Love is all a matter of timing. Wong Kar-wai’s, As Tears Go By (1988) revisited
By Evelio Zavala
There are very few films I can confidently say are alive and breathing when you watch them. There is another world separate from us that exist without our involvement, and even if a camera wasn’t on these sets of characters, you can still picture the story-world living and breathing on its own.
Wong Kar-wai’s directorial debut reminds me of one of his quotes: “Love is all a matter of timing. It’s no good meeting the right person too soon or too late.”
Wong Kar-wai, familiar to film aficionados as the director/writer of his 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love, was already an accomplished storyteller before settling into the directing chair.
In As Tears Go By, we follow Wah (played by Andy Lauh) and Fly (played by Jackie Cheung, who was awarded the Best Supporting Actor Award at the 8th Hong Kong Film Awards) working for the mob, collecting debt when they need to (using violence, if necessary). The film has no shortness on blood and action, with one of the film’s intense chase scenes where Fly runs off with Site and is attacked by gang members after running off a fixed game of pool. The level of consequence never leaves, as Site is slashed across the chest and nearly dies.
And yet, the film is about love. Wong Kar-wai could quite possibly be the best romance filmmaker. Ever. (Fight me.)
But a film like this is mostly motivated by action, intense action, so I hear you saying (or not, who knows?), how does that tie into romance? Well, let’s be frank. Action is the driving force of romance. Characters have to act upon their feelings, and while it is important, if not integral, that characters falling in love should take a moment to let these feelings and thoughts breathe, with their significant other, or alone, we must remember, their lives, very much like our own, have been nothing but moments of static. Unbroken routines people have settled into.
This is their life: Wah and Fly navigating the criminal underworld, both making a living day by day. Wah being the muscle and real threat, where Fly is still struggling to be tall and can only talk a big game, evident in one of the first scenes where Fly has to call for Wah’s help in retrieving someone’s debt and unable to get through until Wah has to do the dirty work. Regardless, they could die any day. That’s their routine.
It is not until they find someone, that special someone, they are awakened and jolted into action—either to make the change or allow to be changed.
With that, we come back to the film’s actual beginning. An opening shot of a clock, echoing back Kar-wai’s quote, but after the credits we see Wah asleep, with people constantly calling him, ruining any chance of a decent sleep. It’s not until Wah is informed his younger cousin Ngor (played by Maggie Cheung, who also played Mrs. Chan from In the Mood for Love) who he has never met to stay in Hong Kong for the next days, with him, that he is actually able to sleep. It’s through these interactions we see Wah change as a person, and soon tries to break away from this life. After all, it’s because of Ngor that Site was able to survive the attack, as she and Wah help tend to his wounds.
Again, quoting, Wong Kar-wai, “Most of my films deal with people who are stuck in certain routines and habits that don't make them happy. They want to change, but they need something to push them. I think it's mostly love that causes them to break their routines and move on.”
Not only that, change comes through as well with Fly, who wants to prove himself and be taken seriously. Although his pride is his main downfall, Jackie Cheung gives it his all and offers us a character we understand how and why he is the way he is, in no short contribution thanks to Wong Kar-wai and Jeffrey Lau’s script. All of this prevents Fly from being a one-note character. If not love for a woman, love for Wah, who always has his back, protecting and looking out for him. Fly can be explosive, but it’s a rage for respect and to be an equal, if not greater.
His ideology comes clear when the two go head to head with one another, with Fly justifying his actions because “Everyone looks down on me. Does that make you happy? People think I'm nothing, like some stray dog just following you around! Did you know that? I'd rather be a hero for one day than go on being a fly all my life!”
Even if we were simply complimenting the direction, the acting and writing, this could never be enough to justify how vibrant this film is. With amazing cinematography done by Andrew Lau, who would become a director in his own right by co-directing 2002’s Infernal Affairs, which was remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed. Lau’s camera shines brightly, giving us some of the best usage of lighting and color aesthetics that would become a stable of the director’s filmography, even after Christopher Doyle became the cinematographer who’s shot the most films with Wong Kar-wai.
Add on to that high praise, the editing is such a stand out. The film had three editors (Cheung Pei-tak, Hai Kit-wai, and William Chang, who went uncredited), and that might spell disaster. After all, too many cooks in the kitchen isn’t usually a good thing. After watching the film, the editing style may suggest a wide variety of techniques, but feels strangely consistent, unified even. You would think we were in the hands of one person, making all the right calls, whether it’s traditional cuts or experimenting with unorthodox techniques.
One scene includes Wah chasing down the people who harmed Fly and Site, and the film’s frame speed is slowed down. Most films use that technique as an ends of themselves, when you need to slow down and show the audience what is going on because the camera was too fast. Not here. What this effect suggests in the film’s context, Wah is experiencing everything so fast that the film cannot keep up with his emotions. It’s only after he slashes a man’s chest, in the same way Site was harmed, that the frame rate is back to normal and we stay on Wah. This is repeated two more times: once more when Ngor and Wah embrace in each other’s arms, and at the end. All high intense emotions the film simply cannot process all at once, as Wah is only acting upon his actions, with no time to think twice about the consequences.
All this action, because Wah is in love, Fly wants to be loved, and Ngor who unintentionally finds it, even after she leaves the film thirty minutes in, we don’t forget her, because Wah hasn’t either. She’s still there, even when her character isn’t on screen. Love comes in all shapes and forms, and it is the driving force of characters here—love drives their actions. They are no longer interested in being static people, living day by day. It’s like Fly said, better to die a hero for one day than be a fly (oh, I get it) for the rest of your life, a wallflower, an uninvolved observer. Watching this movie, you can’t help but come out exhilarated, even after it’s tragic ending.
No more is that clear in Kar-wai’s debut feature. Love causes us to break free from our routines, for better or for worse. Either way, we will not stay dormant forever, allowing life to pass us through. We will live, we will breathe, and, yes, we will love.
About the writer
Evelio Zavala is an aspiring filmmaker, writer, editor, and playwright. An avid reader, fellow film aficionado, D&D enthusiast, and podcast junkie. He lives in Chicago with his two cats. His one regret in life is he wasn’t born rich. He is studying Media Arts at Chicago State University.