Pop goes the pop. A gangster (Andy Lau) houses a distant cousin he’s just met/ fallen in love with (a yet-to-be beautiful Maggie Cheung) and makes his ambitious protégé (Jacky Cheung) do grunt work selling fish balls illegally on the street. Luckily with a story like this, the story doesn’t matter: As Tears Go By (1988), Wong Kar-wai’s first feature, is a bunch of homages to Mean Streets, with Wong’s famous slow-mo already making people look like streaking rain, and haphazardly applied to action scenes of of either variety, love-making or gun-blasting.. Any gesture of love is accompanied by another shameless chorus of a Mandarin cover of “Take My Breath Away,” though for a guy who’s ended his latest film with a voice-over letting us know that life ain’t so bad when you got a bit of that ol’ gee-whiz spirit, Wong packs his first with a hell of a lot of blood and gore; but then, this world is no more real than that of My Blueberry Nights, both films gag-filled concoctions designed to appease stereotypical men and stereotypical women respectively. Which As Tears Go By, at least, does admirably, or at least amply—though maybe only thanks to the intrusion of some reality. Even while this may be a synth-laden universe where one man instructs another to “look at your reflection in your own piss,” Wong, on a presumably shoestring budget, and looking like he’s literally shooting from the hip (in neon reds and dirty blues), provides a perfectly worthwhile tour to the grungy grudge-ridden back alleys and eateries of 1988 Hong Kong. This being a Wong film, even the most anonymous kitchens look like they could belong on billboards.
But what’s missing is distance, some narrative distance that lets things be seen in ellipses and silhouettes, and even the distance Christopher Doyle would provide Wong with his ultra-low lenses; here, there’s no time for ennui. Overripe, underdeveloped, and perfectly interesting only until the lights come on, the film works something like an early Clash record, played by artists barely in control of their material: a bunch of riffs played fast and loose on the same couple themes—in this case, a guy and a girl coyly falling in love (she wears a surgical mask! Just because he’s a badass doesn’t mean he can’t be mopish!), and guys and guys beating the shit out of each other. Actually, the analogy works better for Wong’s better films, matching transience with catatonia, in which the rapid flickers and fleeting gestures make for counterpoint to an obsessive recurrence to the same old spaces, flames—and gestures. Start-and-stop (most explicitly in Happy Together) has been Wong’s signature rhythm as chronicler of the impassioned not-quite lovers who are always too hesitant to consummate their desires in fear their love might die: movement starts and stops, slows down and speeds up, and characters start and stop their well-worn games with each other in hopes of regenerating their power. The exceptions might be Wong’s recent films, which are nearly suffocating in their catatonia and blanket lighting, or, for that matter, As Tears Go By, which, quite the reverse, is so reckless that once it starts it never stops to breathe. Some comedic miscommunications and tragic surrenders aside, nobody hesitates here. They kick each other in the balls; they fuck.
***As Tears Go By is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, May 2-8.