09 March 2011
It seems kind of perverse to me that Wong Kar-wai's first film, his only fully scripted film, is his highest grossing and most successful film in his native Hong Kong. I'd seen this once before about five years ago, and it's a lot stronger than I remember it being, but it's just not the caliber of his subsequent, more loosely structured stories. It's easy to see how this led smoothly into what followed, though, and by the standards of what I've seen of Hong Kong crime-melodramas of the era (seems like crime melodrama is the theme of the night, doesn't it?), this is still a little more free-floating, with a handful of subplots circling each other -- or maybe circling our hero.
This doesn't quite have the slippery-slope-descent to it that Shockproof, the other film I finished tonight, had though; here it's more like a morally fallen man sees a glimmer of hope, reaches for it, but is unwilling to let go of the further-fallen friends (particularly Fly) that he's keeping propped up. The tragedy here is that Wah's fate is already decided for him; he's already committed to protecting Fly and keeping him from getting himself killed, and when Ngor (Maggie Cheung, looking so young!) arrives in his life with the open promise of redemption, he is damned if he follows her (and leaves Fly to his inevitable fall -- as the names are Chinese I'm not going to make much of that particular wordplay) and damned if he stays inside the gang world to protect Fly (linking his own fate to Fly's). The protagonist here loves his foil -- who by dramatic definition is unable to change within the story -- and so his fate is all but decided. It's almost Greek, when you look at it like that.
Still, for all its dramatic value and beautiful scenes and nice performances, the story slags a little through the second half, as so many of the confrontations-with-bad-ass-bosses seem the same, becoming variations on a theme rather than new and escalating obstacles. I don't know if that's the limit of the genre (Hong Kong films all tend to have the kinds of scenes we have here, fights in late-night cafés or pissing matches over mahjongg) or if it's a conscious comment on that limit. It doesn't ruin the story, either way, but it does wear the viewer down a lot. All you have to do is compare this to his next film, Days of Being Wild (made only two years later), to see what Wong Kar-wai can do with a little more freedom and a lot more confidence.