Breaking and Entering
Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung were running neck and neck in the race to be Wong Kar-wai's main man when they intertwined feverishly in Wong's Happy Together (1997). They had played adversaries in Ashes of Time: Cheung the cad, Leung the lovelorn swain. Leung invented a whimsical sort of breaking-and-entering as good-natured Cop #633 in Chungking Express. And Cheung perfectly embodied "trauma as nostalgia," in critic Howard Hampton's words, as the suave swinger in Days of Being Wild. The contest ended when the director chose to follow Leung's lost boy out of the splintered debris of the lovers' relationship in Happy Together: The film ends with his spinning ride through the lights of Hong Kong--a trip to the winner's circle, flashbulbs popping.
I wonder sometimes what might have happened if Wong had decided differently. (I want to think that the fallout had nothing to do with Cheung's suicide in 2003.) Made in 1990, Days of Being Wild is now framed as a movement, along with In the Mood for Love, within the symphony that is Wong's forthcoming 2046. It's actually the grittiest and meanest of the three. Cheung's bad boy Yuddy is all sulky beauty: full features that beg to be fallen into; unrepentant self-absorption that fascinates both sexes; soft and hard, hot and cool. His adoptive mother (Rebecca Pan), a former prostitute, has taught him that nastiness leaves a deeper impression; his first mother, when he finally learns her name and tracks her down, teaches him nihilism. On an endless, rocking train ride, he finds nothingness at last.
Of course, Wong's movie is bleak proof of how much influence and meaning one individual can have, as Yuddy leaves behind him at least six souls warped by his terrible grace--along with a story trail that Wong could not let go of (and may not have still). Even more than Mood, Yuddy's tale establishes the parameters of 2046 (which is scheduled to open here in August). Within it are questions about Hong Kong's identity (who is "mother"--East and/or West, imperialism and/or colonialism, abandoner and/or prostitute?) and its future direction (painful nostalgia or memory wipe?). There is the unpacking, as critic Chuck Stephens has noted, of that HK pulp icon, the cruel male slut--a role taken over in 2046 by Leung (as hinted at in Days' tiny coda). Foolishly romantic lovers, Maggie Cheung among them, wail their betrayal. More prosaically, characters, events, and images (including that of a bird with no feet) reemerge in 2046 and transform themselves again within the new movie's juxtapositions.
Much as I thrill to Leung in Mood--his playful serenity so dismantled by the waiting game--I can't help thinking how Leslie Cheung might have rocked 2046. Leung is channeling Cheung in it, but he can't swing his hips or the character out as far as he needs to to make the moment of turning--of change, of integration--nearly impossible and therefore wondrous. As in Mood, the characters in 2046 confess their secrets to a hole; I think the hole is Yuddy's heart, and the secret is: "Leslie, you're missed."
Korean director Kim Ki-duk steals a trick from Chungking Express with 3-Iron: Ambivalently beautiful Tae-suk (Hee Jae) breaks into temporarily vacant homes and stays for the night; he "borrows" the inhabitants' food and clothing in exchange for doing their laundry--and fixing (or fucking up) small appliances. When he enters one house, he's observed by another ghost: the battered wife (Seung-yeon Lee) of the absent landowner. The two fall into a dream of invisibility where they imagine only benign consequences to their actions. The viewer, via an omniscient, amused camera, knows otherwise.
The couple's fantasy erupts in violence for which they're in some way responsible. In a long and occasionally too clever climax, one of the lovers labors to be more visible, and the other less so--until, in a mischievous final shot, they cancel each other out, and/or form a dynamic union. This new-school indie ending strikes me as tidy and superficial, not to mention too pleased with itself for its stylish risk-taking. But there's a bruising silliness in the getting there.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.