Runtime: 102 minutes
Writer/Director: Wong Kar-Wai
Stars: Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Kau Lam
By Mique Watson
This strange age we’ve found ourselves in–lockdowns and quarantines abound–has granted me the opportunity to dive deep into the oeuvre of Hong Kong’s cinema god, Wong Kar-Wai. “As Tears Go By” marked Wong’s debut to film two decades ago; with it, was the emergence of an auteur–as well as a resounding Honk Kong new wave. I saw this film for the first time yesterday. Seeing as this month’s Their League theme is “Noirvember”, a piece on this gem appeared to be apropos .
Film noir is a genre that has been debated upon since Hollywood’s golden age. Its categorization is tricky; so much of it is thematic, and not immediately observable. Wong’s story begins with Maggie Cheung’s character showing up, masked and wordless at her cousin’s front door (her cousin, portrayed by Andy Lau). Lau’s character exudes–and is perhaps modelled after–the raw energy and abrasiveness of some of Robert De Niro’s early works. We walk alongside Lau as Wong fills us in on the various shady dealings and escapades of the hoodlums in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district. Jacky Cheung portray’s Lau’s utterly incompetent and unambitious brother.
Tears, though no masterpiece, has shades of the master in the making. Many of Wong’s signature cinematic idiosyncrasies are present here. He seduces the viewer with cigarette smoke wafting in the placid air, low-frame rates, and, an irresistibly alluring score and melodramatic soundtrack. A Cantonese cover of “Take My Breath Away” plays over a daring kiss of relief and acceptance. Stylistic as it is, the film juxtaposes the sensuous with the dangerous; the sudden outbursts of raw emotion, the unchecked ego, and the helplessness of falling in love.
Lau’s moral obligation to his daredevil brother is a constant knife in our protagonist’s gut; every time his brother does literally anything, the knife is twisted. We learn, in the third act, that Jacky Cheung’s character is a child in an adult body who can’t help but aspire to be like his brother. His brother, Lau–cold, stoic and calculating–has been a trained killer since the age of 14, and regards his brother’s substandard ambitions with despondency.
“Tears, though no masterpiece, has shades of the master in the making. Many of Wong’s signature cinematic idiosyncrasies are present here. He seduces the viewer with cigarette smoke wafting in the placid air, low-frame rates, and, an irresistibly alluring score and melodramatic soundtrack.”
The dynamic between both brothers, and the eventual love story that manifests with Maggie Cheung’s character highlight the–perhaps unintentional–film noir aspects of this gangster tale. Lau has the moral obligation to his brother by virtue of biology; who we are biologically related to is not something any of us can control.
Jacky Cheung’s character makes one brash decision after another, his lack of ambition, and the street gang lifestyle lead from one bad decision to the next. The deterioration of morals is a consequence of a life of crime. One character’s decision has a ripple effect; someone else ends up paying the price, and all those concerned end up in a worse place from when the film began. Although there is no femme fatale in this unintentional film noir, the seduction comes in the form of an idea. This idea being, of course, the promise of notoriety and validation.
Although not as noteworthy as Wong’s later works; this hidden gem would, undoubtedly, make for some worthwhile viewing this “Noirvember”.