Often referred to as ‘Hong Kong’s Mean Streets‘, Wong Kar-wai’s 1988 crime drama marked his entry into the world of cinema as a promising filmmaker. While As Tears Go By does not reach the poetic heights of his later works, Wong’s gritty examination of Hong Kong’s underworld is an indispensable part of his oeuvre because it contains countless pre-cursors that would define his artistic vision.
As Tears Go By will feel familiar to anyone who has enjoyed losing themselves in Wong’s films. The bursts of music, the neon cityscape, the melancholic treatment of love were the building blocks of his subsequent masterpieces like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love but they are scattered in his debut, unable to come together to form that formidable gestalt. All these elements give us a glimpse of the formation of his directorial style, irresistibly charming and visually overwhelming.
Starring Andy Lau as Wah – a disillusioned gangster rising through the ranks – Wong paints a picture of a world that is ordered by its own violent logic. There is a subversive interpretation of the Homeric sense of heroism that is weaved into the fabric of this underworld in which criminals seek subjectivity by choosing the glory of war over their own safety. On the contrary, Wah is unimpressed by the antics of petty underlings and retreats to the comfort of sleep. His attitude towards the superficial appeal of crime engenders an existential dilemma where the gangster-protagonist of the film refuses to accept the rules of the framework in which he exists.
Wah’s cycle of sleep and slaughter is disrupted when his ailing cousin Ngor (played by Maggie Cheung) comes to live with him. Since she does not belong to his world, a world that sickens him, Wah falls in love with the idea of her. However, his escapist fantasies are constantly interrupted by Fly – his hot-headed sidekick who keeps attracting trouble by provoking a rival crime lord. Instead of listening to Wah’s advice and settling for an honest job selling fishballs, Fly seeks out a corrupted version of Homeric glory in order to experience the fickle attention of fame.
Unlike Wong’s future explorations of love and modernity, As Tears Go By does not share the same artistic distance. It does not deviate enough from the melodramatic conventions of popular triad films, focusing on the exaggerated narrative events that are meant to be emotionally manipulative. This sense of cheap immediacy fails to sufficiently elevate As Tears Go By, its intentions being laid bare by the charged speeches that are specifically engineered to tug at the heartstrings.
Without any shred of doubt, the most fascinating element of As Tears Go By is the visual narrative of the film. The editing is clearly influenced by the experiments of the French New Wave, indulging in rhythmic staggering which represents visual discontinuity. This use of fragmented frames to depict moments of emotional destabilisation would go on to be a recurring motif in Wong’s other films, jarring and hauntingly beautiful in nature. While Andrew Lau’s cinematography in As Tears Go By does not possess the same synergy as Christopher Doyle’s collaborations with Wong Kar-wai, it still manages to capture the frenetic energy of Hong Kong’s vile underbelly by employing frenzied tracking shots and deliberately self-conscious camera angles.
After receiving critical acclaim and commercial success for his debut feature, the filmmaker decided to find his own voice by moving away from the crime genre. It was definitely the right choice for his career since he ended up making Days of Being Wild – one of the first Hong Kong films to feature a postmodern narrative structure and avant-garde techniques. Despite all its flaws, As Tears Go By is still a must-watch for the ardent admirers of Wong Kar-wai’s cinematic sensibilities. It is a hyper-stylised delineation of the absurdity of youth and it is pretty damn cool.
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