Saturday, May 03, 2008

Trail of Tears

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting the U.S. theatrical premiere on Wong Kar Wai's debut film As Tears Go By, which opened the year I arrived in the Crown Colony, 1988. Watching it this afternoon took me back. Not the film itself, really--like many of Wong's movies much of it takes place in fairly drab interiors, though it does get outside more than usual. It was the vibe, the thrum of the place back in that bustling, pre-handover era. The highlight is an exciting, kinetically shot foot chase through a hawkers' market that ends on a busy street, a reminder that Wong, who is content with still lifes these days, used to shoot motion pictures. BAM should have double-billed it with the current, narcoleptic My Blueberry Nights for a compare-and-contrast.

In this case, Tears would be the "winner," if you like your movies to be about something other than pretty pictures navel-gazing (and if you must pit them against each other, which I'm not saying you should). But Wong's acolytes tend to dismiss the film, finding it little more than a more stylish gloss on the formulaic, guns-blazing "heroic bloodshed" pictures that were all the rage when I got there. That it is. But it's more than that, too. Borrowing from Mean Streets, it spins a familiar story, of a bad guy trying to reform for love's sake. The charismatic and I think underrated Andy Lau is Wah, a self-confident gangster who is constantly bailing his friend less-stable friend Fly out of trouble. (The film is full of colorful monikers.) Wah's ease is undermined when his hostess girlfriend announces that she's aborted their child; he finds a measure of solace with his newly arrived cousin, Ngor, played by Maggie Cheung (luminous even when fighting off "lung malfunction," treatment for which has brought her to Hong Kong). Fly, portrayed by the showoffy and scenery-chewing Jacky Cheung (Robert De Niro from the Scorsese picture he's not), continues to fly off the handle with the underworld big shots, and which loyalty Wah will choose--to himself and to his relationship with Ngor, or to Fly--is the crux of the picture.

As Tears Go By was shot by Andrew Lau, who as a director later made the hit Infernal Affairs pictures, adapted by Scorsese into The Departed (Alas, his American debut, The Flock, a serial sex cult thriller thing with Richard Gere and Claire Danes as investigators, was reworked by others and is going straight-to-video this month, one of the highest-profile pictures to do so.) Lau's cinematography personifies flash, and there are some nice tricky sequences; the chase, for example, or a distorted, slo-mo confrontation that Wah has with some thugs, one of whom is feeding beer to a cat. Wong might have gone the route of Michael Mann, and the 80s-ish score (including a Cantopop cover of "Take My Breath Away") points the way. The camerawork is at its most searching, however, simply photographing the tight but expressive faces of its two leads, or quietly exploring some of the nooks and crannies of Hong Kong's street life. Of interest to me: When Ngor turns up on Wah's doorstep in Kowloon, I thought she must have come from the mainland. But it's the (then) more provincial Lantau Island, part of Hong Kong and a ferry ride away, yet a culture apart, that she hails from. (I lived in the more suburban and "cosmopolitan" sector of Lantau.)

BAM is showing As Tears Go By through May 8. The print isn't the greatest; Hong Kong, perpetually a culture of the now, hasn't shown much interest in film preservation and restoration, even of its recent past. (There are laudable efforts to correct this, however.) Like the film itself, however, it is good enough--a modest budget and a commensurate film stock may be to blame--and the subtitles are blessedly clean and legible. Maybe Wong, from a loftier but more precarious perch today, should try another exercise in genre and get the lead out of his filmmaking.

No comments: