Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. This March, we revisit the sumptuous, romantic, deeply humanistic works of Hong Kong’s favored son, Wong Kar-Wai. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Back in 1988, Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai tried his hand at directing a feature film, transitioning from soap opera screenwriting to the low-level crime underworld seen in As Tears Go By. Wong’s debut drama follows three characters with multiple storylines: Wah (Andy Lau), his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), and Fly (Jackie Cheung), his stand-in little brother in criminal life. Around the age of 30, Wong’s first foray into directing landed him a critical and modest commercial success, blending elements of his style that would become staples in his own filmmaking style.
As Tears Go By finds Wong flirting with stylistic flourishes, using step-printing in chase scenes, dramatic moments, and the film’s climactic conclusion, a choice most known for its effect during Chungking Express, one of the most acclaimed films in Wong’s filmography and of the last 30 years. This changing of speed and shifting of motion becomes synonymous with many of Wong’s fight and chase scenes over the decades, as these small-time gangsters run through pool halls and crowded restaurants chasing one another, attempting to collect debts and give scars.
The film’s story settles on Wah, a mentor (and big brother figure) to Fly and love interest to Ngor. He spends his days bailing Fly out of trouble, with increasing regularity and difficulty, and thinking about the little time he spent with his cousin from another town. He remains calm under pressure, sporting white, cuffed tees, chain necklaces, and a constant-lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. It’s difficult not to be enamored with Wah’s presence, one of confidence, power, and sustained cool.
Wong uses ’80s music with love and liberality, blasting pop rock and synth scores whenever the situation calls for a little extra shove, which is more often than not in As Tears Go By. His fondness for familiar music sets a precedent for films to come, and his willingness to allow music to overtake a scene doesn’t push aside the on-screen action but reminds viewers of the emotions to be feeling.
In his debut film, it’s on-the-nose in a wonderful, occupying sense, as Wong wants you to feel something for these men that add little in the way of societal citizenship. He paints nightclubs and jukeboxes in his now-standard saturated light, yet fixes his color obsession on muted shades of blue, the shades filling back rooms where guns get shoved down gangsters’ pants.
Over 30 years later, the film remains fascinating to watch, as Wong uses a moving camera whenever he can, finding unintrusive angles and unusual shots to tell this story of tragic love. He never places this lens in the spot you’d expect. The story moves at an irregular pace, slowing down as Wah and Ngor spend lazy days together, walking along open, sea-adjacent areas.
Stylish as ever, Wong’s melodramatic crime story serves as a singular debut.
In the bustling city, Fly’s life moves at warp speed, as beatings, arrests, and arguments seem to be the pillars of his daily life, one built on pride instead of practicality. Sympathy for Fly’s antics diminishes as the film rolls forward, and despite the blooming love affair between Ngor and Wah, the story never is destined for lasting joy.
Lau and Maggie Cheung do their best to fill the atmosphere Wong creates, as Cheung especially radiates a special sense of belonging in the film. Though she likely does a bit better work in a better film in In the Mood for Love, she’s stupendous here, making the most out of little screentime, and even less dialogue. She exudes a sense of place and time, conveying the majority of her emotions through glances and extended drags of a cigarette. As with many of Wong’s films, the fashion, especially Cheung’s sweater vests, cannot be matched.
As Tears Go By lacks cohesion as a story of forbidden love but works to the nth degree as a portrait of a man caught between decisions, and the paths that those decisions will ultimately lead to. Stylish as ever, Wong’s melodramatic crime story serves as a singular debut, which paves the way for filmmaking choices, interconnecting structure, and recurring actors that help to define a career filled with deserving praise. A few exaggerated dramatic sequences certainly won’t change that.