As Tears Go By Review

Anthony Nield has reviewed the Tartan’s Region 2 release of As Tears Go By. Wong Kar Wai’s directorial debut, the film is an interesting insight into where his talents began and shows definite promise, yet is served by a disc which makes the grave error of offering a dubbed Mandarin soundtrack rather than the original Cantonese.

As Tears Go By is very much the perfect summation of that phrase “the promising debut”. Wong Kar Wai, who would later be responsible for such modern classics as Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, made the shift from writer to writer-director with this effort, and it shows. On the one hand there are signs of an obvious talent in its formative stages, one which undoubtedly looks forward to these subsequent works, yet at the same time this is also a film which seems to be constantly peering back over its shoulder to safer, more generic ground. As such, As Tears Go By can be viewed as many things – a flashy calling card, a superior genre offering, a shape of things to come – but can escape the fact that it is a Wong Kar Wai film.

Yet what proves interesting is not so much the similarities to Wong’s later works, but rather the differences. Unlike the elliptical narrative approach that would characterise Days of Being Wild, et al, As Tears Go By is, as said, firmly generic. The gangster film is the obvious model here with more than a little lip service being paid towards Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Indeed, the characters of Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung and Maggie Cheung mirror, almost exactly, the roles played, respectively, by Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro and Amy Robinson in 1973; the two male leads are small-time hoods, the more mature and intelligent of the two wishing to escape the life, but is constantly pulled back in by his allegiances to the more impulsive, hot-headed one. Of course, in updating the story to late eighties’ Hong Kong alterations have been made – the two men are far brasher than their American counterparts whilst the violence is much stronger and closer to home – yet the essence remains the same.

That said, if the obvious similarities can be overlooked (and I admit that when first viewing the film, upon its VHS release in the mid-nineties, I found them a little too distracting), it becomes apparent that Mean Streets does serve as an excellent template for the first-time filmmaker (though, of course, it was Scorsese’s third). The focus on the smallest of small-time hoods allows both the drama and the locations to remains at street level, keeping the film personal – only three major characters – and the budget low. Moreover, the criminal aspects also provide the perfect excuse for an action scene or two, but again without overstepping the low budget schematic.

The template isn’t foolproof, however, and Wong finds himself in the position of attempting to juggle these various elements and not quite succeeding. Key to the problem are his celebrated, and now much imitated, stylistic impulses. Yet As Tears Go By – and this is other major difference in relation to the later works – was made before Wong struck up his celebrated (and now seemingly defunct) relationship with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. So whilst the look of the film is undoubtedly distinctive, it is not the one that characterised the nineties efforts. Rather the French cinéma du look (see the eighties films of Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson or Léos Carax) bears a closer relation and herein lies the difficulty. Certainly, the mixture of red and blue neon, power chords and echo-heavy percussion prove effective in the fight scenes – the one in which Lau goes on the attack with a meat cleaver is particularly noteworthy – but jars with some of the more dramatic moments. Early on in the film, for example, Lau is informed by an ex-girlfriend that she has undergone an abortion, yet the impact is dulled by Wong’s overly tricksy (in this instance) manner of shooting.

Of course, it would be naive to suggest that any such flaws are limited solely to the cinematography and indeed Wong’s script poses some difficulties. The central thrust of the film is not question (Mean Streets having served as a test run, so to speak), but rather the backstory. This is especially apparent when comparing the relationship that forms between Lau and Maggie Cheung with that between Lau and Jacky Cheung. The former begins as the film opens, whereas the latter presumably goes back to childhood. Yet whilst we get a definite feel for this newer relationship, developing as it does before our eyes, the one with Jacky Cheung lacks any true depth, which is especially damaging as it provides the crux of As Tears Go By. We never learn, for example, why the two are so inseparable despite their obvious, and frankly immense, differences. Moreover, Lau’s central figure remains too much of a cipher thereby preventing the audience from filling in their own gaps. Indeed, Wong even admitted as much in a 1995 interview (“I don’t know what he thinks or what motivates him”) before acknowledging that this led to the creation of the Leslie Cheung characters in Days of Being Wild and Ashes of Time as a means of understanding.

The situation is smoothed over to a degree, however, by Wong’s assertive handling of the actors. Maggie Cheung is impressive in perhaps the least challenging of the three leading roles, especially when you consider that at the time of the film’s production she was hitherto best known as a foil to Jackie Chan in Police Story, but it is Lau who truly amazes in the more difficult part. Despite little to go on in the way of a concrete characterisation, he is still able to bring a great deal of charisma and magnetism to the role – put simply he is that character. In fact, he becomes the first in a long line of actors to make standout (and occasionally career best) performances in a Wong Kar Wai movie: Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung, Brigitte Lin, Faye Wong, and, I’m sure, plenty more to come. As said, As Tears Go By is a promising debut.

The Disc

Whilst the release of more Wong Kar Wai titles onto DVD should be welcomed, fans of the director are likely to be hideously disappointed with Tartan’s treatment of As Tears Go By. Most notably, the disc lacks any extras beyond promos for other Tartan releases, but this pales in comparison to the fact that this release does not present the original soundtrack. Rather than the original Cantonese dialogue, we are instead offered Mandarin (in a mono DD2.0 mix). Admittedly, there is little damage to the track itself, but this is besides the point. It would appear that Tartan had requested a print in Cantonese but were mistakenly issued the wrong one. However, instead of holding back the release date in order to rectify the situation, the disc is to be placed in the shops in such condition in order to cash on the cinema release, and huge amount of press (in world cinema terms), for Wong’s latest venture, 2046, which, and this is surely not a coincidence, happens to be a Tartan release.

There is a slight concession insofar as the picture quality is quite reasonable. A crisp transfer with anamorphic enhancement has been offered, which save for the occasional scratch is in worthy condition. Certainly, the harsh neon lighting that appears in almost every scene points up the grain and the film’s age, but this is perhaps to be expected. However, despite any plus points here, it is unlikely that many will be discerning enough with regards to the soundtrack (and at time the dubbing is hideously apparent) to purchase this disc and should instead check out the imports available or sit tight until the eventual re-release (or perhaps even seek out Made in Hong Kong’s VHS release, which happened to offer the correct Cantonese soundtrack).

Anthony Nield

Updated: Jan 22, 2005

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