To trace an iconic filmmaker’s work back to their first film can be a coin-toss of an experience. Making a movie, big or small, is no minor undertaking, with those directorial debuts from some of history’s finest film artists chalked up as a “trial run” for the wonders that would follow. There are those filmmakers whose work -from the very beginning- communicates a clear way of operating: a style that is immediately evident, and matures and refines over the course of their career. Such a filmmaker is Wong Kar-wai, and such is his debut feature As Tears Go By.
Wong’s 1988 would release amidst prolific Hong Kong filmmakers John Woo and Ringo Lam, whose explosive gangster and action films would go on to define careers and spark an international appreciation for the kinetic style of Hong Kong cinema. No doubt influenced by the work emerging around him, Wong’s film would read, on paper, like another of the street-level gangster films that were popular at the time. In execution, however, it mixes into its own brand of high melodrama, impassioned romance, and restless longing, all set against the urban sprawl of ’80s Hong Kong.
As an established, low-level street hood, Wah (Andy Lau) spends his days lazing about and his nights strutting the back alleys and back doors of the city, collecting debts while covering for Fly (Jacky Cheung), his hot-headed, less-successful friend. Theirs is a big-brother-little-brother relationship that would seem to balance on a knife’s edge in the underworld. It’s with the arrival of Wah’s cousin, Ngor (Maggie Cheung), that the enforcer’s life complicates, with a prevalent sexual tension apparent between the two. Balancing his gangster’s life and his newfound feelings for Ngor becomes increasingly difficult as Fly prods the dangerous side of Hong Kong’s criminal underbelly.
In basic premise alone, As Tears Go By bears Wong’s signatures of intense emotion, seen as a smoldering, forbidden romance later in his magnum opus In the Mood for Love. Wah and Ngor’s affection for one another begins as a burden for Wah, feeling weighed down by his visiting cousin until he discovers his feelings for her. In turn, Ngor is visiting Hong Kong for a medical procedure, her weak respiratory system defining her at times, clad in a mask. The gradual attraction of the two, after an initially-brash and almost hostile introduction, is a part of Wong’s fascination with humanity driven by pure emotion, here with a love defying social boundaries.
As Tears Go By is particularly fascinating as an early case for Wong because of how it isn’t quite as sharp, visually, as his later films and can feel like slightly more of a genre film. Evident in later works like Ashes of Time or Fallen Angels, Wong isn’t one to shun genre: there he embraces the wuxia tradition and hitman films, respectively. But some experience directing would yield a fusion of pulp genre thrills as a “dressing” for his romantic and melancholic musings. Tears certainly feels raw with passion, but also appears, aesthetically, closer to the visual language that defines so much of this era of Hong Kong cinema. Smoky alleys and harsh contrasts of red and blue lighting set the stage for a gangster film, sure, but one unlike those of Wong’s contemporaries.
The evidence of Wong’s sweeping, operatic melodrama, and ultra-stylish foundations can be found in As Tears Go By’s epic “Take My Breath Away” segment. Starting the sequence, we see a nightclub jukebox cycle through its records and land on Sandy Lam’s cover of Berlin’s iconic pop song, the music overtaking the soundtrack and extending beyond the diegesis of the club. Impassioned, Wah follows Ngor back and forth between Hong Kong and her home on Lantau Island, the music everpresent, though fading to allow for their dialogue.
The scene culminates with the chorus raging and a dramatic kiss between Wah and Ngor (filmed, as per Wong’s developing-MO, in slow-motion). The blaring pop music that Wong uses here (and would go on to use throughout his career) is different from, say, Quentin Tarantino blaring “Stuck in the Middle With You” or the way Bowie’s “Young Americans” plays in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Dramatically different films, yes, but the use of pop by Wong is played out in earnest, without a trace of cynicism. Allowing his characters and audience to be washed over by pure emotion, without a trace of embarrassment, is part of what makes his films so genuine, both in their romance and raw sadness.
The aforementioned sadness of As Tears Go By, of course, plays out with the film’s conclusion. Short of spoiling the ending directly, Wah is so embedded in the life of crime he’s fallen into that there seems an impossibility to his romance with Ngor. Even so, he’ll fight tooth-and-nail to make it work. As Tears Go By may not ultimately be my favorite of master Wong Kar-wai’s filmography, but I’d argue it’s one of his most-essential works, if not purely on the basis of it being his first feature film.
As a part of the larger Hong Kong scene of the ’80s, it exemplifies trends and sensibilities that would define that era. For our celebration of Wong’s work, however, it’s the first step of a filmmaker whose voice is so strong from the get-go that no genre trappings could ever silence it.