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Heroes may rise and flying daggers may land but they must all start out from somewhere. In 1988 burgeoning Asian screen superstars Andy Lau and Maggie Leung signed on board for Wong Kar-wai’s feature debut and so three up and up film careers first began to intertwine. With Wong Kar-wai’s latest 2046 out on general (UK) release, last month Tartan released three of the director’s earlier efforts on DVD. As Tears Go By was the first.

As Tears Go By
Wah (Andy Lau) is a small time Hong Kong gangster cracking deals and smacking heads to make fractured ends meet fractured ends. He’s smart, street savvy and broodingly cool. He’s been around long enough to be able to take care of himself and sometime along the line took Fly (Jacky Cheung) under his wing. He’s a younger, precocious wild rocket of a wannabe gangster and half of Wah’s time is spent getting his street brother out of more trouble and sorting out the mess he’s created.

Fly is desperate to be accepted by his cool hoodlum peers. He’s reckless, immature and selfish enough for that to never happen. Soon it’s tragically apparent that his dependency on Wah, and Wah’s commitment to stand by him, will undo them both. When Fly insults a rival gangster by manically reneging on a pool bet, in his face, the downward spiral is on. With face street cred and commitments to the godfather at stake, nobody’s going to let up without a fight.

Into Wah’s hustling and busting lifestyle comes his out of town cousin Ah-ngor (Maggie Cheung). Timid and honest working she’s a polar opposite to Wah—their stagy, juddering romance is inevitable. It’s honestly played and not unbelievable, but its main purpose is to up the stakes for Wah. When he experiences a respite from the seedy world he wants to protect Ah-ngor from, when he tastes the ‘normal’ life he could lead with her, the tragic doom of his friendship with Fly looms with even more foreboding. The clash between aspiring to something else and the anchoring inescapability of street life provide the continually ratcheting drama throughout.

As Tears Go By
Remind you of anything? With no mean sense of ambition Wong Kar-wai’s feature debut is itself an effort of homage aspiration—an Asian remake of Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Transposed to the gritty streets of 1980s Hong Kong it’s an impressive re-interpretation of the young Keitel and DeNiro dynamic. Perhaps not entirely on a par with The Aviator director, it’s certainly an accomplished calling card for an auteur-in-the-making. Wong Kar-wai has a tangible blast with his camera work. Not only does he stylise his still shots with effective neon and natural lighting, but he plays with a multitude of techniques. Running dolly shots track Fly’s insane escape in a pool hall, cameras float down from ceilings, pitch alongside buses windows and roam around rooms and streets. But more than anything, in several key sequences Wong Kar-wai shows just how effective slow-mo montages can draw you both closer to a character’s state of mind and convey the dynamism of the moment.

Right from the opening credits it’s clear from both the style and music that this is an 80s film. You just have to go with this as plinky synths can’t keep a good story down. The look and visual tone may now seem dated, but it’s to the director’s credit that it never feels clichéd. In fact, it’s easier to see echoes of dark and neon influence in the diverse likes of Hard Boiled and Black Rain, which followed shortly after. This is a film that made its own ground, rather than just treading along the neon-lit pavements of another.

As Tears Go By
Wong Kar-wai’s screenplay has powerful moments and conscientiously focuses on the tragedy of his characters’ predicaments. The inner struggles to find a new soul mate or contentment but to relinquish another are genuinely conveyed.

There are a few clunks here and there as the drama gears up to its next level, but these are helped along by uniformly standout performances. Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and the whirling dervish Jacky Cheung all deliver committed and charismatic turns. Strong indications of some superbly nuanced roles that were to follow.

As Tears Go By is now seventeen years old, but the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer on this disc would have you believe it’s from the 1920s. Black and white flecking is a continual presence throughout the film. Wong Kar-wai shows a deft tendency to frame both interior and exterior shots with a purposeful use of light. So there’s plenty of opportunity for your screen to be taken up with near dark/black or white/fair light mis-en-scenes—sometimes together—which leads to much of the flecking and spotting being forever apparent. Once you accept it, it isn’t really that distracting and as the story builds up its drama and to explosive moments of violence and pathos you’re sufficiently absorbed. But, it’s definitely still there. A more conscientious transfer would have paid greater respect to the Wong Kar-wai’s debut, and added more sincerity to the release.

As Tears Go By
There is only a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono audio track, which will ultimately serve to distance the Mandarin dialogue from action on any even mediocre system. It’s an indication, however, of Wong Kar-wai’s grasp on the story and the actor’s commitment that most of the time the audio’s lacklustre audio is bearable. And those 80s music tracks don’t deserve any grandstanding anyway. There are optional English subtitles.

*Editor’s Note: As Tears Go By is a Cantonese language film, which makes the inclusion of this dubbed Mandarin track all the more frustrating.

Apart from the film, there’s scant reward for the Wong Kar-wai enthusiast (or anyone else for that matter). The disc sleeve lists ‘extensive film notes’, but they weren’t on the sample disc that I reviewed, nor were the listed original theatrical trailers.
Aside from the scene selection menu and the subtitle choice, a selection of Tartan release trailers is all that’s on offer: My Architect, Dans Ma Peau, Super Size Me, In the Mood for Love, and Freezer are all here.

As Tears Go By
As Tears Go By is an engrossing tale that feels both encapsulated by its 80s era and, due to its absorbing story and engaging performances, timeless and always relevant. Like Mean Streets this is not just about the period and the locations. Sure, they’re part of the world in which the characters live and die by the codes of the street, but the film never really shifts focus from the human relationships, fractured dreams and personal loyalties that equally bind them together and pull them apart. They’re qualities that appeal to any audience at any time and make Tears... worth another visit in its own right. A more comprehensive, quality package, however, would have made this more of essential purchase.

Of enduring interest, though, is the opportunity to watch how Wong Kar-wai began to develop his own style of direction and story handling. Tears... sees the energetic arrival of a talent, three years later Days of Being Wild saw that develop with creative maturity.