“I found that glass”
Writer/Director Kar Wai Wong hit the scene in 1988 with gangster drama 旺角卡門 [Wong gok ka moon] [As Tears Go By] in a way that many compare to Martin Scorsese‘s debut splash Mean Streets. It’s a gritty look at the streets of Hong Kong populated by men who are nothing without their fearsome reputations. “Guts” are what sustain them, keeping them alive within this cutthroat underground of tough guys bluffing in the hopes loud threats prove enough to stay at the top and crazy psychopaths calling them out each time they’re underestimated as an opponent. There can be no backing down in the face of long odds when being boss—the “Big Brother”—means acting as if you’re invincible because you are exactly that. Death only amplifies legend.
Wong’s fearless in his depiction of this dynamic through brotherhood and rivalries within a single gang under the control of a “Godfather”. The equation’s antihero is Wah (Andy Lau), a glorified debt collector peddling his muscle for a man he began working and killing for at the ripe old age of fourteen. His adversary is Tony (Alex Man), a flashy punk all about the money with more bark than bite. Coexistence shouldn’t be impossible since only vying for Godfather’s lucrative tasks comes between them, but Fly (Jacky Cheung) makes it so. Known as Wah’s second-in-command, this kid is all heart and little brains. Unable to shut-up, Fly unfortunately earns Tony’s ire as the trio’s tragic dance towards oblivion is sparked with open chest wounds and threats of gunfire.
While that all sounds great, it can’t help feeling less than original—especially seeing it for the first time almost thirty years later. As Tears Go By‘s uniqueness becomes Wong’s injection of deep romantic and platonic love. If you wanted to give the movie a tagline distilling it to its basic components, “Bros before Hoes” works. Wah is being torn apart at the seams because he’s a good guy with the ability to show compassion and empathy despite his professional demeanor. We realize this from the start as he not only agrees to let a third cousin he’s never met (Maggie Cheung‘s Ngor) stay over while visiting a Hong Kong hospital, but he’s devastated at the news his girlfriend had an abortion. Not with anger, but deep sorrow.
This is the side of gangsters we don’t often see. Most genre fare has them beat the girl as though she deserves a death sentence for killing his child. But that’s not Wah. He’s too complex and layered to follow convention. For instance: chain of command is a big part of his identity, but his respect for Godfather goes two-ways. Wah will do his bidding if he’s not micromanaged. So when Fly screws up again and again, punishment isn’t about making an example of his ineptitude. Wah instead looks to set him on an ordinary path because the title “Big Brother” isn’t something taken lightly. Just because Fly can’t cut it on the streets doesn’t mean Wah’s responsibility to watch his best friend’s back ends.
But of course this sensibility is the exception, not the rule. Wah’s compassion puts him in harm’s way when he looks to be a hero for those he loves. The attitude he’s always believed he cultivated was one steeped in a carefree nature when it came to commitments, but he can’t even fool himself with that belief. Ex-girlfriend Mabel (Ang Wong) knew exactly what getting an abortion would do. Ngor knew the effect of leaving a sweet letter subtly explaining that she would accept his criminal lifestyle if he wanted her in his life. Wah can’t help himself from wanting the things his job cannot afford, but only when he realizes the desire for them exceeds his street cred’s importance does he think about leaving it behind.
Even so, Wong ensures his characters are rendered in three-dimensions knowing desire means nothing in the face of fate. Walking away is great on paper, but Wah springs to action as soon as his beeper goes off to signal someone in trouble. That fourteen-year old boy who embraced Godfather cemented the life he was to lead and perhaps set an expiration date countdown too. The best can only be the best for so long because those clawing tooth and nail to usurp them will never play by the rules. So while the romance between Wah and Ngor is authentic in its stolen glances and gradual increase in passion, it’s also a secondary dream. It’s who he wants to be, but also an escape from what he is.
She’s the prize within his reach if he finds the strength to take it and ignore the chaos left in his wake. But that chaos is his doing whether implicitly or explicitly. Fly is his ward, answering to Wah but also putting his transgressions on him too. Romance is a distraction from brotherly love—a comradery so permanent we forget there’s no blood connection. Fly looks up to Wah so much that his relationship with his actual little brother (Ronald Wong‘s Site) pales in comparison. Fly ultimately sees himself as a failure to family and friend along with himself and the only way out is through a show of force he was never built to deliver. Wah has to look out for him because no one else will.
It’s a fantastically drawn kinship that carries through many hiccups along the way. The fight scenes are brutal and beautiful (Fly and Site running past billiard tables is stunning) and the quieter moments poignant. Fly and Wah have a shorthand when it comes to showing force and they can grow volatile with each other when certain inevitabilities prove less than desirable. But no character is ever deluded into believing the outcome will be anything more than it is. Ngor knows what Wah is and so does Fly. This up-and-coming bad ass of the streets is therefore predictable and can be fooled from doing what he wants. Unfortunately he’s also stubborn. Any distraction only lasts so long before Wah is right where he needs to be.