As Tears Go By

Wong Kar Wai's debut feature As Tears Go By is a visceral, idiosyncratic gangster picture, a raw and stylish film that balances gritty realism with bold stylization, colorful imagery and rapid leaps into frenzied action sequences or hazy, drifting slow motion. Violence in this film erupts suddenly, its impact heightened by Wong's accelerated cutting, which signals the abrupt transition from ordinary reality to the bloody, brutal hyper-reality of the fight scenes. A fight scene at a pool hall is preceded by a slow, tense buildup as the inept Triad thug Fly (Jacky Cheung) taunts a rival, mocking him by moving balls around on the pool table, brazenly cheating and essentially daring the other man to start a fight. The tension slowly mounts, mingled with uneasy humor, but when the fight itself erupts, Wong introduces the violence with a sudden shot of a pool table, a racked triangle of balls broken by the cue ball, and then a quick cut into the rapid-fire violence as Fly and the other gangsters initiate a brawl that eventually spills out into a chase through the streets.

Fly is a familiar character in gangster lore, the volatile but pathetic loser who drags down the more balanced, intelligent friend who looks after him. Wah (Andy Lau) is Fly's "big brother" in the Triad gangs, his boss and benefactor, but Fly's unpredictable behavior and tough guy attitude continually get Wah in big trouble. The film alternates between Wah's attempts to cope with the problems stirred up by Fly, and an undercooked love story between Wah and his young cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), who he falls in love with when she comes to stay with him. The story is familiar, of course. Wong, inspired by Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (especially in the bold use of pop music) and working within the genre mold of the Hong Kong gangster flick, sticks to the basics of the genre but amps up the aesthetics and the emotions into a near operatic orgy of excess.

The film's action sequences are probably its most compelling moments, bloody and ecstatic scenes of carnage, mingling fast cutting with slow motion to convey the brutality of these gangsters — and of course, to convey their sense of "cool." The film is very self-conscious about "cool," because the characters are so self-conscious about it. Wah often poses in his leather jacket, his head cocked back in a Rebel Without a Cause sneer, a cigarette dangling from his lips. When he walks into a room, it's often in slow motion, his determined expression slowly drifting through the hazy, abstract backgrounds, his surroundings erased by the prolonged contemplation of his languid cool as he prepares to kill someone or beat up some rivals or shake down a resistant debtor. That coolness is why Fly looks up to Wah, why he's so determined to impress his "big brother," even as he's very aware that his own (real) little brother, Site (Ronald Wong), doesn't think that Fly is cool. Fly is obsessed with making good, with returning to his family as a big man, but he knows that he's a failure. Towards the end of the film, he visits his brother — who's now a family man, with a regular working class job — and tells him that he just wants to be a cool big brother, even if he has to sacrifice himself to do it. The scene plays out mostly in alternating closeups on the two brothers, but Wong punctuates the scene with a kind of emphatic exclamation point, abruptly switching to an unbalanced long shot of the parking lot where this discussion takes place. The two brothers are at the bottom of the frame, with Fly facing away from his brother, the lower halves of their bodies cut off by the bottom of the frame, and Fly simply hurls the beer bottle he'd been drinking off into the distance. It's such an effective moment, a rough and evocative shot that perfectly captures the tension of this scene.

The film's dialogue also has a punchy, blunt quality that enhances the archetypal story Wong is telling here. When Wah has a fight with an old girlfriend, she tells him that she recently had an abortion, and she uses the word "abortion" or "aborted" in nearly every sentence throughout the argument, wielding the word at him like a knife to keep him at bay, wounding him with the repetition, while he ineffectually bats at her with his hands. He slaps her around and then storms out, but it's obvious who's been wounded more, who's been cut deeper, and in the subsequent scenes Wah seems to be stumbling as though bleeding out from a mortal wound, with Wong's woozy camerawork adding to the sensation of disorientation. He seems drunk, but Wong doesn't show him drinking; it's more likely he's just staggering from the emotional wounds he's suffered. This is a violent, bloody film, but this scene suggests that for Wong, the unseen psychological cuts can be just as fatal as the wounds that leave physical scars, the wounds that bleed and ooze.

Not all of the film's emotions are extravagant and noisy, however. One of the film's most affecting shots is a lengthy closeup on Ngor's face as Wah leaves her to, once again, help his loser friend out of trouble. The look on her face is subtle, but the longer Wong holds the shot, the more sadness seeps into her expression, until her eyes seem to be on the verge of tearing and, overwhelmed, she looks away, as though she can't stand holding the camera's gaze any longer. It has a feel of finality to it; one knows instantly and instinctively that the lovers will never see one another again. It's not entirely an earned moment — the romance is underdeveloped and generic — but Cheung makes the most of her scant screen time so that her character is poignant and memorable, if not exactly deep. Wong makes the romance potent through searing imagery, like a passionate kiss in a phone booth, a kiss that's nearly violent in its intensity, so hot that it burns up the screen, burning even the image itself, which is eventually erased in a white-hot burst of overexposed film stock. The individual scenes become emotionally affecting even though the romance is cursorily developed in comparison to the storyline of Wah's entanglement with Fly. The film has more of a feel for the romantic image of the gangster than it does for actual romance, which means that Cheung has little to do other than patiently wait for Wah to return to her every so often, to briefly delight in his presence before he races off into the bloody revenge storyline at the center of the film.

For what it is, though, As Tears Go By is a fairly satisfying genre picture, a gory and energetic thriller in which Fly's provocations set Wah onto a collision course with the nasty gangster Tony (Alex Man), a sadist who takes obvious joy in the increasingly elaborate beatings he hands out to his rivals. Not that Wah is actually that much better: the film places the audience on Wah's side, but only because he's portrayed as a romantic gangster, even though his violent streak is every bit as ugly. In one scene, he breaks a beer bottle over a debtor's head, the gesture fast and unflinching, a fearsome slash across the fabric of the film, drawing bright red blood. The hero's violence and amorality are simply taken for granted, so that he becomes the hero simply by default, by virtue of the fact that he's the gangster the film focuses on, the gangster with heart.