This is not so much a review as a feature on the movies that share the name. I won't compare the movies too much, but if you’ve come wanting a view on the latest movie then you can “skip to the end” as Tim Bisley, from Spaced, would say.
In the early 90s a badly dubbed movie was recommended to me. It was called The Killer, directed by John Woo. With the era of hard hitting Hollywood action movies coming to a stifled end, action movie fans like myself found a replacement genre from Hong Kong which was given the term “Heroic Bloodshed”. The Killer, whilst over the top in it’s scenes of constant carnage as waves of bad guys met a bullet or fifteen, also had a rare depth and spiritual quality - embracing themes of brotherhood and honour. In some ways, Woo’s movies re-invented the action movie similarly to the way in which the Sergio Leone’s movies helped rejuvenate the Western, when Hollywood had turned its back on them. The parallel was not lost on us.
Whilst we were enjoying a new source of movie, the Hong Kong/Chinese movie industry had not impacted on the mainstream in the UK and, as I found, in Hong Kong video stores.
In 1995, I went to Hong Kong and at one point visited a big VHS store. I was asking after movies starring Chow Yun Fat, the star of the original Better Tomorrow and The Killer. In good but clipped English, the store clerk said; “You don’t want those, man, those are Z grade movies”. Surprised, I went ahead with my own browsing.
The anecdote just illustrates how niche the interest was. (As we know,
Hollywood was taking notice in John Woo, but his trademark themes eventually became diluted in movies like Hard Target and
Broken Arrow). So, on to the point: I caught up with A Better Tomorrow after it was released by Hong Kong Legends. A small store opened in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue and gave us an opportunity to buy VHS cassettes and chat about what movies we’d heard about. We got, what was called “Yellow Fever” (a racist term I wasn’t happy with) and snapped up various titles such as Barefoot Kid and Tiger Cage. But, it was really the heroic bloodshed titles that got me interested.
A Better Tomorrow came later in my HK movie viewing but it was an exciting experience watching it for the first time. Instantly, Chow Yun Fat’s character Mark had a charisma and style that was cool. We’re introduced to him chewing a matchstick and ordering some food, before meeting Ho (Tung-Li). Immediately we see the relationship between Mark and Ho; playful and friendly. The sense of comradeship has been established within 5 minutes. Chow Yun-Fat has a warm and trusting face that charisma shines from. Equally, Ti Lung has such expression and character in his face. Later, when his brother Kit finds out his true status and career as a “Big Brother”, there’s a definitive emotional pain that is evident in Ho through Lung’s eyes and expression.
One thing that was always painful to watch was foreign movies with dubbing; none more so than the HK movies: For example, the climactic end scene of The Killer. Ah Jong (Chow You Fat) and Jennie (Sally Yeh) are now both blind and scrabbling on the ground looking for each other. Ah Jong has been shot and is bleeding out to an inevitable death. They both come within inches of each other but miss meeting and holding each other for the final time. It should be an affecting scene and a poignant end. With the dubbing, it’s total comedy but something that deserves respect rather than howls of laughter. Movie producers aren’t stupid and the opportunity for some actual comedy is capatalised on in A Better Tomorrow. During a scene where Mark and Ho are doing a business deal with foreign investors, their Cantonese changes to English language as some dubbing kicks in and takes over. Afterwards, in a mix of Cantonese and forced English the pair joke about it in their native tongue;
In Cantonese: “Wow, you’re good at bullshitting. Your English has improved. You even said Of Course” Ho says.
Mark replies in forced English; “Of Courshhh”
Waise Lee is great as Shing. Beginning as a meek, humble young protégé, he feigns watching Mark and Ho as he learns the ropes but is already honing his own agenda and arranging his rise in the criminal underworld. Early in the movie, we see Mark, Ho and Shing bond in a memorable dinner scene where Mark and Ho attempt to bring Shing in closer to their friendship. With Shing ready to travel on one of their missions, Mark relates a story that still angers him;
“You think learning will help you? Don't think reading gangster books will make you the boss. Have you ever had a gun pointed at your head? No. Twelve years ago... twelve years already. For the first time, I went with Ho to bring goods to Indonesia. The boss there treated us to dinner in the night club. I said something wrong to displease the boss. Then there were two guns pointed at my head. I was forced to drink a bottle of whisky. I was so scared, I pissed my pants! Fortunately, Ho drank the whole bottle of whisky for me. But it got even worse after that. Four guns were pointed at my head! You know they made me drink? Piss! Drink piss in a night club! You want to learn? That's learning! That's how we got through out first job.”
Shing arranges a double cross whilst on a job with Ho. As Ho goes to prison, Shing takes the opportunity to seize control.
What follows is one of my favourite scenes in film. Mark Gor, restless and angry at losing his best friend to prison exacts revenge on the group he feels are responsible. This scene sets up Mark’s fate for the rest of the film. He visits the restaurant where the bad guys hang out. As he walks in, he performs a kind of dance with a young woman, down a corridor, placing guns in flower pots. At first you wonder why he’s doing it. It becomes evident very quickly as to why he’s doing it. As Mark bursts through the door, he picks his targets and fires numerous rounds at his victims. In the past we’d been used to seeing gunfighters using dual pistols, but in a modern setting it looked even cooler. “The double-gun” shootout would be a staple and iconic feature of John Woo’s subsequent crime movies and reused by other directors as a cool feature of action choreography.
Mark retreats into the corridor as his ammo runs out (not surprisingly as he pumps about five rounds in each of the people he’s shooting at) and retrieves the guns from the flower pots. His dirty deed seemingly done, he’s on his way out when a bad guy dying on the floor manages to shoot Mark in the right leg, twice. This act changes Mark’s status and allows Shing an opportunity to take control.
We next see Mark hobbling around with a leg brace, cleaning the boss’s cars, with Shing flinging a tip on the ground. When Ho accidentally witnesses this, he is shocked at the fall from grace that Mark has undertaken. After all, Mark had been writing to him without mentioning any of his actual circumstance. Mark was once a suave, sophisticated Triad member only to end up wounded and looking like a tramp.
Leslie Cheung plays Kit, Ho’s younger brother; the emphasis on young. Cheung had a baby face at the tender age of…thirty when the movie was released. Cheung gets across Kit’s initial boyish enthusiasm for life very well, which counterpoints Kit growing up to be a bitter man having blamed Ho for their father’s death. The dynamic between Ho and Kit is played out very well and the Chinese ideas of brotherhood, honour and respect is emphasised through these scenes and of those as Mark comes back into the story. Ho fights a number of battles in the movie; to be free of the Triad, to regain his brother’s love and respect and regain honor.
The final climatic shoot-out is both exciting and moving. When Mark delivers the speech;
“Get over here! This is your brother! Take a good look at him! Take a good look! Whatever he's done in the past, he's more than paid you back! He's trying to change his life around! Why can't you accept him? Why? To be brothers...”
It’s from the heart and when he is interrupted by a shot to the head, the effect is truly shocking. In an instant, the brothers lose a brother and it causes them to act together and regain an understanding of loyalty, friendship and brotherhood. This theme runs through many of Woo’s action movies, even in some of his Hollywood productions.
So what annoyed me about John Woo’s transfer to Hollywood was the fact that, clearly, his talent at incorporating story and depth within an action movie was the draw, so why dilute that?
The music score, by Joseph Koo is another aspect of the movie that makes it identifiable from other movies of its type. An already established composer, he gave the movie a definitive identity. Koo composed a number of themes for the different characters, but the most memorable is the fast version of the Better Tomorrow theme. It is prominently used in both A Better Tomorrow and the sequel. Tsui Hark’s official prequel, imaginatively titled A Better Tomorrow 3 only used it once. The synthesised score by Koo, captures the 80s very well.
The majority of this Korean remake focuses on the brother’s relationship – the key emotional drive throughout the movie. It’s a different film from the original; less focused on gun fighting set pieces and expands the brothers growing closeness. The action serves the plot in this case, whereas the original was a mix of balletic gun play and melodrama. I was reminded of Miami Vice (2006) where the entire movie boils down to one climatic shoot-out that holds a sense of rage at events that have transpired previously.
The plot detours from the John Woo movie by incorporating events and themes that are unmistakably Korean. Hyuk (the character Ho in the 1986 original) abandoned his brother Chul (Kit in the original) and his Mother during an escape from the North Korean border to the South. Both Chul and their mother were interned for their illegal attempt at emigration. Their mother died in captivity and Chul blames Hyuk for it. Hyuk holds on to cherished memories when the brothers were close and values their friendship through these memories and the guilt of his cowardice at the border. Hyuk makes attempts, using his underworld contacts, to see his brother and try and win him over. Chul wants nothing of it.
Hyuk is a police officer who traffics illegal weaponry. His partner Young-chun (the Mark character from the original) is an expert with weapons and is a charming diplomat for their line of business. Tae Min (the Shing character from the original) surreptitiously vies for becoming a boss in the organisation.
The performances are very strong. The movie’s still a melodrama, with a clear emotional message on the importance of family and regaining family after things go wrong. The downside of the movie is also its strength; the level of emotion. Hyuk spends a great deal of time crying and begging his brother to come back to him. This both weakens and strengthens the character in equal measure. I found it, at times, to be too Politically Correct. I was reminded of a scene in Lethal Weapon (from 1987, a year after the original was first released.);
Sergeant McCaskey: You know, Roger, you are way behind the times. The guys of the 80s aren't tough. They are sensitive people. Show a little emotion to a woman and shit like that. I think I'm an '80s man...
Roger Murtaugh: How do you figure?
Sergeant McCaskey: Last night I cried in bed. So how is that?
Roger Murtaugh: Were you with a woman?
Sergeant McCaskey: I was alone. Why do you think I cried?
Roger Murtaugh: Sounds like an '80s man to me...
The reason that I mention the above is that action heroes seem to have come a long way, but in a movie remake of an established action movie that had guts and sensitivity, I expected a little less emoting and a bit more doing.
Actor Song Hae-Sung does not have the charisma of Chow Yun-Fat. That’s not a major surprise as who actually does have the charisma of the original actor? Whilst the direction is good, the flair that Woo showed during Mark Gor’s restaurant revenge massacre (sounds like a Sun newspaper headline) is missing from the comparable massage parlour shoot-out that Young-chun performs. That said, the scene is still powerful in its own way.
What raises the movie in my view is the expanded role that the Shing character Tae Min holds in the movie. He’s even more calculated and evil than the original character; going out of his way to hunt down and kill his enemies.
The first hour drags somewhat and could have benefitted from a couple of action scenes to punctuate the story and themes within. This is the genius of John Woo and Tsui Hark’s movie; that it was recognised as a must-do. This film is almost artistic in its build-up. There’s a realism to the scenes, that is helped by the stunning cinematography,
The film feels initially slow until the Woo-inspired shoot-out at the massage parlour. Both movies have their charm and interest. I did feel that I missed elements of the original. Examples being the musical themes that Joseph Koo created. I wouldn't have given it a moments thought but one cue was used a couple of times.
There's definitely room for this Korean version in your collection. Whilst deficient in the balletic gunplay of the original, it has more than enough to interest fans of the genre.
A Better Tomorrow 2012 is available now on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-Ray and DVD