When it comes to Gangster movies, only the romantic lens of Kar Wai Wong could result in a movie that features a couple captured in loving embrace on its DVD cover and a title befitting a melodramatic sob-fest as opposed to the blood-thirsty, violent display that it actually aspires to be. Awash with a heavy-handed eighties synth-rock soundtrack that does absolutely nothing for the film some twenty years onwards, As Tears Go By is the byproduct of a director being given the reigns for the very first time and quite naturally, not quite knowing how to implement the hundreds of ideas that he has brewing around in his brain. Indeed, while much of the script is very barebones material drawing heavily influences from Scorsese's Mean Streets amongst other higher-budget Hollywood features, it is Wong's frantic, almost schizophrenic pacing and storytelling that gives it a voice of its own. Sure, it's a voice that at this point in time is still very much in its infancy—awkward and stilted—yet you can nevertheless see where the director was going with this, his directorial debut.
Telling the story of two Triad "brothers" as they battle the passions of themselves and those around them, As Tears Go By is an interesting take on the already well-established gangster movie format. Inherent here are the typical staples; the partners at odds with each other, one a young hot-headed blood-thirsty shark looking to go places and his Big Brother, a cool, laid-back veteran with little to no ambition. Brought together, the two end up at odds with other gangsters and loan sharks who consistently threaten death upon both of them should they fail to make ends meet. This tangent which naturally plays out as nine tenths of Wong's story here, bounces back and forth between genuinely compelling action and frustratingly caricaturist drama that seems to repeat itself every twenty minutes. Indeed, if there is any fault to As Tears Go By at all, it exists in Wong's insistence in elaborate, almost inconsequential set-pieces that are fun to watch the first or second time, but wear thin after you realize not much else is happening.
On the other side of the pond however lies a romantic subplot that has given As Tears Go By and indeed Wong himself their names in the cinematic landscape. Centering around the older brother and his passionate affair with his distant cousin who comes to stay for a while, the love story here as it is displayed, is fine and one can understand how audiences may have been moved by its appearance here within an otherwise stoic and bloody display of testosterone, yet suffocated by so much of said action, nothing much is achieved from this deviation. The result is something more akin to a distraction than a truly compelling romance; indeed, while many claim the scene which adorns the DVD cover (which depicts the two in a passionate kiss inside a phone booth) to be representative of Wong's romanticist indulgences that would permeate much of his later career as a film-maker, its initial appearance here is tepid at best. Instead I point to the movie's closing sequence as its most affirming and memorable; it's not exactly a typical Wong depiction, yet it's startling, moving and even just a little bit romantic at the same time too.
In the end, while As Tears Go By stands as a significant and interesting insight into a director's early footsteps in directorial shoes, much of the feature stands as too half-baked in areas that matter most and overly heavy-handed in areas which only lead to grating and often confusing indulgences. Sure enough, the performances are fine and the movie itself exists as a fair enough take on an already done-to-death genre, yet burdened with a fairly straight-forward script that caters very little to Wong's subtler strengths as a director (which he would find a decade on), much of this debut is rendered a mere artifact of curiosity for those interested; those looking for a genuinely thrilling, or enjoyable movie however should stay clear—As Tears Go By certainly has its moments, but lacks the connective tissue to bind it all together.
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