It’s always interesting to see the first effort from a director you’ve come to know and love. Sometimes filmmakers seem to start off strong and then trail off or give into their own excesses as time goes on, while others are still finding their way with their first feature, and then only later will their true greatness shine through. It never fails to amaze me how someone’s first film ties into the rest of their body of work. In the case of Wong Kar-Wai, it’s easy to see how 1988’s As Tears Go By will lead to some of his more beloved films.
Wah (Andy Lau) is a minor gangster in Hong Kong who is constantly looking out for his younger brother, Fly (Jackie Cheung). Fly always seems to be running out of money and owing it to other, more vicious, gang members. Wah’s cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), also comes to visit him because she needs to see a doctor for a problem with her lungs. Ngor sees Wah’s line of work up close and personal when injured gangsters turn up at the apartment and is somewhat put off, returning to the restaurant she works at. Fly continues to get into trouble with the mob, and Wah is eventually forced to get him a civilian job at a food cart. The other gang members taunt him, so he gives up the job and goes to work for the mob again, getting into even more trouble. Wah, who’s been visiting Ngor, returns to Hong Kong and help his brother again. Wah keeps travelling between Ngor and Fly until he is forced to choose between them.
This movie reminds me of a lot of other movies, and seems more concerned with genre than perhaps Wong’s other films are. A lot of the mob scenes are pretty standard, though no less enjoyable because of that. It reminds me of Scorsese’s Mean Streets a lot in terms of the plot and it coming early in the director’s career. Harvey Keitel’s constant worry over De Niro’s character in that film feels a lot like Wah looking after Fly here (though Fly is more inept than a loose cannon). The nature of Ngor and Wah’s relationship seems a lot less piney and Wong-like than other of his, though their separation for much of the film feels like more of his later stuff. The importance of the glasses and the letter Ngor writes, read in voice over, and then the high angle shot of Ngor staring off into space… well, let’s just say that though Wong’s style is still developing, you can see a lot of it coming out already in his first feature.
The film definitely shows its lower budget, but that isn’t really a bad thing. While the colors are rendered a bit more flatly here in general, you can still see the bold lighting choices in terms of color. Wong starts playing with shutter speeds a bit here in a couple fight scenes, though my favorite fight scene was definitely the one in the streets after Wah looses a bet. It’s film in such a straight-forward and realistic way, that it felt a lot more raw and immediate than anything I’ve seen from Wong previous to this. Doesn’t necessarily make it better, but it felt a lot more real and I couldn’t help but connecting it to the film’s presumably lower budget.
All throughout the film, I couldn’t help feeling something that I feel somewhat frequently with Wong’s films. The overall pacing of the story feels a bit off. While individual scenes are expertly crafted and paced, the overall story has the sense of possibly ending a couple times before the final fade to black. With all the switching between the Wah/Ngor story and the Wah/Fly story, it sometimes felt a bit disjointed. Though the film doesn’t have a monstrous running time or anything, it did seem to go on a bit longer than felt natural.
As Tears Go By might not be one of the director’s most beloved or well known films, and I might never come back to it again, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. I wonder what I would have thought about it if it had been my first exposure to Wong’s work. I still can’t decide if the relative adherence to genre makes it easier to follow and more grounded than other Wong films, or if it’s a bit less interesting for it. I suppose it depends which Wong film you’re comparing it to. Regardless, it’s a good, solid film and an impressive directorial debut.
Long story short: 3/4 stars
For Further Reading: