Days of Being Wild
When Honk Kong pop dreamboat Leslie Cheung plunged from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on April 1, 2003, few Americans took note of his suicide. But the Asian world mourned for Cheung, dead at 46. An Asian-American on her website: "The entire Asian diaspora knows that we lost one of our most exquisite pop singers, most seductive sex symbols, most potent gay icons, and most beloved celebrities." Called "the Elvis of Hong Kong," he was an extraordinarily prolific singerhe made 90 albums!-who stepped into a jaunty screen stardom of 60 pictures!
Cheung appeared in machismo John Woo shoot-outs such as Once a Thief and A Better Romance. But he made a brave switch to overtly gay roles in such now-classic films as Farewell, My Concubine and Happy Together. More courageous, he came out in 1997, telling the world of his 12-year relationship with his financial manager.
With the revival screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild (199l), North Americans get another glance at Cheung at his most ripe and primal: a tantalizing young man eroticized by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle in the opulent style of 1940s Hollywood glamor photos. Oh, that bronze skin tone, oh, Cheung in a retro white undershirt, oh, Cheung narcissistically combing through his 50s-era locks. Cheung here evokes James Dean, but also, I think, Dean's Rebel Without a Cause dark-haired sidekick, androgynous Sal Mineo.
Who in Days of Being Wild can compete erotically? The other male performersAndy Lau, Jacky Cheung-are numb and expressionless. Even gorgeous, high-cheeked Maggie Cheung is pale, drab, and passive, appearing almost without makeup.
It’s 1960, the period of Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic, Breathless; and there’s an obvious connection when Yuddy, Cheung’s small-time gangster, comes at Coca-cola salesgirl Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung) in the brash, won’t-take-no manner of Parisian thug Jean-Paul Belmondo courting "Canary Girl," Jean Seberg. With Wong-Kar-Wai, we are talking Hong Kong "Neo-New Wave," and, through much of his 90s career (Happy Together, Chunkging Express, etc.), he was, by choice, the moody, giddy, hyper-romantic, fatalist, fast-cutting Asian answer to France’s Godard. Cheung’s Yuddy not only scores with Su Lizhen but, soon afterward, a second once-unattached women, a shrill showgirl named Mimi (Carina Lau), begs all hours for his sexual and emotional attention. How does he do it, beyond being so damned good looking? Yuddy’s a classic womanizer, meaning he has such contempt for those he chases that he’s not bothered in the least if they reject him outright, or, once the relationship is consummated, if they’re wounded by his instant indifference. Yuddy’s problem, beyond a heavy dose of existential ennui, is discovering that the woman he’s believed to be his mother, a powdered courtesan (Tita Munoz), was paid off to adopt him. He’s been lied to, betrayed by the only woman he’s ever trusted! Females must suffer!
There’s a great droll ending about 75 minutes into Days of Being Wild, when Yuddy seeks out his real mother in the Phillipines, and impatiently struts away from her house. Unfortunately, the movie goes on another quarter hour, with weird plot turns in the rural Phillipines, including a seedy action sequence. Well, Wong Kar-Wai has always had some wobbly moments in his movies. This one is more than saved by Cheung’s presence, and by the riveting scenes in bed. It’s incredibly difficult to put two actors in a boudoir and have their gestures and conversation seem really right. Think Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Godard’s Breathless and Contempt. The scenes of Yuddy mixing it up with Su Lizhen and Mimi achieve that level of screen intimacy.
(Boston Phoenix, March, 2005)