Leslie Cheung leads an all-star cast in Wong Kar-wai’s sophomore film…
For many, this is the first ‘proper’ Wong Kai-wai movie, following his debut As Tears Go By, though he’d long established himself as a screenwriter in Hong Kong. Dropping any thought of concessions to commerciality this film has all the trademark style and themes that made Wong one of Hong Kong’s most critically celebrated filmmakers.
Leslie Cheung (Farewell My Concubine, The Bride with White Hair, Rouge) stars as the deeply dysfunctional Yuddy. Unable to make any real commitment to his girlfriends since his mother abandoned him to the keep of his ‘Auntie’, an ex-prostitute who keeps him loyal with promises of revealing the truth about his real mother.
Yuddy spends an eternity seducing shy bargirl Su Lizhen (Maggie Cheung, In the Mood For Love, Actress, The Heroic Trio), but swiftly moves on to club dancer Mimi (Corina Lau, Saviour of the Soul, He’s a Woman, She’s A Man, Infernal Affairs 2) when faced with the prospect of Su moving in.
Policeman Tide (Andy Lau, The Duel, A Moment of Romance, Infernal Affairs) befriends Su outside Yuddy’s flat, but the obvious affection he has for her never gets the chance to spark into romance.
Mimi is better able to Yuddy’s games, but when the chance to find out the truth about his real mother finally arises she too is left behind as he heads off to the Philippines. She looks to Yuddy’s best friend, Zeb (Jacky Cheung, High Risk, A Chinese Ghost Story II, Ashes Of Time), for help, but once again one of Yuddy’s ex’s has become the object of unwanted affection.
Meanwhile in the Philippines Yuddy, who has run into Tide – now a sailor – is about to let his self-destructive streak get the better of him.
Wong Kar-wai’s familiar themes of unrequited love and unspoken feelings pervade this film, as the influence of French directors surface unabated. Like his following films, the narrative feels broken. It never seems to flow from scene to scene, yet has an overall pull that only really makes sense at the end – which is why his film bear repeated viewings so well. It’s easy to see why Wong’s following outside of Hong Kong, particularly in Europe, is far stronger than within – in fact most of his films since has been financed there.
Though even ardent fans of Wong may be thrown by the final scene, where Tony Leung appears at the end, grooming himself in much the same way as Yuddy before going out. In fact, this was meant to set up a sequel, but due to the films poor box office performance that never happened.
In many respects, Wong later effort Ashes of Time was simply a refined version of the same story, with nearly the same cast. The only difference being – admittedly quite large – it was set against a wuxia background, with fantastic swordplay sequences.
For Leslie Cheung, it showed how far he wanted to move away from roles than where he simply played heroic or romantic leads. Yuddy is almost impossibly unlikeable, a charismatic but self-involved lead whose own fears of abandonment colour the way he treats all the women around him. That he is undeniably convincing was a testament to his abilities. It led to the part in Farewell My Concubine, then a very brave role for a canto-pop icon with a strong teen following, but one which never lost him an audience.
In fact, the entire cast is on top form, with each and every cast member putting in a superb performance. And Maggie Cheung looks even more gorgeous than usual, despite playing a shy and self consciously dowdy role.
In several ways, a precursor to In the Mood for Love, here too Wong, together with art director William Chang and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, sumptuously recreates the sixties – despite the meagre budget. The men wear shirts to die for, the women look impossibly glamorous, their surroundings dingy yet strangely beautiful. For Wong, it’s a revisionist look at sixties Hong Kong, the studio clean glamour of films from that time meets the practical, gritty reality of a tropical, hot climate. Tony Leung’s brief appearance portends his character in In The Mood For Love, while that films sequel, 2046, ties the two together through with Carina Lau again appearing as Mimi, directly referencing Cheung’s character in Days Of Being Wild as the boyfriend she never got over. Though not a commercial success, it inspired other filmmakers to base films in the 1960s like Chan Kwok-hei and John Woo on It’s Now or Never and A Bullet in the Head respectively.
For Doyle it would be the first of several collaborations in an almost unbroken partnership. Doyle’s permeating green, florescent light and gritty, mature style has come to typify Hong Kong movies far beyond Wong’s own films. More recently Doyle has worked with Zhang Yimou on Hero and Andrew Lau (who himself was Wong’s original cinematographer on As Tears Go By) on Infernal Affairs, as Australian director Philip Noyce on Rabbit Proof Fence and The Quiet American. In hindsight, it’s startling to observe how widely used this ‘real’ light has become in movies and photography since.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the film is its soundtrack, for once it’s real, not dubbed on later. So rare is it, even now, for Hong Kong movies to record the soundtrack at the time. For filmmakers, it’s a money-saving exercise – no need to lug around the expensive sound equipment, and you get to overdub a Mandarin soundtrack later (and therefore gain most of China and Taiwan as an audience for your movie). It’s refreshing and even a little disturbing to hear the actors true voices, undistorted by posthumous recording sessions in stifled, claustrophobic sound studios.
A beautiful and haunting tale of unrequited love and unspoken feeling, this is a must for Wong Kar-wai fans…
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Review originally published before December 2004 (i.e. before we made a note of the date!)
Home media details
Distributor: Megastar (Hong Kong)
Typically for a Hong DVD of a film from the 80s or early 90s, the transfer is okay but rather murky – both in sound and vision – which does nothing for the film.