Right Movie, Wong Time

A romantic drama made in 1991 shows a Chinese director at his finest

You've got to have balls to use a pickup line like "You'll see me tonight in your dreams" and get away with it. But in Days of Being Wild, York, affectionately known as Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), has the looks and the confidence to pull it off when he buys a Coke from Su Lai Chun (Maggie Cheung, no relation) at a sports arena. She doesn't give in right away, but Yuddy has plenty of persistence and a lot of free time on his hands. So even when Su tells him the next day that she didn't see him in her dreams, Yuddy simply notes that she obviously hasn't slept. "Don't fight it," he tells her.

The day after that, he kicks it up a notch, telling her to look at the time -- one minute before 3 p.m. on April 16, 1960. That minute, he tells her, will always be theirs. "From now on, we're one-minute friends." In voice-over, Su informs us, "He came back every day after that." The minute expands to an hour, then a day, and sure enough, eventually to nights in bed.

That the movie is set in the '60s is of little significance; ditto the fact that the film itself is now 14 years old. Unlike many American period pieces that obsess over the details, Wong Kar-Wai's picture could be set any time, and feels just as fresh now as it must have in 1991 (the rights just became available) -- although Hong Kong fans will know that Leslie Cheung took his own life not so long ago, which gives the whole thing an additional layer of poignancy (not that it needed one).

Yuddy is a playboy, as any man with his seduction skills would be. Su is certainly not the only woman he's intimate with when we encounter him -- there's also Lulu (Carina Lau), who prefers to be called Mimi (don't ask why). She's a high-maintenance, shrill brat whom Yuddy picks up after he finds her trying to steal his mother's earrings. Still, she's a lot easier than Su; he drives Mimi to his home without asking permission, and she rebuffs his advances only slightly. As in some of the older James Bond movies, the seduction here can seem like borderline date rape, but Mimi ultimately proves to be a willing participant. And Yuddy's not that threatening a guy; she could beat him up if necessary.

Anyhow, the two ladies aren't exactly happy to find out about each other, though Yuddy's lackadaisical attitude should have been a tip-off. As he more or less discards them, other potential players come into view: local cop Tide (Andy Lau) and Yuddy's alleged best friend, Zeb (Jacky Cheung, again no relation). Also keep your eyes open for an appearance by Tony Leung (which, technically, makes this the first of his many collaborations with Maggie Cheung and writer/director Wong).

Yuddy's got bigger fish to fry than sexual conquests, anyhow. He's as shallow as he is in part because of mother issues -- his adopted mom (Rebecca Pan) is a drunken, aging high-class escort who hoarded the government checks she received as a result of adopting, and is now so wealthy that she pays her son's every expense. He takes out his frustrations on her suitors, at one point nearly beating one of them to death. She won't tell him who his birth mother is, and that's the quest that propels things into the third act, in which the entire genre seems to change and the plot takes a sharply unexpected turn, which in some ways underscores the unpredictable turns life can take. It's doubtful you'll guess the climax based on anything in the first half of the film.

Wong has a reputation for slow-moving mood pieces in which very little happens, but that's not the case here. The dialogue is natural and keeps things progressing, and the last third of the movie ... well, no need to spoil, but it's far from dull. When you see how effortlessly Wong deals with the battles of the sexes -- indeed, how well he was doing so 14 years ago -- it only makes overpraised American equivalents like Closer feel all the more stagy and false. And for those who've heard great things about Wong Kar-Wai but fear his romantic dramas might be too tough to handle, consider Days of Being Wild your gateway drug.

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