As Tears Go By

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/18/05 01:44:22

"An unassuming start."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Wong Kar-Wai's first feature as a writer-director is an unassuming thing, a solid little movie about a gangster with a decent heart being pulled in opposite directions by the two people he spends the most time with. It's a safe first movie, predictable in its way and commercial, but showing enough skill and craft that one isn't completely surprised by the leap forward that Days of Being Wild would represent.

Wah (Andy Lau) is in the Triads, and he does all right with it - he can scare someone or deliver a beating when necessary, and he's progressed far enough that some folks call him "big brother" - but he doesn't necessarily think of it as a career. Not that he has something else he'd rather be doing; he's just young and rather aimless. He's like a lot of twentysomethings that haven't mapped their life out that way; the state of his apartment would instill a desire to clean into the average male American college student. Most of his goodwill in the gang is spent on cleaning after Fly (Jacky Cheung), who does rather like being a gangster, but isn't much good at it.

Things are moving smoothly along like that until his aunt shows up from across the bay in Kowloon with his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung). Ngor, the aunt says, is sick and has to see a city doctor, so she'll stay with him until her treatment is complete. Wah tries to protest, but he's about as able to stand up to a determined aunt as Bertie Wooster. And, besides, Ngor's nice. She cleans the apartment up, she's excited by the city's crowds, and she's pretty. Following her back to Kowloon when she gets better is awful tempting.

Yeah, I know, they're cousins. I'm going to guess that the people responsible for the subtitles chose not to spell out "third cousin", because "only uptight middle-class Americans think a relationship between people who share a set of grandparents is creepy" means that the problem is with me. Once you get past that, they're a likable, if not particularly unique, couple. There's a similarly pleasant camaraderie between Wah and Fly, at least until Ngor shows up. It's not so much that the woman comes between the pair as much as being with her demonstrates that it's possible to enjoy someone's company without karmic payback in the form of some big pain in the neck.

The performances are all decent enough, though not exceptional enough to make the movie remarkable outside of context. Lau is pretty good, believable when called upon to be a crazy gangster and when he's got to be decent underneath that. Jacky Cheung does good ne'er-do-well, kind of a screw-up, and obviously too weak of character to just take it when the other gangsters tease him after Wah gets Fly a job as a pushcart vendor. Maggie Cheung is pretty and sweet, which is her character's job.

While the characters are well-realized and Wong's direction is very solid, his screenplay is perhaps too rigid. Ngor is a character designed for convenience - she is Wah's cousin because that explains why she would be brought to the city to stay with him, and a romantic interest because that will tempt him to leave. Her ailment is vague and undefined, and she never shows many outward signs of ill health. And while Wong and his cinematographer, Wai Keung Lau, do a very fine job of separating the outdoor innocence of the country and the indoor corruption of the city, the logistics of getting from one to the other in the second half occasionally seem arbitrary: Sometimes it's difficult to make the commute, and Fly is more or less abandoned, and sometimes it's easy to shuttle back and forth; the timeline isn't clear.

Also, though Wong Kar-Wai's later films will become distinctive and idiosyncratic, his adherence to genre convention here is sometimes painful. If you've watched a certain amount of Hong Kong genre fare, from Yuen Biao martial arts to John Woo action to Andrew Lau drama, you've probably reached the point where you cringe at the ballad. It comes at about 2/3 the way through, it's painfully saccharine, often accompanied by flashbacks, and plays in its entirety. This film has two, which is one and a half too many. The violent action denouement is also fairly predictable.

Unusual, but not helping matters, was the print's peculiar subtitling, or lack thereof. Not that it was hard to follow the story when the titles just kicked out for minutes at a time, but, still, weird. And to the guy three rows behind me, there's nothing they can do about it in the booth, so shut up.

This is a pretty decent movie. You've probably seen Hong Kong or independent crime movies like it, and without context, you wouldn't pay it much heed. But it's Wong Kar-Wai's first film, so it's worth a look.

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