One of my favorite film viewing pastimes is going back to the early films of some of my favorite directors and getting a feel for where they’ve come from to get to where they are. In the last year or so, Wong Kar-Wai has firmly ensconced himself as my favorite contemporary filmmaker, and tonight, I treated myself to his 1988 debut feature As Tears Go By.
What makes this film fascinating is the startling degree to which Wong’s instinct for visual poetry and his ability to translate the almost physical pain of longing onto the screen are both already finely honed, though the languid pacing and narrative inventiveness of his later works (like undisputed masterpiece In the Mood for Love) are notably absent.
As Tears Go By wears the clothing of a straightforward Hong Kong street opera of the type made famous during the 1980s by John Woo, though Wong also tips the cap to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. It features swaggering bravado and staccato violence one expects of such fare, and is both Wong’s most accessible film and his only commercial success to date.
As Tears Go By centers on Wah (Andy Lau), an up-and-coming Triad gangster trying to balance his own ambitions against his loyalty to his feckless “little brother” Fly (Jacky Cheung), whose impulsivity represents a constant danger, not only to himself, but to Wah as well (though he also provides an otherwise tense film with much needed humor). Wah’s life is further complicated by a growing love for his cousin Ngor (frequent Wong collaborator Maggie Cheung in her first major dramatic role), a beautiful girl whose existence he was totally unaware of before she came to stay with him while seeking medical treatment in Hong Kong.
Beneath the familiar aspects of genre film, however, lurk the seeds of Wong Kar-Wai’s later mastery. As Tears Go By could have been just another bullet ballet, but it is instead a searing, romantic work of art, despite occasional clichés. Always something of an actor’s director (and famous for leaning heavily on the improvisational talents of his stars, despite his own background as a screenwriter), he coaxes from his cast performances that are uniformly excellent. Jacky Cheung, in particular, stands out, and he imbues Fly with a reckless machismo that only serves to highlight the self-doubt that gnaws at his soul. The Hong Kong Film Awards Best Actor trophy which Cheung won for this role was well-deserved.
But it is Wong Kar-Wai who really dominates As Tears Go By, as the visual and emotional style that characterized his later works is already in evidence. His signature thematic concerns of longing and memory, and the master iconography he associates with these concepts (slow burning cigarettes and torrential downpours, respectively) figure prominently in As Tears Go By, and while his mastery of the basic visual style he introduces in this film would increase with later films, he was already a powerful cinematic poet.
The only elements of his mature style that are missing are the characteristically recursive and self-referential narrative structures of his later work and the constant weight of emotional isolation that so perfectly captures the disassociative rootlessness of modern existence (though the latter is not completely lacking, and is especially apparent in the opening scenes of the movie). This has the effect of slightly lessening the impact of some of the imagery, but it cannot keep As Tears Go By from being an immensely powerful debut film.