1988’s As Tears Go By is perhaps most notable for being the first feature directed by Wong Kar-wai, the celebrated Hong Kong filmmaker responsible for Chungking Express, Happy Together and In The Mood For Love, among others. An action / drama film revolving around the travails of a mid-level Triad enforcer, it’s a fairly unremarkable and straightforward genre piece, but it does offer some glimpses of Wong’s later style and taste for expressionistic color, and includes imagery and an interest in young, doomed protagonists that will be familiar to the director’s fans.
Predating the general trend of west-stealing-from-east, Wong’s story unashamedly copies Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, though he ditches the American director’s emphasis on Catholicism. The star here is Andy Lau, playing tough gangster-on-the-rise Wah, while Jacky Cheung plays his Johnny Boy-esque blood brother Fly, an arrogant liability with gambling debts whose motor mouth repeatedly lands the pair in trouble. Wah feeds off the mayhem that Fly creates and the trouble he attracts to an extent, but Fly’s behaviour is also holding Wah back and stopping him from progressing through the criminal ranks. Sick of bailing out his ‘little brother’, Wah begins to change his ways when his existing relationship ends in an ugly fashion and his ill cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) comes to stay, but any hope of domestic bliss is eroded when a feud with rival Tony (Alex Man) spirals out of control.
The highlights of the film are, undoubtedly, its numerous fight scenes, all choreographed by Stephen Tung Wai and cut fast to enhance the sense of chaos. These scraps, mainly taking place in back alleys and mah-jong parlours, make it easy to let go of any pressing questions (such as ‘why does Wah even bother with this douchebag who keeps getting him into trouble?’) and it’s a pleasure to sit through the insistent, energetic action. There’s a thrilling early chase through a long snooker hall that spills out onto crowded streets, while another fight is filmed in slow-motion through a blue filter, and has dated quite well despite such techniques being copied many, many times since. Most of these fights rapidly descend into a blur of kicks and punches, as Wah and Fly are usually outnumbered about 8-to-1, but the characters often prevail thanks to quick thinking and the ability to smuggle guns into various gangster-heavy locales without detection. (Seriously, why doesn’t anyone pad down Wah – a known criminal, no less – when he shows up at their door? And why don’t any of their rivals carry or use weapons of their own?)
Unfortunately this does become a little repetitive, and as a result my interest in the story began to wane long before the confusing final act kicked in. Additionally the romance between Ngor and Wah always feels like a secondary concern, and Cheung in particular is short-changed by the script, which fails to develop her character in any meaningful way. This is a particular shame given the fact that the romantic storylines in later Wong Kar-wai films, some of which have featured the actress, have been widely celebrated. Admittedly Cheung and Lau – both on their way to becoming huge stars in Hong Kong cinema when this was made – clearly try their best to ignite some passion, but it’s a somewhat by-the-numbers affair, its underlying cheesiness perhaps best summed up by the fact that in one scene the characters are reunited while a distracting, kitschy Chinese version of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away dominates the soundtrack. I’ve heard better but, more importantly, I haven’t heard any worse.
Early signs of the director’s promise are perhaps more obvious when consideration is given to the film’s visual elements, and he plays with the idea of a ‘separate’ criminal underworld throughout, relying heavily on the colour red to indicate the hellish city at night navigated by Wah (hello Nicolas Winding Refn). It’s markedly different to the straightforward way that Hong Kong is filmed during the day, as teeming, sunlit main streets are traded in for smoke-filled, quieter outdoor spaces. There are other signs that suggest a director keen to experiment with atmosphere and mood, too: the sudden cut-away shots of trees blowing in the wind are surprisingly serene, but I like the way Wong uses these to play with the tempo, and the tranquillity allows for a melancholic strand to course through the movie while also reflecting Wah’s conflicted state of mind (his job is built around violence, but he seeks a peaceful home life). The cinematography (by Andrew Lau, who would later make the Infernal Affairs films with his actor namesake) is also impressive, particularly with regard to the way light is manipulated, and is a key factor in the film’s tonal shifts. The mood changes throughout, though occasionally it’s clumsy, and jarring; but that’s forgivable when considering that this is the work of a first-time filmmaker on a small budget.
Even at this early stage it’s clear Wong was full of ideas, and this film contains enough memorable images to make it worth seeing: rising clouds are reflected in TV screens, for example, and I also liked a scene in which Ngor waits at the foot of a flight of stairs for Wah, who stumbles along behind a wave of commuters, having been beaten to a pulp. It’s unfortunate, then, that despite such plus points the film is somewhat hampered by the tame story, and although it’s superior to a lot of standard Hong Kong fayre of the period it lacks the weight and snap-crackle-pop of Scorsese’s film. Until last year’s The Grandmaster, though, it was the director’s highest-grossing film in Hong Kong.
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai.
Written by: Jeffrey Lau, Wong Kar-wai.
Starring: Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Alex Man.
Cinematography: Andrew Lau.
Editing: Bei-Dak Cheong, William Chang.
Music: Danny Chung, Teddy Robin, Various.
Running Time: 93 minutes.