Wong Kar-wai made his debut feature 20 years ago—an event that BAM is marking with the movie's first non-Chinatown theatrical run. Ostensibly a conventional tale of triad loyalty, As Tears Go By announced the presence of a genuine Hong Kong new wave—as well as an ambitious cineaste.
A vehicle for Hong Kong stars Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau, pivoting on a debt enforcer's relationship with the doomed, heedless, daredevil flake (Jacky Cheung) who is his protégé, Wong's hoodlum love story is relatively low-key—some memorably brutal beatings notwithstanding. But the then 32-year-old Wong was clearly au courant in his knowledge of international festival cinema: He modeled Jacky Cheung's fuck-up on Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, and Maggie Cheung's country girl—a waif who shows up on her worldly male cousin's doorstep—on Eva, Eszter Balint's character in Stranger Than Paradise.
Despite these tributes to Scorsese and Jarmusch, Wong's youthful cinephilia was essentially stylistic. For all the generic comic bits and hyperbolic action sequences it contains, As Tears Go By is less interested in violence than mood—and the mood, as always with Wong, is one of reverie. The director's trademark set pieces, based on mega close-ups of tiny details and a strategic form of step-printed, smeared, slow-motion violence, are already present. So too is his characteristically mournful atmosphere—a fusion of smoke, neon, and fetishized pop. The English-language title is taken from a wistful ballad, pointedly absent from the soundtrack; the opening shot is a nocturnal image in which clouds of street steam are reflected in the blank screens of a dozen TV monitors in a shop window.
Although As Tears Go By can be clumsy in its attempt to reconcile genre and sensibility, this discordance has its benefits. Called upon to act after several years of playing perky girlfriends, Maggie is fetchingly awkward and genuinely confused as the naïf who falls for a small-time, big-town tough. And the filmmaker is more than willing to risk everything for l'amour. A Cantonese cover of "Take My Breath Away" underscores the lovers' first, daringly prolonged kiss. It's this cool yet vaporizing passion that's the hallmark of Wong's sensuous romanticism—present in his first movie no less than his latest, with its screen-filling image of a sleeping Norah Jones's pie-à-la-mode-flecked lips in My Blueberry Nights.
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