“Wild” is a relative term for Wong Kar-wai, the master of cinematic languor. You can feel the tension in his second film between genre excitement (there are jarring bursts of violence) and the languid sort of yearning that would become his trademark. These Days of Being Wild are both electric and exhausted.
Set in 1960, the movie opens with the aggressive wooing of a demure shopkeeper named Lai-chen (Maggie Cheung) by a brutish playboy named Yuddy (Leslie Cheung). Their somewhat forced affair comes to an abrupt end, whereupon Yuddy moves on to the feistier Lulu (Carina Lau). (Asked what she does for a living by Yuddy’s friend, Lulu tells him to “Turn up the radio” and proceeds to seductively dance.) All of this opens up a potential romance between Lai-chen and the guard at Yuddy’s apartment building (Andy Lau), but they only share one chaste night of mutual consolation. And so partners flit from one to another, mixing and matching but never quite managing to fit. The movie follows them, though not as fitfully as you might think; instead, it seems to float along on the trailing smoke of their cigarettes.
This is mostly due to the sort of movement that Wong emphasizes on the screen. His characters are often still, in repose, while the motion within the frame comes from lightly blowing curtains, streams of rain or gently spinning fans. This is why, when sudden action occurs — say, when Yuddy assaults his mother’s boyfriend or gets into a shootout near the end of the film — it feels so out of place.
Or maybe I should say out of time. Watching Wong’s films, it sometimes feels as if your heart rate is slowing down. Time is a recurring motif in Days of Being Wild, with frequent shots of wall clocks and references to what has happened in the past. For the movie’s characters, time is at once a trap — moving too slowly for their heedless desires — and a curse, as each passing second represents another lost moment of youth.
The movie’s final, mysterious sequence takes an unexplained leap into another time and place, as we watch an entirely different young man (Tony Leung) in a cramped apartment buffing his nails and combing his hair, apparently preparing for a night of being wild. Yuddy and Lai-chen and Lulu – and this elegant stranger – will all come and go, the movie seems to suggest, but the restlessness of youth will never change.