As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon), the first outing of Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai (Wáng Jiāwèi), is ranked by his devoted followers as only moderately good – a cautious first production that does not display the full flower of his later achievements. Yet for the general public, it has been by far his most successful offering and was nominated for ten Hong Kong Film Awards, including those for best picture, director, cinematographer, and leading actor and actress. In fact its considerable commercial success provided Wong with the financial backing and security to enable him to engage in his more adventurous stylistic efforts that were to follow. One could say that the two audiences, Wong’s followers and the general filmgoing public, view the film from two entirely different perspectives. Reexamining this first film, then, offers an opportunity to take a look at what it is that distinguishes Wong’s peculiar aesthetics, which are so popular with his fanatic admirers and at the same time largely soporific or annoying to much of the general public.
First consider the milieu in which As Tears Go By was produced. The Hong Kong filmmaking scene had boomed in the 1980s thanks to the Cinema-City-produced action/adventure films of Tsui Hark and Wong Jing. The community then experienced another quantum leap in popularity with the release of John Woo’s dazzling Triad gangster film, A Better Tomorrow (Ying Hung Boon Sik) in 1986, which featured amazingly orchestrated hyperkinetic action shots, plenty of blood, and cold-blooded assassins. The background to all this was the Wuxia literature of Chinese culture. This is a stylized literary genre that concerned martial arts heroes engaged in heroic pursuits in ancient China. It could be likened to the “Cowboy” stories of the American Old West, which also had specific features identifying its genre. The Wuxia literature had early precedents, but became explicitly popular in the early 20th century and experienced a big revival in the 1980s. The hero of the Wuxia stories is always fantastically loyal to the “code” of his brotherhood and to his comrades and is capable of great acts of endurance in order to uphold his honour. To a Western reader this obsession with honour, the drive for revenge, and the maintenance of “face” may go beyond the bounds of believability, but these stories have had a considerable hold on the Chinese-reading public, particularly the young. John Woo was prominent among those who updated the Chinese Wuxia narrative to the contemporary Hong Kong Triad gang scene. He added to the mix by injecting his own dynamic cinematography and the supercool actor Chow Yun-Fat (Zhōu Rùnfā). The success of his A Better Tomorrow was enormous and led immediately to its own genre of copycat Hong Kong Triad films that followed. These included Woo’s own A Better Tomorrow II (Ying Hung Boon Sik II, 1987), The Killer (Dip Huet Seung Hung, 1989), Bullet in the Head (Die Xue Jie Tou, 1990), and Hard-Boiled (Lat Sau San Taam, 1992). Wong Kar Wai’s As Tears Go By was produced in this setting. For sure, it is the degree to which As Tears Go By conforms to the Triad film genre that accounts for much of its popularity with the youthful cinema-attending public. But there is still something different about this film from the other members of its Triad genre.
The story of As Tears Go By concerns a small-time Hong Kong hoodlum, Wah, who receives a visit from a comely girl, Ngor, who he learns is his distant cousin and who lives on nearby, but more suburban, Lantau Island. She has come to Hong Kong to receive some medical treatment for a lung infection and has arrived with an introductory letter from Wah’s aunt asking him to provide lodging for a couple of days. Their encounter is soon interrupted by the involvements of Wah’s gangster “little brother”, Fly, a naive and hot-tempered braggadocio who has problems holding his own in the violent Hong Kong underworld. Soon we also see Wah break up with his pretty barmaid girlfriend, who has given up on his inability to show deep feelings or make a commitment after a six-year relationship. For much of the rest of the film, we see scenes of “big brother” Wah bailing out Fly from one scrape after another that the boastful “little brother” has been getting into with other gangsters because of his concern about “face”, which are intermixed with scenes depicting the gradual, hesitant budding romance between Wah and Ngor. This romance flashes up brilliantly with the deservedly famous kissing scene between the two.
After it appears that Wah is finally ready to commit himself for the long term to Ngor, he is summoned away from his Lantau Island visit one more time to rescue the hot-headed Fly. Fly has volunteered for a likely suicidal mission to assassinate a former gang member now in police custody and liable to turn stool pigeon. The reward for this assignment is a wad of money and Fly’s last chance to build a tough-guy image. Wah tries to talk Fly out of it, but fails, and Fly runs off to carry out his mission. Wah follows, out of his sense of loyalty to the gangster “code” mind-set from which he cannot escape, and in the final blood bath with the police, both Wah and Fly are killed.
There are a number of aspects of As Tears Go By that are common to the popular Hong Kong pop film scene. The stars, Andy Lau Tak-wah (Wah), Maggie Cheung Man-yuk (Ngor), and Jacky Cheung Hok-yai (Fly) are big-time Hong Kong matinee idols. Frequently the same movie stars are also the most popular recording stars. The plot follows the Triad/Wuxia tradition, with plenty of violence, brutal and bloody beatings, and a relentless obsession with revenge and maintaining face as a person to be feared in the Triad community. The dynamic cinematography is skilfully handled by Andrew Wai-keung Lau. For example, early in As Tears Go By, there is a spectacular high-speed tracking shot of a chase through a billiard parlour that stands with the best of the kinetic Hong Kong gangster-film tradition. Lau went on to a successful directorial career of his own that included Infernal Affairs (Mou Gaan Dou, 2002), whose plot was later copied by Martin Scorsese for The Departed (2006). In his subsequent, more languorous and eccentric films, though, Wong turned to the brilliant Christopher Doyle to handle his cinematography.
But there are also unique elements to this film that reveal the signature style of Wong Kar Wai. Even though this it is said to be the only film for which Wong worked from an initially-prepared, script, As Tears Go By is memorable primarily for its moody undertones of loneliness. Wong is always the Master of the Broken Heart, and this film is no exception. Forget about his confession that he modelled the role of Fly after the Johnny-Boy character, played by Robert De Niro, in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). This film is far different from Scorsese’s early opus, and that distinction is due to the expressionistic overtones that Wong injects into the story. Despite all the blood and guts of the Triad encounters, what lingers in one’s memory are the various intimate scenes of Wah and Ngor as they guardedly come to know each other. The actual scenes of passionate love, while credible, are not as significant as the halting precursory interactions that come before. It is not until halfway through the film that the background soundtrack introduces a Cantopop version of “Take My Breath Away”, but this melody seems to haunt the rest of the film and represents its theme song (the original song, As Tears Go By, incidentally, is not heard in this film).
In addition, there is also what will be the trademark humourous exaggeration. Wong appears to be mocking the very genre in which he is operating, by displaying the ego-driven obsession with face and pride through the almost burlesque character of Fly. This compulsion to carry out revenge is exposed for its absurdity through Fly’s maniacal actions, and in this way it leaves Wah’s final action in support of Fly to be seen, not as heroic, but as tragic. Wah is the tragic hero, trapped by his own compulsion to follow the gang ethic, even to the point of his own suicidal actions at the close of the film.
One of the hallmarks of Wong’s films appears in As Tears Go By: the feeling of confinement in a big city. The early shots in Wah’s apartment mingle close-ups of mundane objects with close-on, hand-held camera shots of Wah and Ngor interacting in the spare environment. This sense of being confined in close quarters adds to the paradoxical sense of loneliness of the big city. Though the city is crowded, people are cut off from each other and only interact through empty gestures. Wah is ultimately a lonely figure, but he finds the promise of fulfilment when he meets Ngor. This notion of unfulfilled romantic engagement with another person becomes more explicitly the centre of Wong Kar Wai’s focus in his subsequent films.