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As Tears Go By
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As Tears Go By

Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in As Tears Go By.
AKA: Mongkok Carmen
Chinese: 旺角卡門
Year: 1988
Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Producer: Rover Tang
Writer: Wong Kar-Wai
Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau, Alex Man Chi-Leung, Ronald Wong Ban
  The Skinny: Wong Kar-Wai makes his directorial debut with this 80s triad melodrama. The film is a tad predictable at times, but thanks to strong acting performances and sharp, innovative direction, As Tears Go By is a compelling ninety-four minutes of star-driven entertainment. Neither self-indulgent nor overstuffed, As Tears Go By is easily one of the director's most accessible films to date. Not his best, mind you, but damn good all the same.
Review by

Long before Wong Kar-Wai became the darling of the intelligentsia, he worked as a writer in the Hong Kong film industry, hammering out such lowbrow fare as The Intellectual Trio and Haunted Cop Shop—hardly the pedigree for a soon-to-be world renowned auteur. The director's first film, 1988's As Tears Go By changed all that, putting Wong Kar-Wai on the map as both a critically and commercially (at first anyway) successful filmmaker. As Tears Go By is an interesting film to watch in light of all the work that would come later. To see the director experiment with techniques and themes that would later become a part of his signature style is definitely a sight to behold.

Of all of Wong Kar-Wai's films, As Tears Go By is probably the most straightforwardly commercial; it is a genre picture after all. The story revolves around Wah (Andy Lau), a young triad steeped in problems when the film begins. Early on, he learns that his longtime girlfriend had an abortion without his knowledge, a revelation that shakes Wah to his very core. If that weren't bad enough, he's a "big brother" to Fly (Jacky Cheung), a hotheaded, inept gangster wannabe, who with every attempt to prove himself, only earns himself more trouble than he can handle. Fly's problems quickly become Wah's problems, as our hero has to step in and bail out his "little brother" on numerous occasions.

Things start to pick up soon after Ngor (Maggie Cheung), Wah's ailing cousin from Lantau Island, comes to live with him. The reason? She's got a malfunctioning lung and must receive medical treatment in Hong Kong. There's a particularly sweet, quiet moment between Ngor and Wah that is soon interrupted by Fly, as he brings the realities of triad life—quite literally—to Wah's doorstep, a metaphor that repeats itself in various ways as the film progresses.

As one would expect, a romance of sorts begins to develop between Wah and Ngor, but nothing comes of it until Wah decides to leave Hong Kong for Lantau Island and seek out his true love. Set to a Chinese version of "Take My Breath Away," the sequence sees Wah finally reuniting with Ngor. Although this ode to Top Gun amounts to borderline cheese (Elvis's "Kissin' Cousins" must have been deemed inappropriate), the scene somehow works thanks to Wong's brilliant pacing. Even better, the director subverts expectations for the scene's outcome, denying the viewers the moment that they truly want to see happen. There's a really nice moment when Wah says what seems to be a throwaway romantic line, only to have the full implications revealed later in a private moment away from Ngor. The romantic gesture goes unseen and unappreciated by Ngor...or does it? Wong isn't finished yet—his denial of convention is soon revealed to be nothing but a strategic delay. The audience gets what they want in a scene that culminates into what can only be called, "The Kiss."

But just when Wah's found bliss with Ngor, he learns that Fly has run afoul of fellow Triad, Tony (Alex Man), a man who would like nothing more than to swat the bothersome Fly out of existence. From the early going, it's apparent that Fly and Tony are on a collision course with Wah caught in the middle. Sure, it's going to end badly, but this is a movie about the how's and the why's involved.

Wong Kar-Wai's trademark style was in its formative stages in As Tears Go By, but the film is still full of atmospheric and visually inventive moments. One of the most notable examples is a chase sequence through a seemingly never-ending pool hall that spills out onto the city streets in jerky, cinema verite style. Also, in one of the most artistic sequences in the film, there's a static shot of steam rising from a kind of underworld that precedes the scene in which Wah is plunged headlong into a reddish, hellish environment to seek revenge against Fly's enemies. Here, Wong Kar-Wai employs his patented slow motion and step-framing techniques in what quickly becomes a hyperkinetic—yet highly artistic—action sequence choreographed by Stephen Tung Wai.

It's easy to see what's Wong Kar-Wai-ish in the film: the seemingly unrelated footage of trees swaying in the wind, the curious tracking shots, and a brief glimpse of Maggie Cheung lounging with a paper airplane in hand all seem like raw prototypes for the kinds of images, techniques, and tropes that Wong would revisit in successive pictures. Credit must go to his cinematographer, Andrew Lau, who would go on to direct such diverse fare as Infernal Affairs and The Wesley's Mysterious File. But that isn't to say that the film is beautiful from start to finish; there are loads of shots in the film that look like cheap Hong Kong cinema circa 1988, but even so, art wins out—there are some sequences that just pop with energy, all building to the dream-like finale.

But As Tears Go By does not succeed or fail on Wong Kar-Wai alone; a large part of its success as a film has to result from its actors. Andy Lau does a good job anchoring the film as the sympathetic male lead. Sure, his motivations for staying loyal to Fly are unexamined and paper thin, but Lau does a good job in convincing the audience that unerring loyalty really is that simple. And although Maggie Cheung's performance is of the thankless "flower vase" variety for two-thirds of the film, her range as an actress becomes more apparent, especially as her character falls for Wah. At one point, when the two lovers part, the camera lingers on Cheung, as she slowly begins to cry. It's a heartbreaking moment for Maggie Cheung's character that's hard to capture in words, but it's a hell of a performance. When seen within the context of her work in Wong's later films, Maggie Cheung's acting seems like the beginning of something wonderful.

Then there's Jacky Cheung, who gives a fantastic portrayal of Fly, a tricky part since the audience feels like they should dislike him for the harm he causes the protagonist. Yet he is somehow able to engender feelings of compassion and understanding amongst the audience, transforming Fly into a tragic figure that one inevitably roots for to finally experience a real moment of triumph. He's a character who could have been one-note (and seemed to be headed in that direction in the early going of the film), but is instead given real depth and motivation. It's no wonder Jacky Cheung took home a Best Supporting Actor award at that year's Hong Kong Film Awards.

Unlike some of Wong Kar-Wai's other films, filmgoers will have a better time answering the question, "What's it all about?" As Tears Go By is easily one of his most straightforward films with a genre-specific plot few would have trouble recognizing or understanding. Ultimately, As Tears Go By seems to be about the futility of triad life and the folly of trying to rise up the ranks in the desire for some kind of name recognition. Characters seem to gain the momentary upper hand, but the film suggests that this glorious feeling of achievement is merely a false high which only leads to further degradation and marginalization within the triad society. Breaking the self-destructive cycle of violence and reprisal associated with triad life may be a tall feat to accomplish, but at least Wong Kar-Wai gives us something to chew on in this sometimes stylish, sometimes raw debut film. (Calvin McMillin 2004)

Notes: • The Korean VHS tape contains an extended ending. Screen captures from this alternate version can be viewed here.

8th Annual Hong Kong Film Awards
• Winner - Best Supporting Actor (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau)
• Winner - Best Art Direction (William Cheung Suk-Ping)
• Nomination - Best Picture
• Nomination - Best Director (Wong Kar-Wai)
• Nomination - Best Actor (Andy Lau Tak-Wah)
• Nomination - Best Actress (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk)
• Nomination - Best Supporting Actor (Alex Man Chi-Leung)
• Nomination - Best Cinematography (Andrew Lau Wai-Keung)
• Nomination - Best New Artist (Cheung Pei-Tak)
• Nomination - Best Original Score (Cheung Ting-Yat)


DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Remastered Edition
Mega Star
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bahasa, Thai, and Vietnamese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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image courtesy of Mega Star Video Distribution, Ltd. Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen