Saturday, April 17, 2021

Mong Kok Carmen / As Tears Go By

 Cool Rules the Wild East

Wong Kar-wai's first film, 1988's Mong Kok Carmen / As Tears Go By, today plays like a glimpse of things to come ("FUTURE" reads just one of the Kowloon cityscape's thousands of neon signs) which indeed came to pass both in the way of a hyper-stylized Asian cinéma du look, and, more substantively, in Wong's body of work over the following three decades. It might not be out of order to alternately pair his films in a program with those of Leos Carax, for he and Wong are two contemporary directors who remind us that style, specifically that which was found in the studio pictures of yore, provides entry to the most sensitive of mises-en-scène — at the term's ontological bases of formal rigor, propagation of discourses, and intellectual-emotional insights. No empty style: if viewed as a 98-minute sizzle-reel, As Tears Go By suggests that WKW's career could have taken one route (the exploration of Longing) or the other (torture-picture). We got the infinitely richer of the two; we find Wong already working with a vocabulary of objects (drinking glasses, soda-pop, mustard-and-ketchup-colored Mong Kok transit), within a syntax of repetition, of time brought to a halt and the fleetingness of 'now.' The Wong of coming and going, staying and leaving, phone calls accorded no connection at 'the end of the line.'

Andrew Lau Wai-keung's cinematography can at last be seen at home in all its glowing splendor with the new 4K scan and restoration (although it's worth noting that in the case of this film and Days of Being Wild, Wong didn't oversee the work) included in Criterion's handsome objet-box World of Wong Kar Wai. A controversial release for a few reasons, which I'll touch upon as I write more in the near future on the films included therein. For now, I'd simply raise an eyebrow at (1) the exclusion of the films' on-screen Chinese titles' translation anywhere in the set, and (2) the inclusion of John Powers, charged with writing what turns out to be a staid, vapid essay that singly represents the main content of an otherwise lavish book that might have been found in the accreditation bags at Cannes. (One new, very interesting document which I'll address soon has also been commissioned: a director's statement by Wong.) Besides being the insufferably chirpy 'movie reviewer' for NPR's Fresh Air, Powers brings the credential of having co-authored in 2016 with Wong one of those Rizzoli books, titled WKW: The Cinema of Wong Kar Wai; if this piece is any indication, I'll never touch the tome. In the World of Wong Kar Wai essay, he likens the performance of Jacky Cheung Hok-yau in As Tears Go By to that of Robert De Niro in Mean Streets, perceiving in Cheung "an almost hysterical Method ferocity." — an absolutely foolish observation. Prior, Powers describes lead Andy Lau Tak-wah as "[k]nife-thin," which will come as a surprise to anyone who's seen recent images of the now-shred-ripped Lau and compared them to 1988's perfectly average physique — to my eyes, one not generally accustomed to aid in tearing phone-books. The whole thing enervates. Where were Charles Tesson, or Olivier Assayas, the editors of Cahiers' celebrated Made in Hong Kong special, as only two examples and who aren't even from Hong Kong? 

Assayas being, of course, the author of Irma Vep (Johnnie To citation aside) and the ex-husband of Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, so perhaps that answers that. But it would be remiss to finish without mentioning the now-publicity-shy Cheung, who with As Tears Go By launches her career. In the moment she asks Andy Lau how long he'll stay in town for, and he answers that he hasn't decided, her physical reflex-response — a certain smile, a certain glance off-frame — is worthy of the Ringo Kid's tracking close-up in Stagecoach. A star is born. •


Other writing about Wong Kar-wai at Cinemasparagus:


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