As Tears Go By
Wong Kar Wai’s scintillating debut feature is a kinetic, hyper-cool crime thriller graced with flashes of the impressionistic, daydream visual style for which he would become renowned. Set amidst Hong Kong’s ruthless, neon-lit gangland underworld, this operatic saga of ambition, honor, and revenge stars Andy Lau as a small-time mob enforcer who finds himself torn between a burgeoning romance with his ailing cousin (Maggie Cheung, in the first of her iconic collaborations with the director) and his loyalty to his loose cannon partner in crime (Jacky Cheung) whose reckless attempts to make a name for himself unleash a spiral of violence. Marrying the pulp pleasures of the gritty Hong Kong action drama with hints of the head-rush romanticism Wong would push to intoxicating heights throughout the 1990s, As Tears Go By was a box office smash that heralded the arrival of one of contemporary cinema’s most electrifying talents.
As Tears Go By (1988) film notes by Tova Gannana for Far Away Entertainment
Wah’s (Andy Lau) couch is his bed. His apartment bare and dirty; dishes fill the sink. Light comes from outside and seeps in through blinds and curtains. His home is not for formal family but for the family he has made on the streets. His aunt calls to tell him a cousin he has never met is on her way to stay with him. Ngor (Maggie Cheung) arrives soon after like a letter. Wearing a white mask to protect others from her cough, in Hong Kong she will see a doctor. Nothing about Wah’s life is glamorous. He is the appeal not what surrounds him. Ngor searches in Wah’s kitchen for water to take her medicine. Broken glasses litter; plates of food sit around rotting. These are scenes she seems to have never seen. Ngor and Wah move around the apartment to accommodate the other. Ngor on the couch in the main room; Wah on the couch in the bedroom. Static sounds from the TV as Wah changes channels. He goes out dressed and comes back drunk. This is his life. A long term girlfriend has an abortion and tells him he was the father. His motto is as all gangsters put it in films, “I’m not the marrying type.” Wah is loyal. He is big brother to Fly (Jacky Cheung) and Site (Ronald Wong) with whom he forms a triad within a Hong Kong gang. Women thus far have not been who he has fought for. He beats up and kills anyone who mistreats Fly and Site. They are his little brothers and he calls them such. Ngor is modern in her modesty. She is like an unmade-up teenage Natalie Woods. Ngor takes Site’s spot after Site marries. In this new triangle Wah is pulled between Ngor and Fly. Before Ngor returns healthy to where she is from, she cooks and cleans for Wah. She smokes a cigarette as she waits for him. Wah takes the cigarette from her, his fingers touching her hand. Ngor lives on Lantau Island a ferry ride away. Known as the lungs of Hong Kong, Lantau Island is a place Wah could escape to. What keeps Wah in Hong Kong is looking after Fly.
As Tears Go By (1988) feels like a film whose characters have watched other films and decided to make the same fatal mistakes. No one will be redeemed because that is not gangster life. In the movies the men who carry guns, baseball bats, knives, who drive fast cars and see many women, seem to still have a soft spot for their mothers and tradition. They fight one another. They have remorse but are unable to change course. Their work is in bloodshed. Wah and Fly don’t own cars. They walk to wherever they are meant to arrive. They are tasked with debt collection for their godfather who is at the head of the gang. Their rivals are men who look and act like them but have no heart. One forces a cat to drink beer. Wah would never do that. He has kindness in his edges. He is sweet like a ripe pear. If only he’d let Ngor pick him off the branch but no, he will rot on the tree.
Ngor leaves Wah a note, “I made a meal for you in the kitchen. I also bought a few more glasses. I knew they’d all get broken sooner or later so I hid one of them. One day when you need that glass, give me a call and I’ll tell you where it’s hidden.” Wah reads this in his kitchen, one knee pulled to his chest. He could have left for Lantau Island then. Ngor later asks why he didn’t.
Like the breakout song As Tears Go By (1965) written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for Marianne Faithfull to sing, Wah’s voice will accompany Ngor throughout her life. She knows this as she taps goodbye to him on the window of the bus he rides.
As Tears Go By is a song about growing up and looking back. It is melancholic the way the children’s rhyme Row Row Row Your Boat is about what is certain: life and death. The lyrics like a fairy tale. The phrasing of the Stones song matches the film As Tears Go By. The lines of the song are more spoken than sung. The scenes in the film are more motion than action.
Wah and Fly remind one of Mick and Keith performing on the Ed Sullivan show tight in the frame against a black background. In suits with white shirts buttoned at their throats, their haircuts match. They are even. One sings the other plays guitar. Their song is brief but we get the picture. Together they are great at what they do. The song As Tears Go By perfectly distills what it means to no longer be an innocent. Many have covered this song. The lyrics change with the language but not the melody or the phrasing.
If Fly would only join Wah and Ngor on Lantau Island no one from Hong Kong would find them. In 1988 one could disappear if one wanted. As Tears Go By takes place in what the Guiness Book of World Records calls the busiest district in the world. In the film this district feels very small. We see the same faces in the same bars, the same fights in the same streets. Wah runs into his ex girlfriend who is pregnant again. This time she is married. They stand under an awning in the rain. They are amicable.
In 1987 Marianne Faithfull sang As Tears Go By not on a soundstage in London wearing a dress as she did in 1965, but in a trenchcoat on a ferry to Manhattan. Faithfull sounds strong but seems weary. In the music video she walks the ferry deck, stands at the bow of the boat, s its on a bench inside looking through a window at the city.
Tova Gannana is a film curator and critic.