Sunday, May 9, 2010

Wong Kar-wai's As Tears Go By (1988)

The plot of As Tears Go By ("a small time gangster trying to keep his smaller time gangster friend out of trouble," as Wikipedia says, crossed with what Mrs. Sgt. T called the old Uptown Girl-Downtown Guy motif) is pretty conventional. That matters - for about fifteen minutes.

After that, the movie's fervid pacing and fevered visuals, not to mention the frantic performances, make you believe. It helps if you have nothing against good old-fashioned melodrama, because that's what the gangsters here provide - Andy's Lau's main character is cool and collected, but his "brothers" are so hot-headed they make Sonny Corleone look prudent, while also being so inept they make Fredo look like a real gangster.

So on the one hand Andy Lau is trying to keep the lid on gangland tensions involving his charges, and on the other he's trying to start up a romance with his gorgeous cousin Maggie Cheung. Here's where the English title and the subtitles obscure some of the (perfectly hackneyed) subtext: he's from a particularly seedy part of Kowloon called Mongkok (which the Chinese title references), and she's from an island in the harbor. Different sides of the tracks, so to speak, so to him she represents not just all the feminine allure that Maggie Cheung represents for all of us, but also, you know, Escape. Again, nothing new here. But Lau does a great job of showing us a man torn between his loyalty to his street and his longing for her island - he's convincingly too cool for Mongkok, but too rough for Maggie's world.

And the visuals. That's what it comes down to. I lived through this era, and Mrs. Sgt. T was living in Hong Kong in this era, and Wong perfectly captures a certain vision of the era. The oversaturated reds and blues, the smoky darknesses and harsh angled lights: it was the Blade Runner vision of East Asia, as seen through the masterful lens of a young and gonzo Wong Kar-wai - and inhabited by characters dressed in stone-washed jeans and muscle shirts. The opening shot, where our cheeks are pressed up against a wall of glowing cathode-ray tubes, says everything: we're going to be thrust right into an electrified, staticky night world, long on passion and short on class. Red Lips Bar, one setting is called. Yeah, dude.

It's all set to a soundtrack that could only have come at the awesome end of the Giorgio Morder synth decade. "Take My Breath Away" sounds even better in Sandy Lam's version than Berlin's.

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