The film opens to a symbolic shot of Wah lying obscured beneath a blanket that is half cast in shadow on a sunny late spring afternoon as he is rudely awakened by the repeated telephone calls of a persistent, overly familiar aunt. Explaining that a distant cousin named Ah-Ngor (Maggie Cheung) has gone to the city for medical treatment related to a respiratory infection, the aunt catches the drowsy and unfocused Wah off-guard by proposing a presumptuous request for him to accommodate the young woman during her extended stay in town. The imposed arrangement immediately proves inconvenient as inferences of Wah’s association with organized crime surface when his bombastic but inutile protégé Fly (Jacky Cheung) calls to provide periodic status on a stalled and protracted attempt to collect an outstanding debt from a resistant and confrontational thug. Unable to carry out his assigned tasks and often inciting trouble with his arrogant bravado, Fly has proven himself to be a liability and embarrassment to the local mob boss who repeatedly advises Wah to redirect his volatile protégé towards a more mundane vocation. Wah attempts to insulate his cousin from his disreputable affairs during her visit but is unavoidably implicated when Fly and his brother Ah-Site (Ronald Wong) stagger into Wah’s apartment to seek assistance for injuries sustained during an instigated pool hall brawl. Inevitably, Ah-Ngor returns to the normalcy of her bucolic life in the province, and soon, Wah begins to reassess his life, fueled in part by a chance encounter with a former girlfriend who has since married, and the looming threat of a police crackdown after a high-ranking mob informant is arrested.
Marking Wong Kar-wai’s first foray into feature film, As Tears Go By subverts the familiar images of frenetic violence and non-stop action endemic in contemporary Hong Kong films with a more somber, atmospheric, and contemplative portrait of failed connection and unrequited longing. Wong incorporates evocative, highly stylized elements that would become the filmmaker’s indelible aesthetic signature: chaotic chase sequences reflected through fragmented, stroboscopic motion (later implemented in Chungking Express); integration of music as a leitmotif for the characters’ emotional state (which, in the film’s case, is an idiosyncratic rendition of Berlin’s Take My Breath Away sung in Chinese); the sentiment of adrift melancholy articulated through dispassionate voice-over narration, toy airplanes, and transitional (and allusively transcendent) images of travel (most notably in the interstitial shot of passing buses as Wah reads Ah-Ngor’s letter); the permutability of time through accelerated and slow motion sequences and narrative ellipses (the final image of Wah that momentarily triggers a flashback). Presenting a contemporary urban drama that is both socially relevant and philosophically existential, the film serves as haunting and provocative examination of the consequence of obligation, the irreconcilability of fate, and the tragedy of missed opportunity.
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