The early promise of a boldly innovative stylist is evident in this 1988 film, which marked Hong Kong auteur Won Kar-wai’s feature debut at age 30. Using a bare-bones story line–said to be inspired by Scorsese’s Mean Streets but really a hoary archetypal martial-arts plot–Wong manages to put forth layers of meaning through indelible images of central moments from the characters’ forlorn lives. Ah Wah (matinee idol Andy Lau in a surprisingly broody performance) and Fly (Jacky Cheung) are small-time extortionists plying their trade in a squalid tenement district. Bonded by country-bumpkin origins, they endure the taunts of rival urban-bred gang members and must prove their worth. Their world is a procession of bloody fights in which the stoic, brutal Wah often comes to the rescue of the combustible Fly. Softening Wah’s violent streaks is the budding romance between him and his wide-eyed distant cousin (Maggie Cheung). Wong is quite masterful at balancing the two sides of Wah’s life–investing one with furious, nervous energy and the other with idyllic poetry. Though the film predates Wong’s fruitful collaboration with ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the visuals are filled with flourishes that have become signature touches, from slow-mo and optical printing to outlandish camera angles. In one sequence the camera races breakneck through a smoky pool hall to document a slugfest; in another a distorted close-up of a freshly lit cigarette speaks volumes about Wah’s state of mind. The film’s use of blue filters and red objects carves out hot zones and cool spaces in startling ways. All this helps to sustain Wong’s singular, disquieting meditation on honor and the ironic, unforeseen twists of fate–themes elaborated further in his 1994 near masterpieces Ashes of Time and Chungking Express (also included in Facet’s mini retrospective). Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Friday, December 20, 7:00; Saturday and Sunday, December 21 and 22, 3:00 and 7:00; and Monday through Thursday, December 23 through 26, 7:00; 773-281-4114.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.