before the colony’s handover to China in 1997. With Leslie Cheung’s teddy boy at the center of this love roundelay, the effect is today more bittersweet than ever. Days zooms in on a natural superstar and fearless gay icon whose suicide in 2003 was a blow to an industry already in crisis. The camera revels in an actor so in command of his every slick move across the screen: whispering to Maggie Cheung how he wants to construct a one-minute memory with her, pinching Carina Lau’s nose in order to steal a kiss from her tightly closed lips, swaying to Xavier Cugat as if preparing to break hearts, unleashing hell on his Miss Lonelyhearts adoptive mother and her no-good boyfriend. In light of his death, the film’s mysterious cliffhanger finale, which briefly introduces a pomaded Tony Leung Chiu Wai into its network of star-crossed lovers, now plays like a prophecy—since this great but very different actor would eventually replace Leslie’s outsize legend at the center of the WKW universe.
Now that Wong has fleshed out the possibilities of this foundational film half a dozen times—with the so-called sequels In the Mood for Love and 2046 representing one severely formal and one deliriously epic alternative to the same material—where else is there for him to go? There must be more to Wong than Richard Corliss’ estimation of him as “the most romantic filmmaker in the world.” And there is: at the heart of his films lies not only an insatiable romantic yearning, but also a tension between the suffocating insularity of his highly controlled, aestheticized environments and a broader sense of the characters’ connections with the whole wide world beyond the frame. Even before his journey to America, Wong’s oeuvre looked like a travelogue: Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild seeks out his biological mother in the Philippines. Chungking Express sends Faye Wong California dreamin’. Happy Together finds Cheung and Leung going from break-ups to make-ups as expats in Buenos Aires. And in In the Mood for Love and 2046, secret pasts and uncertain futures get tangled up in the mythologized spiritual heartland of Southeast Asia.
This is a director who has always positioned himself as a diasporal, transnational artist—and as a Shanghainese man raised in Hong Kong, perhaps that was always his fate. It’s not a stretch to envision My Blueberry Nights, however risible, as Wong’s idea of graduating from his own diaspora to big-time internationalism. No matter how tempting it is to treat his films as luxury art objects and ignore their sociopolitical underpinnings, their collective worldview is much broader than their chic surfaces suggest, and Days of Being Wild and its sequels in particular illustrate the Hong Kong identity in flux. What makes them resonate as a group is how they rhyme rootlessness and the ever-elusive “home” with the agonies of impossible love. If My Blueberry Nights reduced the Wong aesthetic to shtick, then a revisit to his first great film can shock us back into reverence. Almost 20 years later, the richness of its vision has only deepened.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at New York University (NYU). He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.