As Tears Go By, Wong Kar-wai’s directorial debut, is a lush neon fever dream that oozes atmosphere, explodes with intensity and brims with such stylistic restlessness that it often feels as if Wong is itching to make three or four films at once. On paper, it’s not hard to see why critics have described it as derivative of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, or even dismissed it as a generic exercise in Hong Kong crime cinema. But the look, feeling and sheer affective intensity of the film instantly announces the visionary quality of Wong’s style, and contains much of his later work in an embryonic film, thereby playing as the blueprint for an entire career. In fact, the economic and minimal plot – Triad enforcer Wah’s (Andy Lau) effort to balance his burgeoning love for his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) and the chaotic behaviour of his younger brother Fly (Jacky Cheung) – gives Wong more license to turn As Tears Go By into an exercise in pure style, with the assistance of one-off cinematographer Andrew Lau, a forerunner of the extraordinary collaborations he would embark on with Christopher Doyle.
For the most part, As Tears Go By alternates between the propulsive flows of Wah’s professional and romantic lives, both of which are clad in thick waves of synth, and framed by hyper-kinetic camera movements that swivel our attention from one person to another with reckless abandon. Virtually every scene ends with a fight, or is interrupted by one, and these volatile conflagrations grow more hyperactive and visually inventive as the film proceeds, until even the softest and quietest moments feel like so many preparations for the ultra-violence that will inevitably arrive. So radically do these fight sequences intensify that Wong has to slow them down, but this only distils their intensity, ushering in one of Wong’s trademark signatures – slow-motion that operates as a form of acceleration. Rather than simply glaciating the action, Wong’s slo-mo sequences burn with restlessness at the frame rate of cinema as he finds it, skipping from frame to frame to condense the film to its most visceral images. While can feel Wong’s hands as a director, and the hands of editors Cheung Pei-tak and Hai Hit-wau in these scenes, the film itselfalso seems to automatically sort through the images, slowing them down in the process, but only to disclose a new intensity.
This accelerated slow-motion also distils the film to the distinctive red-and-blue palette of Wong’s later work, which here plays as the neon residuum of Hong Kong, the place where neon gathers and pools after it has departed from the immediate vicinity and primary labour of all-night advertisements. The opening credits unfold against a bank of television screens overlooking a public square, and together with the neon signs in the background, these largely determine the film’s visual signature as Wong and Wau indicate in an early image of Wah shot from below, his flickering blue television the lone source of illumination. Wong collapses neon and television into a new mode of lighting, and then collapses cinema into that heady brew, until his images brim with the live prescience and freshness of television, but also burn themselves into your eyes with the urgency and violence of neon. Beyond a certain point, all the thresholds and boundaries in the film are composed of neon, which means that each space is both crushingly closed and exotically open, claustrophobic and agoraphobic at once, with one of the plot points revolving around an older couple who feel impossibly trapped by the fact that their son-in-law has dared to hold his wedding on the rooftop of a Hong Kong building, with all the sounds, sights and neon lightscapes of the city burning in the distance.
Of course, since neon needs night to resonate, most of As Tears Go By takes place at night – or more accurately, takes place on the cusp of night. For Wong immerses us in a world where there is no clear day or night, a world where night is immanent and emergent above all else – a harbinger of visionary technological convergences that can be glimpsed, but never grasped, at least not this many years before the digital revolution. The film’s synth refrains cluster around this perpetual onset of night, and in doing so open up space for a new kind of synthetic masculinity, which becomes more macho, more melodramatic and more romantically burnished all at once, so long as the men of the film can surf the intensified real-time that operates on the cusp of this neo-nocturne. Wah confesses to Ngar that “I’ve never thought about the next time doing anything,” and Fly also reflects that he would rather be a “three-minute hero” all his life. In both cases, the present moment can be meditatively and indefinitely extended so long as the characters and audience remain at the threshold of Wong’s synthy emergence, and so long as the film continually evolves with that emergence.
By halfway through the film, this fever dream has moved closer to music video than to classical cinema, which Wong signals in an extended sequence that takes place on Lantau Island. As a Cantonese cover of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” plays, Wong refocuses the hyperreality of Top Gun, moving through a series of stylised poses and postures that centre on Ngar and Wah kissing slow-motion in a phone booth, but are bookended by the ferry to and from the island, as Wah looks out across the dark sea. Between the congealment of the film’s images around the kiss, and the aeration of its images on the ferry, the images themselves seem to become almost autonomous, semi-sentient, organically fused with the music in the way that happens in the best music videos, until it’s like watching music video consume cinema from within. For in the end, As Tears Go By is a film that wants to consume itself, conflagrate itself, enact a purifying self-destruction that leaves a new kind of cinema (or something after cinema) in its place; a film in which every visual threshold, every framing device, and every site of mediation draws the inherent volatility of Wong’s vision into itself.
Shortly before leaving Wah’s apartment for Lantau Island, Ngar writes him a letter in which she informs him that she has left him a series of glasses. Since she knows that “they will all be broken” in the course of his propulsive trajectories, she has hidden one glass, which she promises to disclose to Wah if and when he writes to her. Every shot in the film feels like one of these glasses, destined to be fractured by the world we are viewing through it, much as this elusive final glass feels like a figure for the almost unimaginable visual field that Wong is trying to conjure up here – a visual field that is unimaginable because, by the end, it is no longer pure visual, but jacked into our bodies, our minds, our very prioprioceptive awareness of ourselves in space. To that end, the film doesn’t conclude so much as self-combust, as Fly flees from Wah, his trajectory taking him into a shootout that eventually consumes both brothers, with so little contextualisation, in some ways, that it is as if the affective intensity of Wong’s vision has already overtaken everything else. It’s the anti-finale of a sublime debut, and of a burgeoning director, who is already thinking three or four films deep into the future.