At first glance, Wong gok ka moon (As Tears Go By) seems fairly mundane, one of dozens of Hong Kong crime dramas that emerged out of the 1980s. We have the requisite synth-pop soundtrack, featuring the expected cover tune of a 1980s pop classic sung in Cantonese (in this case, Berlin's "Take My Breath Away"). There's the fast cutting, the slow-mo balletic violence and bloodletting, some broad strokes of comedy, and steady undercurrents of brotherhood and devotion to one's peers versus an individual's desires to break away.
And yet, As Tears Go By is strengthened by its pervading sense of melancholy, haunting desire, and unfulfilled emotion. The 1988 film and directorial debut of heralded film talent Wong Kar-Wai is equal parts impressive and mundane, and its impressive moments are so beautifully done and masterfully shot that it makes the mundane elements all the more disappointing.
The film centers around two young Triads, Wah (Andy Lau) and Fly (Jacky Cheung). Wah is the "Big Brother", the responsible, levelheaded, and competent one, the guy who Triad bosses know can "get things done." Fly is a loose cannon, a brash and irresponsible punk whose impulsive ways usually end him up on the wrong side of a beating. Wah's personal life is enmeshed in gang bloodshed and personal melancholy. In one of the film's earliest scenes, his ex-girlfriend gleefully and maliciously informs him that she aborted their baby, just to piss him off (it works.)
The arrival of his cousin Ngor (the always talented and beautiful Maggie Cheung) changes everything. A sweet, gentle girl, Ngor has arrived from the country in order to receive treatment for a pulmonary disorder (she arrives at his doorstep with a surgical mask covering her mouth.) At first Wah instructs her to "stay out of his way", but over time Wah develops a fascination and yearning for his sweet, beautiful cousin, and sees in her an escape from the way of life to which he has found himself committed.
The film focuses itself around Wah's conflict between his gangland activities (including looking after his Little Brother) and his growing desire for Ngor. And surely, the mob activity is presented in all of its violent detail. There are beatings, shootings, stabbings, and other bloody acts that are certainly not for the squeamish. But much of it seems like films we've seen countless times before. The opening act of the film does little to distinguish As Tears Go By from a myriad of other gang flicks, Hong Kong or otherwise. But the haunting poignancy in which writer/director Wong Kar-Wai presents Wah's conflicts and relationships elevate the film above the realm of cliche. Like a snowball careening down a hill, the movie takes awhile to get going, but by the end Wong manages a touching and somewhat compelling story. If only the first half of the film were as good as the second, this film would be a masterpiece of the genre, instead of just being a pretty good (if unfortunately bipolar) gangster flick. Still, it remains an impressive debut from Wong Kar-Wai.
As Tears Go By is available as a separate DVD, as well as part of Kino's 5-DVD The Wong Kar-Wai Collection (along with Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels, Chungking Express, and Happy Together.
As Tears Go By is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen-viewing cosmic hoohah. The resulting video transfer is problematic, keeping in line with the quality of many 1980s Hong Kong movies. Colors are flat and drab, saturating the film in a washed-out look that is pretty prevalent throughout the transfer. Image detail demonstrates softness and lack of detail throughout the pictures. Contrasts are flat and lifeless. Print noise, marks, and scratches make constant appearances, and there is noticeable shimmering and line noise. Overall, this is a flat and disappointing transfer.
The audio is presented in monaural Dolby Digital 2.0, and while the soundtrack is acceptable it is still slightly problematic. Orchestrations appear harsh and thin, while special effects sound thin and lifeless. Dialog comes across satisfactorily if not impressively, but I suppose it could have been worse. Overall, I'd rate the audio as low average/high mediocre.
Special features include trailers for As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Fallen Angels, and Happy Together, text filmographies, and a stills gallery containing photographs from the production.
Not a great film, but a pretty good one, As Tears Go By made for a notable debut for first-time director Wong Kar-Wai. The quality of the DVD is lackluster, with a disappointing video transfer and acceptable audio, but the film is definitely worth a rental, especially for those who enjoy Hong Kong crime dramas or fans of Wong's later works.