Electric Shadows
Aliza Ma on Days of Being Wild

“Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.” —Guy de Maupassant

“1960 was a good year: the turn of the decade, the overture of the whole sixties…One felt so good it was almost like a dream. Of course it could easily be just a dream…” —Wong Kar-wai

Wong Kar-wai described his sophomore feature Days of Being Wild as “a reinvention of the disappeared world.” This glistening, dreamlike rhapsody of memory takes flight across distance—from the island of Hong Kong to the Philippines—and time. Made at the turn of the 1990s, the film both anticipates Hong Kong’s handover from British rule to mainland China in 1997, and evokes the past, specifically the 1960s; Days thus bears feelings of both longing nostalgia and reckless exuberance, personal displacement and political tumult. With a formal rigor and aesthetic inventiveness that has since defined the electrifying arrival of the Hong Kong Second Wave cinema, Days marks the beginning of Wong’s unique dialogue with history, and lays bare his most essential and personal motivations for filmmaking.

Yuddy, the film’s young antihero (the late Leslie Cheung, in a staggering breakthrough performance), a ladykiller and serial abandoner, is the kind of handsome introspective loner who would come to inhabit Wong’s subsequent work. The Chinese title of the film, Ah Fei Zheng Zhuan, refers simultaneously to a story of flight and the literary archetype of disaffected youth embodied by Yuddy (Ah Fei, the Cantonese colloquial name for these youth, literally translates as “to fly”). He repeatedly tells the doomed tale of a mythical bird in perpetual flight: it would “sleep in the wind when it is tired…[and] only land once in its life . . . when it dies.” More than a romantic allegory for the character’s own trajectory, Yuddy’s story evokes an expression of the impossibility of reinventing that which has already disappeared—a pursuit which only memory and cinema can realize.

With the unforgettable opening credit sequence of Days, Wong brilliantly encapsulates a history of Hong Kong into a single, precise long shot. Drifting above the skyline, an unmoored camera tracks laterally, the image unfurling as though a scroll painting, slowly revealing tropical island planes glazed in glimmering, ambrosial blue and green hues. Over the soundtrack percolates Spanish-American bandleader Xavier Cugat’s mambo tune “Jungle Drums,” a song that could have been heard anywhere in the 1960s Hong Kong or Shanghai of Wong’s memory, when the port cities’ vibrant cultures—at once cosmopolitan and local—were distinguished by the domestication of imported arts such as music and cinema. Whereas the now-disappeared ports of the past looked outwards to the future, Wong’s cinema looks inward to memories and dreams of those bygone locales.

The dual themes of flight or reckless abandonment, as personified by Yuddy (a veritable Ah Fei) and what scholar Li Cheuk-to refers to as the characters’ classical “submerged passions and hidden desires,” constitute the two contrasting poles within Wong’s cinema. Each is symbolized by a woman in Yuddy’s life: audaciously brazen Mimi (Carina Lau) and elegantly withheld Li Su-zhen (Maggie Cheung). Their fleeting, libidinous rendezvous with Yuddy are countered by his two constant, if troubled, mother figures: his surrogate mother, a Shanghainese migrant to Hong Kong (Rebecca Pan) with whom he has a tumultuous relationship, and his birth mother, who long ago took flight to another island from Hong Kong to the Philippines—she is a figure of the bygone world that Yuddy tries to locate over the course of the film.

Nostalgia and longing are words often used to describe Wong’s aesthetic. Yuddy’s search for his mother, which forms his path from Hong Kong to the Philippines, is analogous to the auteur’s own trajectory, and suggests that this poetic nostalgia for a “disappeared world” comes directly from a sense of personal dislocation. He once described himself as being “made in Shanghai and assembled in Hong Kong,” referring to his early migration from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1963 at the age of five—a shift that scholar Stephen Teo regards as a sort of parallelism between the auteur’s life-course and Hong Kong’s national history. At this time, the neighborhood in Tsim Sha Tsui, where Wong and his mother took up residence in Hong Kong, was a microcosm of their native Shanghai, inhabited by a large community of Shanghainese who spoke their own language, maintained their own culture, and as Wong recalled with Gilles Ciment at the Cannes premiere of Days, “always expected to go back one day but never did.”

In this uniquely layered milieu, Wong fervently attended screenings of imported films in the local cinemas and exchanged long letters with his brother and sister back in Shanghai; through these correspondences he first discovered the writings of Balzac and Guy de Maupassant, compulsory reading in his siblings’ mainland Leftist education, which he took up while in Hong Kong. Such intricate formation of his early affection for literature and cinema—the experiences of which have now become inextricable from memory and geography—evince clues to the particular candor and precision with which he approaches mise-en-scène. Upon the completion of Days, Wong claimed, “What the cinema has offered me, I dearly wish to pass on to others.”

The romanticism and melodrama essential to Days of Being Wild and deeply intrinsic to Wong’s filmmaking shares roots with the disappeared world of prerevolutionary Shanghainese cinema. Possessing the spirit of inventiveness and imagination of his cinematic forebears—a kind of aesthetic idealism that sprung from adapting classical subjects and overturning their forms for the first time beyond shadow-puppets and scroll-painting—Wong offered a formal approach to writing and editing that recalls those pioneering modes of experimental visual poetry that first gave the film form its local name of “Dianying” or literally translated, “electric shadows.” Not unlike Wong’s portrayal of Yuddy, the characters in such early films revealed hidden moral dimensions, in times of political tumult (that of the Japanese invasions), and, also facing inevitable migration to Hong Kong, they were victims of both a modern and traditional world order that had to be transformed. Su-zhen’s lament to the cop (Andy Lau), who will soon go sailing for unknown waters, holds as true for Wong’s world as it did for theirs: “I want to go home, but my home is in Macao.”

Wong’s more direct cinematic references to classical Shanghai cinema can be found in his portrayal of women, who recall the delicate icons of earlier eras. Rebecca Pan, who first introduced Wong to the music of Xavier Cugat, was a beautiful singer-turned-screen-icon, and first moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the 1960s. Her role in Days as Yuddy’s surrogate mother is an alternate-universe version of her. Resurrected as Mrs. Wong, another Shanghainese transplant living in 1960s Hong Kong, in Wong’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love, Pan’s character always replies in her native Shanghainese or Mandarin when spoken to in Cantonese. Additionally, Maggie Cheung’s performance embodies the very particular Qi Zhi (a spirit or essence) of the bygone golden era of Shanghai cinema for the auteur. A polyglot fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, English, and French, she offers an (other)worldliness that echoes the cultural complexities of old Shanghai as it lives in Wong’s memory. He was not alone in using Cheung’s image to evoke such a cinematic portrait of the past; just one year after filming Days, she went onto star in Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage, in which she devastatingly resurrects the Shanghainese silent screen goddess Ruan Ling-yu.

“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly. But, actually, it can take forever.” The words of Li Su-zhen might resonate anytime one recalls the imagery of Days. With these electric shadows, Wong makes an eternity of a fleeting moment and a dream-image more beautiful than the dream itself. Finally when Tony Leung Chiu-wai appears on a train, a beguiling but mesmeric apparition, one feels that with this film Wong not only gives life back to the bygone ports of his personal past but also thrillingly connects those places to time and destinations yet unknown.