First Film Series: Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By
Wong Kar Wai is internationally known as a film maker for classics like Chungking Express (1994), In the Mood for Love (2000), and Days of Being Wild (1990). But before he made those films he had to start somewhere. As Tears Go By is Wong Kar Wai’s first film, released in 1988 in Hong Kong. A mixture of drama and the gangster film, As Tears Go By is an exciting debut film from a world-renown director.
While watching this film I couldn’t help but think of Scorsese’s first masterpiece, Mean Streets (1973). Scorsese’s film did more to reinvent the gangster genre than The Godfather films in the seventies and in many ways is a more influential film if we look at American independent cinema in the late eighties and early nineties. Mean Streets was a fresh take on gangsters and gangsterism for Hollywood cinema. The visual style Scorsese used was simply electric. The way he combined slow-motion sequences with shot-reverse-shot sequences while mixing it to popular music was fresh then and still is today. As Tears Go By has that same energy except for the bad soundtrack.
Wong Kar Wai demonstrated in this film that, like Scorsese, he has a firm grasp on telling stories through images and making those images nearly jump off the screen. Wong Kar Wai films action scenes with slow motion that staggers and swerves, impressing the emotions and excitement of the scene onto our eyes. The way he used slow-motion is this film is much different than how Scorsese used it in Mean Streets. In the latter film, slow-motion was used when characters watched other characters enter the scene. Slow-motion in As Tears Go By is used to heighten to the emotion and intensity of the action scenes. But it is done in such a way that you are brought into the state of mind of the characters. Your eye is not guided to the action choreography but to emotions.
The narrative of the film recalls Mean Streets much more than the visual style of the film. The main character’s in Scorsese’s film are Charlie (Harvey Keitel), Johnny Boy (Robert DeNiro), and Teresa (Amy Robinson). Charlie is an intelligent, up-and-coming gangster in Little Italy. Johnny Boy is a deadbeat, moronic gambler that rides on Charlie’s coat tails. Teresa is Johnny Boy’s cousin. She has epilepsy which is treated in the film as a sign of impurity. Charlie and Teresa start a love affair. They don’t tell anyone because Charlie doesn’t want people to know he’s sleeping with an epileptic woman. Johnny Boy is running up debts all over town. He owes money to the fancy-pants Michael (Richard Romanus). Things get good and then worse. The final scene is as dramatic as you would expect from this narrative. Michael and a gunman (played by Scorsese) find Johnny Boy, Charlie, and Teresa driving and shoot Johnny Boy in the neck and Charlie in the wrist. Charlie pays for his sins. The sin of loving a deadbeat gambler. The same twisted redemption-punishment narrative is used in As Tears Go By.
In Wong Kar Wai’s film, Andy Lau’s character, Wah, is rising star in the gangster scene. His younger brother Fly, Jacky Cheung, is trying to ride on his coat tails much like Johnny Boy. Wah falls in love with his cousin Ngor, Maggie Cheung. The film, like Scorsese’s film, is made up of two narratives: Wah and Ngor falling in love and Wah trying to help Fly stay alive. Fly is impulsive, dangerous, and not very smart. He is prideful and disrespectful. He both loves and despises himself. Wah does everything he can to help his brother, to pay for his sins. Fly eventually gets beat to a pulp and Wah has to leave Ngor again to help his brother. Until the final act of the film, the Wah and Ngor romance narrative is kept separate from the Wah and Fly narrative; the intensity and violence of the latter narrative eventually intrudes on the romance. Wah cannot contain his brother. He pays for his brother’s sins with his life. Just like Scorsese’s film, As Years Go By demonstrates that hospitality has limits. There is no pure hospitality only relative. Wah can only do so much to help his brother and when he steps over the line he can no longer help his brother or anyone. Good deeds are punished and the bad guys prevail in the end.
While the final sequence of As Tears Go By has the same thematic content as Mean Streets, this sequence plays out much differently in Wong Kar Wai’s film. Wah and Fly perform a hit to make things right with the mob boss they work for, to pay him back for causing so much trouble. They do it but lose their lives in the process. Wong Kar Wai’s film grammar is intense and powerful in the final scene. He mixes slow-motion sequences with hand-held camera work. When Wah gets blasted in the head, his body turns, and Wong Kar Wai cuts to Wah and Ngor kissing, their bodies moving in a similar movement. Wah falls to the ground and thinks about his kiss with Ngor.
Wong Kar Wai’s debut film is a great piece of work and it has many of the visual and editing techniques that he would use in his later films.