As Tears Go By (1988): Wong Kar-wai’s Splashy Debut


Wong Kar-wai made a splashy debut in 1988 with As Tears Go By a Hong Kong crime actioner, starring Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung.

Critics have compared the film to Scorsese’s Mean Streets, as the central plot revolves around a small-time triad (Lau), who’s trying to keep his girlfriend (Cheung) out of trouble.

The film was screened at the 1989 Cannes Film Fest, in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.

The Chinese title means “Mong Kok Carmen,” alluding to the area of Mong Kok and the opera Carmen–a story of tragic love in Kowloon.

The English title is shared with the 1964 English song “As Tears Go By,” and may have been inspired by it.

Wah (Andy Lau) is a mob enforcer who deals with debt collection. His sai lo subordinate, Fly (Jacky Cheung) also works for the mob, but is less successful and not well respected, leading to trouble and borrowing money.

Wah receives a call from his aunt, informing him that his younger cousin Ngor (Maggie Cheung), whom he has never met before, will be staying with him in Hong Kong. Ngor works at her family’s restaurant on Lantau Island, but due to malfunctioning lung, she comes to Hong Kong for medical procedure.

Soon after Ngor arrives, Wah leaves to help Fly collect a debt. After the job, Wah goes to see his girlfriend, Mabel, who dumps him because he had been distant. She has aborted his baby, though he was unaware she was pregnant.

Wah stumbles home angry and drunk, but when Ngor tries to console him, he becomes aggressive and threatens to throw her out. The next morning, Wah apologizes and offers to take her  out to a movie.

Meanwhile, in order to make money to pay off loan to fellow gang member Tony (Alex Man), Fly makes a high bet in a game of snooker. Realizing he cannot win, he run away with his friend Site. After a chase, Fly and Site are caught and beaten by Tony’s gang.

Fly arrives bruised and bloody, carrying an unconscious Site. Wah and Ngor treat their wounds, which causes Ngor to question Wah’s line of work. The next day, she returns to Lantau, leaving Wah a note asking him to come visit her sometime.

In the end, As Wah is gunned down, he thinks of his first kiss with Ngor.

The film was released on Blu-ray by Criterion Collection in March 2021 in a collection of 7 Wong Kar-wai films.

During its initial run, As Tears Go By was Wong Kar-wai’s highest-grossing film in Hong Kong.

Andy Lau as Wah
Maggie Cheung as Ngor
Jacky Cheung as Fly (Wu Ying)
William Chang as Ngor’s doctor
Lam Kau as Kung
Alex Man as Tony
Ronald Wong as Site