Samuel Johnson said, “No man was ever great by imitation,” but in show business, it’s a fine place to start. For Wong Kar-wai, imitation was a means by which to forge his own, unmistakable style. In his feature debut, As Tears Go By, Wong drew heavily from Hollywood genre pictures and New American Cinema. He based his male lead on DeNiro’s Johnny Boy from Mean Streets and his female lead on Eva, the outsider-waif from Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. The comparison ends there, however, because Wong transforms these cinematic “types” into something distinctively his own. Almost 30 years after its release, As Tears Go By remains a bombastic punch to the senses. It’s a chaotic debut filled with blood, urban brawls and one of the most intense makeouts in film history.

While Scorsese and Jarmusch deserve credit as inspirations, Wong’s father does too. He was a nightclub manager in Hong Kong, and when Wong was growing up, he shadowed his dad during late-night shifts. It was perhaps that experience which gave Wong his affection for the nocturnal urban settings that would dominate his early films. When As Tears Go By begins, the opening credits flash over the dingy, neon-lit streets of Hong Kong. This is clearly a milieu where Wong feels comfortable.

Wong’s camera quickly jump cuts to Wah (Andy Lau), a handsome debt collector who’s such a night owl that he can barely get out of bed during daylight hours. It’s not like he has a job to worry about. He’s a full-time rebel with a white undershirt, a swooping haircut and an infinite supply of cigarettes in the pocket of his denim jeans. When his cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung) arrives from a small town in the country, he doesn’t even bother with a hello. And yet, with these two heartthrobs sharing the same, cramped living space, an inevitable, though unacknowledged, romance ignites.

Before you start thinking this is a romance, Wong introduces about a dozen gang members, and the influence of Means Streets is on full display. Wah knows how to avoid the truly bad guys, but the same isn’t true for his younger brother, Fly (Jacky Cheung). Fly pines to be accepted into the cool gang world, and he gambles on a game of pool with Tony (Alex Man). When he loses, Tony and his crew beat Fly to a pulp. He’s dropped on Wah’s doorstop, and Wah cleans his brother’s wounds and gets Fly a job selling fish balls on the street.

Interwoven into this gangster fare, Wong returns to the love story between Wah and Ngor. In the film’s overwrought romantic climax, Wah and Ngor separate at a ferry terminal only to run into each other’s arms and kiss in the street a moment later. The scene is set to a Chinese-language rendition of “Take My Breath Away,” and the result is almost embarrassing. It’s like a weird music video. Following this kiss, Wah stays with Ngor during a brief period of bliss.

Back in Hong Kong, tension between Tony and Fly is reaching deadly heights. Wah returns to the city and faces off with Tony in a violent fight, defending his brother. Wah is hit with a shovel, smacked with a bat and shot in the thigh. It’s gruesome and, at times, hard to watch. While Fly is lying on the floor, he pees on himself in fear and shame. Wah touches his cheek. “It’s alright, alright,” he says. The scene perfectly captures how Wong, even in his earlier work, managed to bridge ultra-violence with tender emotions.

Upon its release in the states, Tears received little critical attention. In China, however, the film was a hit, and its success helped finance Wong’s next feature, Day of Being Wild (1990). But it wouldn’t be until Wong’s fourth film, Ashes of Time, that his career as a filmmaker would come full circle. Martin Scorsese reportedly used that film as a model for the battle scenes in Gangs of New York. The imitator becomes the imitated.

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