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It’s not so inappropriate that many Americans will see Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild after In the Mood for Love, the writer-director’s most commercially successful release in this country. Time circles, slips, and slides in Wong’s narratively ambiguous but thematically evocative films, so there’s no imperative to experience the first movie, which barely opened in the United States in 1991, before the second, which arrived almost a decade later. Set in 1962, Mood is a sort-of sequel to Days, which transpires in 1960. In essence, though, both films are merely chapters in the ongoing epic of memory, melancholy, and rootlessness that Wong has been making for the past 15 years. Of all his English-language titles, none is more apt than Ashes of Time.

Now enjoying a U.S. reissue that for most cities is actually its theatrical debut, Days opens in a Hong Kong soccer stadium’s near-empty concrete-bunker concession stand, where cocky Yuddy (Leslie Cheung) buys a Coke from quiet Lai-chun (Maggie Cheung). Lurking behind the hair that frequently obscures her face, she shrugs off his idly seductive patter, which at first he seems to deliver mostly from force of habit. Although Yuddy’s identity is as yet unclear, his swagger is familiar from many American mobster flicks, reminding us that Days was Wong’s second movie, following an HK remake of Mean Streets, As Tears Go By.

As Lai-chun rebuffs Yuddy, the camera says something different: The two are separated by a counter but could hardly be more intimate. Christopher Doyle, shooting his first of many Wong films, uses tight close-ups and narrow depth of field to make the characters appear as close as they’ll ever be. Tellingly, Yuddy gets Lai-chun’s attention with a time ploy: He asks her to look at his watch for 60 seconds, then announces that “we’re 1-minute friends.” Cut to them in bed, their most profound moment of connection already over. Indeed, most of Wong’s subsequent films could be seen as attempts to recapture that single minute of silent communion with the exquisite—and exquisitely distant—Maggie Cheung. She appears in a total of five Wong movies, including the upcoming 2046, and in three of them her character is named Lai-chun.

Yuddy tires of Lai-chun after she suggests they live together and perhaps marry. We don’t watch them split, but we do see Yuddy meet Mimi, aka Lulu (Carina Lau), a nightclub dancer who’s as brash as Lai-chun is shy. As this mercurial relationship progresses, Lai-chun turns to Tide (Andy Lau), a pragmatic cop whose nighttime shift complements hers. She tells him about her broken heart, and that she’s from Macau and feels lost in Hong Kong. He tells her that he wanted to be a sailor but decided he couldn’t travel because of his mother’s ill health. As in so many of Wong’s films, the goal wasn’t to go someplace in particular, just someplace else.

Of all the women in his life, Yuddy is closest to his adoptive mother, sometime hooker Rebecca (Rebecca Pan); there’s even a hint of erotic tension between them, which boils over when Yuddy attacks her lover. What Yuddy most wants from Rebecca, however, is the identity of his biological mother, who lives in the Philippines. Eventually, Yuddy gets the information and heads to Manila, bequeathing Mimi and his car to his less-cool pal Zeb (Jacky Cheung). It’s Mimi who follows Yuddy, despite fleeting suggestions that he feels more for Lai-chun. (In one scene, Yuddy erupts when Mimi won’t surrender the slippers Lai-chun left behind.)

In the Philippines, Days belatedly turns into a gangster flick, as Yuddy seeks to steal something he doesn’t have the money to buy. Tide, now the sailor he always wanted to be, arrives in Manila and ends up at the same Chinatown hotel that is (or will be) home to the other characters who make the trip. Amid flashbacks and flash-forwards, someone new mysteriously claims the final scene: Wong regular Tony Leung, who swaggers (and combs his hair) just like Yuddy. He’s one of the twinned characters who appear so often in Wong’s work, but his presence is also a teaser for a Days sequel the director never made—at least not in the form he originally intended.

Wong is now notorious for shooting reel after reel without a script, ultimately discovering the narrative in the editing room. Yet all his films show impeccable control of rhythm, mood, and image. Days takes place in an underpopulated, ghost-world Hong Kong, characterized by rainy nights, blue-tinted interiors, and gleaming wet streets and trolley tracks. Visual counterpoint abounds, though, from the vivid red of the snack bar’s Coca-Cola cooler to the glimpse of the sunstruck Philippines jungle that announces the opening titles. While the film’s pacing seems languid, most of the scenes are quite short, and the daydream vibe is punctuated by sudden outbursts, whether emotional or physical. Beautiful and bewildering on first viewing, the movie looks remarkably precise and efficient the second time around.

Wong has described Days as a vision of his youth in Hong Kong, which it cannot literally be. The director was born in Shanghai in 1958, and he didn’t arrive in the then-colony until 1963, after the movie’s imagined events. Yet this seemingly minimal film is stuffed with evocative details, both personal and mass-cultural. Its Chinese title, which translates as The Story of Rebellious Youth, was also the HK release name for Rebel Without a Cause, and Yuddy is as much James Dean as Zeb is Sal Mineo. The film’s musical motif, a suitably dreamlike piece, is a faux-Hawaiian stroll by Xavier Cugat that recalls the early-’60s vogue for tiki-bar exotica. For Hong Kong audiences, the movie also had a measure of ready-made glamour: Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, and Jacky Cheung were all pop stars. (Leslie Cheung, who eventually came out as gay, apparently couldn’t live with his image—or without it: He committed suicide in 2003.)

Days occasionally seems a little clunky, notably in its overamplified tick-tocking and repeated shots of clocks and watches, which evoke both lost love and Wong’s nostalgia for a time and place he can’t remember—as well as the ominous countdown to China’s reclaiming of Hong Kong. (This dread was a motif of ’90s HK cinema, and Wong hasn’t forsaken it: 2046 refers to the date that his home’s promised 50 years of semi-independence end.) Still, the film has the advantage of being leaner than the director’s later work, whose repeated visual and musical motifs verge on the baroque. Even more than Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, both of which have cops-and-robbers elements, Days of Being Wild synthesizes the temperaments of the action movie and the poetic reverie. This may not be the best Wong film, but it remains the definitive one.CP