Day 21: AS TEARS GO BY (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong, 1988)
Having watched Wong Kar Wai’s kinetic debut I have now seen all of the feature films the revered Hong Kong director has made to date; I certainly can’t claim that I saved the best for last—indeed, through long stretches I wasn’t even enjoying it all that much—but in the several days that have since passed I have found a number of moments, images, and aural effects have lodged themselves firmly in the back of my mind, reasserting themselves evocatively in unexpected moments (this situation is, of course, par for the course when it comes to Wong’s eclectic, uniquely restless brand of cinema). Intended as a demonstration that the longtime scriptwriter was capable of taking over full creative control, As Tears Go By is on one hand a genre film replete with the expected action sequences, visceral fight scenes, incoherent double-crossings, and requisite homosocial bonding between groups of men, but they are all constantly interrupted by moody and melancholy narrative tangents depicting emotional nomads desperately attempting to connect with each other. Wong has admitted his two major sources of inspiration was Mean Streets and Stranger Than Paradise, and the film really does seem to function on some levels as a Scorsese/Jarmusch mash-up, but even the most derivative-feeling moments are quickly upended, as suddenly everything will spin in an unexpected direction and unveils something startling and fresh.
I will admit that the violence, often quite explicit and extreme, frequently tempered my reaction to the film, though in retrospect I recognize that the bursts of physical brutality give shape and weight to the wistful longing and ambiguous wanderings that culminate in Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung’s tentative courtship. Cheung’s awful hairstyle and awkward clothing can’t obscure the fact she’s one of cinema’s most luminous presences that the camera unreservedly adores, but what is particularly striking—and was a bit surprising—is what seems to be the presence of a rather overt queer eye: this is very much a film interested, even preoccupied with, male beauty. Alongside the groups of muscular men brooding in tight tank tops, Lau’s presence is endlessly savored, his body unashamedly showcased in a way that seems to directly point to Happy Together a decade later (which until now has always felt like a bit of a mystery in the context of Wong’s career—where did this spectacular classic of queer cinema come from?—but now those dynamics feel more fully accounted for). Ultimately a great part of the pleasure of watching As Tears Go By is the sense of witnessing origination: so many of the motifs, techniques, moods, actors, images, and sounds that went on to establish themselves as hallmarks of Wong’s immediately recognizable cinematic style are already so visible, and it’s often thrilling to experience even when the film itself isn’t completely successful, pointing instead to the greater things to come.
[Watch As Tears Go By on Fandor here.]