Part of that may be that it is a much more conventional than his future films in terms of story, editing and time line. Even though in some ways the story is structured as an unbreakable circle, there is no use of flashbacks or non sequenced events. The story is very bare bones.
Andy Lau is a lowly young triad member who falls in love with a good rural girl, Maggie Cheung, from Lantau Island, but the intricate web of Triad obligations draws him like a magnet to the inevitable conclusion. He is Big Brother to Jacky Cheung who is a totally irresponsible punk with a big chip on his shoulder. Lau is constantly having to get him out of trouble with other triad members. The obligation web goes even deeper though because Jacky is a Big Brother to an even lower member (Ronald Wong Pan) and to win face from him he volunteers for a suicide hit. This obligates Lau. Around this almost generic story WKW creates a fair amount of tension and displays some of the editing techniques that he utilizes to better effect in later films.
The relationships though do not play out true for the most part. I never felt that the affection between Andy and Maggie was more than a temporary infatuation and Jacky is such a loser that Lau’s feeling of sacrificial obligation to him seems more absurd and stupid than noble.
It is an interesting film though in many ways. Certainly the hierarchical structure within the triad world is complex and intriguing. At first while watching the film you think that Lau is some up and coming big shot Triad member, but as the movie progresses you start to realize what a small potato he is and what a little patch of Kowloon that he presides over. As he later says to Jacky “I made my first hit at fourteen. I was a big hero for a while, but today I am a nobody.” Except to Jacky Cheung unfortunately.
My rating for this film: 7.5
To once again emphasize the diversity and breadth of Hong Kong movies: On one hand, there are the fantasies (it does make me laugh when at the end of something like "The East is Red", there is that usual disclaimer about any resemblance to real people or events being entirely coincidental!) and -- different but still maybe unbelievable – somewhat whimsical, naive takes on everyday matters (How could a policeman be so oblivious as Tony Leung's character in "Chungking Express" or as sensitive as Leo Koo's in "Task Force"?); while on the other, there are those cinematic works which are surely grittier and deliberately unglamorous -- especially with regards to brutality -- than most produced anywhere else in the world. And trust Wong Kar Wai, even in/for his directorial debut, to come up with his own twist with regards to a tried and true genre: The triad film.
IMHO, someone who has viewed (all of) Wong's later efforts before they look at AS TEARS GO BY can see quite a bit of what was to come in this critical AND commercial success. Among others: A combined view of the sky plus housing and the chase scenes in this 1988 movie are reminiscent of that of "Chungking Express"; some of the fight scenes -- and it should be remembered that Hong Kong triad members are as likely to utilize machetes for weapons as well as guns -- will make one think of "Ashes of Time"; the green view of Lantau Island is similar to the tropical images found in "Days of Being Wild". And what is it with Wong and cats (the way that it seems to be with Tsui Hark and butterflies)?! Then there's the love relations that other parts of life -- along with aspects of individual personalities -- seems to keep interfering with and getting in the way of...
For all the hullabaloo about the innovative and weird filming techniques and camera angles that are to be found in Wong's offerings (and it is interesting to note that he has only worked with two cinematographers so far: Christopher Doyle, and -- for this production, "Days of Being Wild" and part of "Chungking Express" -- Andrew Lau), I think it can be forgotten that many of this man's movies -- IMHO, typically of those from the former British crown colony -- are quite personal in scope and, coincidingly, very good actor-reliant. In AS TEARS GO BY, Andy Lau (NOT the same person as the cinematographer; perhaps more confusingly, the actor is also a popular singer and the cinematographer also has become a successful director in his own right) gives an amazing performance as a Triad "big brother" whose loyalty to and care for his "little brother" is so much more than that hothead deserves.
My rating for this film: 8.0