Wong Kar Wai's debut effort as a feature film director already showcase flashes of talent from the would-be auteur. ALthough not as groundbreaking or innovative as some of his better known films (eg. Chungking Express/ Fallen Angels), nevertheless it displayed some of his distinct signature styles, (eg. naturalistic & idiosyncratic dialogue, character driven films) and themes(eg. love,urban environment, world in turmoil and chaos)
Obviously inspired by Martin Scorsese's early effort 'Mean Streets', which was in turn partly inspired by 'beat' filmmaker John Cassevetes debut film 'Shadows'; 'As Tears Go by' is 'Mean streets' set in Hong Kong. The harsh depiction of traid and street gang culture is in sharp contrast to the stylish gun-totting hoods from John Woo's 'A Better Tomorrow'. In many ways, Wong's depiction came accross as more bittingly realistic, helped by its many on-location filming (another WKW style). Hong Kong's neon lit streets/dark dingy alleys/fluorescence interiors/late night piers, blended in perfectly with Wong's story set in contemporary urban HK. Very interesting camera work and lighting that is different from the other HK films coming out from that era. It displayed an early WKW visual flare, again evident in Chunking Express and Fallen Angels, which utilizes similar locations and settings, as well as ferentic camera movements and stylised composition. Credit should be due to art director Chang Shu Ping, who collaborated with Wong in all of his subsequent films. Of note too is cinematographer Andrew Lau, who will go on to helm the 'Young & Dangerous' series that bears several visual & subject matter influences from this film.Though I must add that Young & Dangerous portrayal of heroic gansters is more glorifying than Wong's pathetic bloodied characters.
Excellant performances from all three leads, which bagged Jacky CHeung(doing a Robert de niro) the best supporting actor and Andy Lau a nomination for best actor at that year's HK film awards. Maggie Chueng claimed that this was the first time she discovered the true potential of screen acting. Also unforgettable is Alex Man's supporting turn as the most sadistic villian imaginable.
'As Tears go By' is probably the only WKW film that is fully scripted (WOng served as a scriptwriter in other generic HK movies for several years before this effort), and it shows. Some clever and subtle original touches in the first act, that translates Scorsese's tortured characters and ethnic Itlian dispora to local HK flavor and motivations. However, the conflict dragged on by the second act, and the film seems indecisive as whether to focus on the Andy Lau/Maggie Cheung love story arc or on his dillema with his understudy pal Jacky Cheung and their conflict with bad ass Alex Man. Scorsese's 'Mean Streets' works because it manages to stay focus on the main protaganist POV and motivations. The whole film is centered around Harvey Keitel's character, and the other characters serves as his burden to his climb up the mafia ranks. That direction seems lost in Wong's version. The last act/conclusion seems rushed, cliche and definitely predictable. What I suspect, and logically seems plausible, is the interference of the producers and financiers on 'As Tears go by'. WOng had claimed in interviews that his early work was being hampered in many ways by others, hence his firm decision and insistence to be the producer in all his subsequent films. He wants to and achieves total artistic control over all of his later films.
Nevertheless, 'As Tears Go by' is without a doubt a milestone of WOng's career as well as Hong Kong cinema. The visceral on-screen violence, realistc seedy portrayal of HK's underworld and streets locale, and cosmopolitan loves and relationships was never before seen on HK screens during its day. It is preceded only by John Woo's 'A Better Tomorrow', which in many ways is a different kind of film with very different themes. Definitely worth catching for fans of Wong Kar Wai and those who love Hong Kong cinema.
7/10 from me.
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