Not rated, but the movie would probably be rated R in the United States. The movie is laden with violence and brutality. There's some nudity that isn't prominent, but the main relationship is between two cousins. It's apparently a cultural thing that isn't really treated as taboo, but know that is fundamental to the plot. Also, the gangsters treat women violently, especially surrounding the discussion of abortion and torture animals. There's a lot here that would be R, but it is still technically not rated.
DIRECTOR: Wong Kar-Wai
I feel bad. I don't know if Wong Kar-Wai prefers Kar-Wai Wong, but I'm going to go with what is on the box set as what is the preferred nomenclature. I now have a box set of Wong Kar-Wai's that I bought at the new Barnes & Noble near my house, so I'll be writing about Wong Kar-Wai for awhile. If someone wants me to give me a heads up about Wong Kar-Wai prefers to be called, I'll adjust. I'm going to go based on the box art and what I grew up learning about him.
Boy, it is interesting seeing the first film from a director. I kind of had this same experience with a Martin Scorsese box set I bought years ago. The only famous movie in that box set was Raging Bull, so that might give some context for the era that might be included there. I used to teach Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, one of the most gorgeous romantic dramas I've ever seen. Honestly, I've always been a bit too intimated to watch things like Chungking Express. I think I saw 2046 once, but that was so long ago that I can't even confidently say that I saw it. But I remember being so moved by In the Mood for Love that I would teach that work. It was this slow and extremely vulnerable work that focused on visuals and character. So to see something like As Tears Go By, it's almost confusing to say anything about it. It screams youth. God, I can imagine myself writing this screenplay in hopes that I would change the landscape. It's just so violent and so all over the place that there isn't much to really glean from it. But let's assume that I'm watching this movie without the burden of legacy. There are elements of the film that would shape Wong Kar-Wai's films down the road.
There's a love story in there. My knee-jerk reaction to that romance is one of ickiness. The movie keeps pointing out how the two are cousins. There's that cultural divide which makes it really hard to get behind that relationship. This means that I have to put something else behind me as I'm watching the film. So there's a destiny of greatness that I have to ignore and a cultural loss of translation at the center of the film. Keep all of this in mind as I talk negatively because I do have to keep my emotional relationship with the movie real. There's a lot there that I have to fight through. I can see a lot of people liking this movie. There's a lot of John Woo in this film, which is something that I might not necessarily scream as a positive. The one thing that I don't want out of a director is the desire to be John Woo or Quentin Tarantino. John Woo and Quentin Tarantino already exist. I don't want another copy of them. Also, if I am talking about the relationship, it is really hard to root for them beyond the cousin aspect of the film.
These are two characters who are barely together. The film is meant to have this redemptive arc for Wah, the protagonist. He's a real jerk. He is abusive to women. The only really redeeming feature to him is that he sticks up for his brother, Fly. Okay. That's something. But he doesn't really form a relationship with Ngor for the majority of the film. He only realizes that he is at all interested in her once she leaves his apartment. The odd thing, it's not like Wah and Ngor had much to talk about when she was staying with him. When Wah goes to visit her, she is already in a committed relationship. I get the vibe that Wong Kar-Wai wanted to created something forbidden for Ngor to overcome. She needed to sacrifice something to be with Wah, making the tragic ending only the more tragic. But we never really experience a moment of romantic bliss between the two of them. If anything, we get a fragment of a montage explaining their love. Wah may abandon a life of crime, but we don't ever really see him come to terms with the decisions he makes in his life. He leaves because he can. That's not much of a story. I would say that the film is too short to explore that character change that brings him back to a life of violence, but the first act of the film is squandered on this.
That comes from the notion that the film wants to be cool. It treats violence as a gloriously sexy thing and that is done at the expense of the characters. For example, Wah and Fly keep running into Tony. There are these moments of cool, "Ha, we embarrassed the triad" moments. There are also these low-framed shots (that John Woo uses in a lot of his '80s films) of people torturing cats. There's so much about how Wah and Fly survive that we don't get a lot of introspection into the characters. You could say that the film is showing more than telling. But I argue that the film isn't telling us anything at all. Wah goes from a not-great guy to a good guy just because he wants to. The only narrative device we have to show Wah's transformation is his juxtaposition to Fly. Let's establish: as lame as Wah is at times, he's a million times better than Fly. (I think I wrote earlier that they are brothers. They are work-brothers?) Fly just keeps making these stupid mistakes. Now, Wah's big character arc comes from the notion that he has to constantly protect Fly from his own mistakes. But why? I mean, I thought that they were actual brothers for a lot of the movie, but now I get that Fly is simply a guy who hungers for a terrible lifestyle.
I'm being a little unfair, I suppose. Fly is an archetype that we've seen time and again. Heck, that archetype is in Rebel Without a Cause, so I can't really throw stones. But Fly is also this character who keeps just poking the bear and wondering why things are going poorly. It goes beyond bad luck. Fly has bad luck when Tony gets him arrested. But Fly is immediately let go and he knows that Tony is too big to deal with himself. If I have to make a concession, it is this: Wah has given him an unfair expectation on how confrontation should work out. Wah keeps embarrassing Tony and getting away with it. When Fly feels inferior to Wah, he overcompensates. But there are these moments in the film where Fly just keeps going. It's not like he's putting one over on Tony or doing eye-for-an-eye stuff. Fly straight up spits on Tony and gets him soaking wet. He pulls a gun on him. I would also like to stress that Fly is the one of who often instigates these issues. In the pool hall, it is Fly who picks the bad bet and then does the dishonorable thing by cheating the game. It's just so hard to say that Wah is making the right choice in defending Fly in these moments.
It's all really because a young filmmaker wants to have a cool and tragic ending. There are almost two endings to the film. Both Wah and Fly escape with their lives after being humiliated by Tony. The illusion is washed away of Wah always being right. When Fly goes back for more, there's this disconnect. Man alive, I'm embarrassed to say, but there's a Death of a Salesman connection in there too. Listen, Arthur Miller might be spinning in his grave when I compare one of his seminal works to As Tears Go By, but I can't help myself. Salesman is about one brother learning the lessons of reality and changing his ways to avoid fate. The other brother, however much evidence he is confronted with, continues in the way of his deadbeat dad. Fly is Hap Loman. There's a sense of overconfidence and a break from reality that stops this character from ever growing. But Biff never goes back to the life in that play. (For the sake of accuracy, it's implied that Biff has left that life.) When Fly goes out for a suicide mission, Wah follows him. It's meant to be this great tragedy, but of course that was going to happen. If the message is that Fly has deified the notion of honor, what does the message say when Wah finishes the job? It becomes about the job being more important than Ngor. It's a really muddied message.
But I also have to forgive a lot. Like I said, this is the movie I would have made right out of college. I keep wanting to things that are cool. It's only my old age where I discovered that quiet things have great beauty. There's a potential story in here that could be quite moving. But in the form it is now, I can't really see it.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.