There is an inherent danger in looking retroactively at early films from established directors. As with Jarmusch's "Permanent Vacation", Bertolucci's "The Grim Reaper" or even Kubrick's "Killer's Kiss", it can be difficult - after garnering an admiration for a director - to look back at their less refined beginnings.
Such is the case with Wong Kar-Wai's As Tears Go By (Wong gok ka moon). During the film's early stages, it feels somewhat like an unhappy coupling between a flashy Hong Kong martial arts film and those really cheesy Chinese serials where the emperor's daughter accidentally falls pregnant to the chief eunuch warrior (or whatever, I've never watched one with subtitles). Having said that though, it doesn't quite reach the extremes of either: firstly because the action and violence, although the driving force of the film, are not in the least stylised but are in fact quite confronting; and secondly because the cheese of the soap opera elements is really only apparent through the use of dodgy 80's music. But this is simply dated, not inappropriate - after all, the same could be said about Blade Runner, although the montage about halfway through this film set to a Cantonese version of "Take my Breath Away" is just embarrassing.
As Tears go By also happens to get better as it progresses. Perhaps this is because the romance between Ah-Wah (Andy Lau) and Ah-Ngor (Maggie Cheung), which seems ready to overpower the film early on, becomes sidelined to the underground-crime half of the plot, which is certainly the most successful and believable half. Wong craftily creates a hard-boiled atmosphere and there is a lot of emotional resonance in the relationship between Wah and his young protégé, Fly (Jacky Cheung). Unfortunately, the same cannot really be said of the male-female relationship between the two stars. It manages to gain a small amount of credibility purely through the fact that we have seen the quiet girl-bad boy romance explored to greater depths in other films. Put this small amount of believability aside however, and it has a very tacked-on, Michael Bay kind of feel to it.
Although the film is easily criticised, one can nevertheless see Wong's style making its first appearance here, and I can certainly see the justification behind one reviewer's quote on the DVD case: "A promising debut". I would like to particularly single out his clever use of intimate but skewed, 'Dutch' camera angles to highlight the (forgive me for this expression) humanistic dehumanisation which would foreground his more recent and more famous films, "In the Mood for Love" and "2046". He also drives the film at an excellent pace, in spite of the fact that alternations between the subplots give it a slightly episodic, fragmented feel.
Ultimately, my major complaint is simply that while both the romance and the action have a great deal of potential, used together in this way they don't work. Personally I think Wong could either expand on the romance more or eradicate it entirely, and he would have a more complete film.
And while hoping not to contradict myself, I have to say that the above comments, which pervaded my thoughts for 90 minutes of this film, were quite rocked by the superb conclusion - framed within criminal violence but so much 'about' the romance - let me just say, whatever I may have thought about most of this film, it was definitely worth it for the ending. Overall, interesting mainly for being Wong's debut and definitely a taste of things to come.
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