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As Tears Go By
cast: Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, and Alex Man

director: Wong Kar-wai

100 minutes (18) 1988
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Tartan DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Patrick Hudson
Wah is a 'big brother' in the gang world of Kowloon, and is responsible for his 'little brothers' Fly and Site. He's very cool and tough, but is held back by his little brothers, particularly Fly who combines rash boastfulness with a lack of competence for the gangster business. Despite this, Wah's very protective of them and it's this compassion that holds him back more than their uselessness. After his na�ve cousin Ngor arrives from Lantau for a few days he slowly realises he has fallen in love with her and that he doesn't have the stomach for the gangster business after all. At the same time, however, Fly's increasingly stupid attempts to show his worth as a gangster get both Wah and Fly into more and more trouble.

This is an early film by Wong Kar-wai, one of the breakthrough Asian filmmakers of the 1990s. His Chungking Express established his reputation in the west as a perceptive observer of contemporary relationships and a great screen stylist. Since then, he has gone on to make a string of highly regarded dramas such as Happy Together, In The Mood For Love and the recent, and controversial, 2046 (2004).

This is a more straightforward genre work than his later films, a crime drama and romance of the sort that is universally popular with film-goers the world over, and particularly so in Hong Kong. As such, it goes through the expected plot motions and the characters are broadly archetypal, but like the best genre films of any sort the joy is in the execution. The romance between Wah and Ngor is developed with great subtlety - just when you think that Wah's forgotten all about her, it all comes welling up in a beautiful and believable way. The relationship between Fly and Wah is also well portrayed. One is never left wondering why Wah still hangs around with him, and Fly remains sympathetic despite his many character flaws.

The film does show its age a little, however. The photography is very '1980s' with lots of neon at night and pastel shades, and the music is execrable 1980s' soft rock. In fact, I had to fast forward through a few of the montages because my ears were starting to close over in revolt. These are small distractions however, from a fast-paced and exciting romantic drama.

One of the greatest pleasures of this film is the portrayal of the Hong Kong underworld. The complicated relationships of the big brothers and little brothers and their Godfather, and the rivalries and turf wars are quite compelling. They have the same sort of warmth-edged-with-malevolence of Pauli's gang in Goodfellas, and seemingly the same taste in sweaty diners and bad shirts.

I'm not sure what it says about us that we find these characters so fascinating, even admirable. As with all these macho gangster types, the key conflicts in As Tears Go By spring from over-sensitivity to honour and respect - what another person might ignore becomes a matter of high importance for a gangster. Maybe this reflects the reality of the world of loan sharking and protection where your reputation for hardness has a direct impact on your business.

This is a tense and well-constructed film, with the right balance of crime and romance to appeal to a wide audience. The action is well paced, the relationships are engrossing and believable, and the ending will kick you in the guts. Highly recommended.
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