A Better Tomorrow

Reviewed by Yves Gendron

Few movies ever had the impact of John Woo’s A BETTER TOMORROW.  Yet despite it’s top grossing, award winning, career making as well as trend setting (in both movies, and fashion) record, it’s rather doubtful that many Westerners have any idea how ABT’s tale of brotherhood, loss, betrayal, and tragic heroism, struck a deep cord within the H-K people in a way very few movies had in the past and probably none since.

Sung Chi-ho and Mark Lee are two dapper-suited triad wise-guys working as couriers for a counterfeiting ring. Ho though is planning to retire from the business for the sake of his younger brother Kit who is about to become a police inspector. A mission in Taiwan goes dreadfully wrong however, leading to Ho’s arrest and indirectly to the murder of his father back in H-K as well as to the crippling of Mark in a gunplay vendetta when he sets out to avenge his partner. After a three year prison sentence, Ho gets out of jail determined to leave his triad live behind only to find out that his brother hates him and wants nothing to do with him, that the now destitute Mark lives the miserable life of a parking janitor and that Shing his former protege who may have betrayed him in Taiwan, has become the new head of the counterfeiting ring. Life as a reformed gangster is not easy as Ho must endure the bitter rejection of his brother but also pressure from Shing who wants him and Mark back within the gang and then there’s Mark himself whose struggle to regain his lost dignity may drive both him and Ho back to a life of being outlaws. Pressured left and right one has to wonder whether Ho will lose his tentative struggle to lead a reformed life.
A BETTER TOMORROW has compelling characters and drama, displays consummate cinematic craftsmanship and features some excellent gunplay action, all of which contributes into making a rock solid gripping movie. Unsurprisingly, ABT’s strong qualities are the same of those found in the martial films of Chang Cheh, John Woo’s mentor. The film acting, musical score and narrative tone are somewhat far-out by western standards, every drop of melodrama is thoroughly milked and the plot is somewhat blunt and rough on occasion. “John Woo, subtlety is not thy name”, one may be tempted to say. Still within the movie context it all works and the bluntness makes the drama all the more efficient. Surprisingly there are not that many action scenes and they are relatively tame by John Woo’s future standards.
The thing is that the film is intently focused on the story, the characters and the drama and not on the action as such, which is a nice change for a H-K actioner. Also one must consider that this was Woo’s first real attempt at gangster drama and urban action gunplay hence his more tentative approach. Still ABT contains what may be considered as the seminal action scene of his entire action film career and even of the Heroic Bloodshed sub-genre as a whole -  Mark’s sneak gunplay attack on a celebrating party of gangsters, with him, arriving in almost dance-like slow-motion, shooting down his targets in tidily edited snap-shots, while they fall down bloodied, again in slow motion. The whole balletic like quality of the Heroic bloodshed brand of action is encapsulated within this sole sequence, which contains a fine drama within itself as we see Chow Yun Fat going from his wily smirking wise-guy, to being a cool gunning killer, to finally a cripple, fallen angel. It is just… superb.
Ti Lung is of course excellent as the weary Ho, while Leslie Cheung on the other hand is the weak element with too much overacting, but it has to be said that he, as the soured brother, has the most difficult and ungrateful part.  Basically he is set up as the film’s real bad guy, not Waise Lee’s Shing who is more like a plot device as Woo’s villains tend to be. In a Woo movie it’s the relationship in between the protagonists that counts not with the antagonist. However although the central drama is between Ho and Kit, ultimately it’s Chow Yun Fat’s inspired performance that more than anything else gives ABT it’s great haunting quality.  Without him the film might have been a strong yet lesser movie.  Small wonder the character became such an iconic presence and Chow a great superstar. In this reviewer’s opinion however, Chow is especially great not, when he is his trench-coat wearing cool self or gunning down opponents but when he’s a destitute fallen character. His first meeting with Ho in the parking lot…. my what a touching piece of acting.

Up until directing A BETTER TOMORROW, John Woo’s film career could be generally summed up as “sorry yesterdays”. He actually had a promising start though by directing a string of hit caper comedies for the Golden Harvest studio in the second half of the seventies, which dubbed him the “King of Comedy”. But what he really wanted to do was some sort of “heroic gangster” movie, a modern day update of the martial art yarn showcasing romantic upright swordsman, as done by master martial filmmaker Chang Cheh, for whom Woo had worked as an assistant director earlier in the decade. Trends had changed though - caper comedy was in, martial art drama was out - a point driven painfully home with the box-office failure of Woo’s most personal project, a Chang Cheh like swordplay LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALERY. Since then, Woo’s fortune had been in steady decline as his comedies proved box-office failures and even changing studios from Golden Harvest to the newly establish Cinema City did not improve his lot. By 1985 he had hit rock bottom and had started dinking heavily and was in jeopardy of being labelled as a washed out director who never was able to fulfill his promise.

It was at this point that Woo encountered Tsui Hark again. The two had crossed paths before when back at the dawn of the eighties; it was Woo who had sponsored the then beginning director’s entry into Cinema City despite his dubious record of three flops. Years had passed and now it was Tsui who was at the top, while Woo was down on his luck. Woo talked to him about his dream project of a modern-day chivalrous gangster movie. Tsui liked the idea but thought it should be done with girls. In any event, Tsui who had just founded his own film company, Film Workshop, approached Woo and gave him the opportunity that he had long sought to realize his own true film.

Tsui and Woo set their sights on remaking THE STORY OF A DISCHARGE PRISONNER, a semi-classic of the sixties Cantonese cinema which told the tale of a gangster trying hard to reform despite being caught in-between his family, his former criminal cohorts and the police. Woo adds other layers to this original template however, picking-up elements from Japanese Yakuza pictures, the graphic, blood spurting slow-motion action of American filmmaker Sam Peckinpah and of course the angst-filled blood stained, male-centred romanticism found in Chang Cheh’s swordplay’s.  He seems to have been especially drawn to the compelling and intense on-screen pairings of Ti Lung and David Chiang who together had done nearly two dozen so called Blood-Brothers movies together for Chang Cheh. It would seem that Woo in his own way sought to recreate this for his own film by hiring Ti Lung himself and insisting adamantly on getting an actor best known until then for this romantic role on TV to reprise the cool, wily forever smirking, dude done originally by David Chiang. What he ended-up with, however must have been even beyond his wildest expectations, as his chosen actor, Chow Yun Fat, gave such a rich and charismatic interpretation, out-shinning all the other actors around him, that his part was rewritten from being a secondary character to being the film’s great iconic figure. Ultimately what both Tsui and Woo ended up creating with their new movie: TRUE ESSENCE OF HEROES (ABT’s true original Chinese title) was a film unlike any other done before in H-K;  a post-modern action gangster melodrama flick, filled with Armani dressed triads, explosive gunplay action, and a sanguine completely male-centred drama - the sort of which had not been seen since the good old days of Chang Cheh’s martial tragedies.

It’s not hard to understand why H-K people were so taken with ABT. After more than a decades worth of caper comedies and goofy action stunt pictures they were eager to see something new and the characters, drama and action gripped them. There was something else too, though going to a far more personal level as the tale of the movie echoed the H-K inhabitant’s deepest fears and anxieties.  From the early seventies to the mid -eighties Hong-Kong had grown from a somewhat shabby manufacturing colony into a booming cosmopolitan miniature financial super-power with it’s inhabitants developing a growing sense of confidence, identity and individualism.  Yet there was a growing shadow looming over the edge as the hundred-year lease given to the British over H-K’s New Territory was soon coming to termination, and therefore the H-K people felt quite insecure and threatened over their future. Such feelings were crystallised with the shocking, devastating   1997 handover deal between the British and Mainland governments done in 1984, adding now a bitter sense of betrayal to the already pervasive angst-filled gloomy mood to be eventually called “handover blues”. Such feelings of anxiety and dread had actually found their cinematic expression even before the deal in such films as New Wave director Ann Hui’s BOAT PEOPLE which was the top grossing film of 1982, LOVE IN THE FALLEN CITY (1984) again by Hui starring Chow Yun Fat and HONG KONG 1941 again with Chow. Then a couple of year latter came A BETTER TOMORROW, which began by showing two highly successful, confident and jolly professionals (that their activity was illegal did not seem to matter much), who through tragic circumstances quite beyond their control lose almost everything: money, status, employment and even family. The only thing remaining was their devotion towards each other as well as their honour. It is about their struggle not to lose their last shred of dignity and to regain what dignity and status they once had. It was strong stuff especially to a people who were fearful of losing everything.
A BETTER TOMORROW ended up earning a record breaking HK$ 34 million at the box-office, won many H-K cinema “Oscars” including best picture and best director. It rekindled Ti Lung’s fading career, consolidated the one of Leslie Cheung and of course took Chow Yun Fat from matinee idol into the ranks of H-K’s greatest and best acting super-star. The next several years saw Chow triumph in at least a dozen movies all of various types that ranged from slapstick comedy, to romance, melodrama, thrillers and action showing him to be one the most versatile and charismatic actors to ever grace the H-K cinematic stage.  A BETTER TOMORROW’s tremendous success also very much benefited producer Tsui Hark and his Film Workshop and led to the formation of a new sub-genre the Heroic tragic Gangster flick also later dubbed “Heroic Bloodshed”. Yet quite ironically, it took a couple of years for the man who had started it all to actually move on from his triumph to do another film from his heart. Indeed Woo was brought in by Tsui Hark to do a sequel to his great gangster drama, which resulted in the ill-conceived and misbegotten A BETTER TOMORROW II. Tsui’s sorry habit of interfering with his director’s work created a feud between the two associates, and Woo had the greatest difficulty in starting a new film because of Tsui’s meddling. Only when producer Terrance Chang became Woo’s new associate could Woo truly begin his new project, the future classic THE KILLER. Woo though never quite recaptured the heart of the H-K people the way he did with A BETTER TOMORROW even with his most intense and personal movie BULLET IN THE HEAD that proved itself a dismal box-office failure. Perhaps in the end it did not matter all that much since Woo’s movies had found another eager following in the West that would eventually allow him to be recognized as the best known H-K director in the word as well as the greatest action filmmaker of all.
Today John Woo has long moved to the new world, although in the mind of most he has yet to do a movie which comes close to equalling his H-K classic action dramas.  A BETTER TOMORROW has become a widely available classic and is appreciated as the great beginning of a master action filmmaker, although some complain that with it’s music and eighties looks it shows some sign of cinematic ageing. Regardless, in the heart of the often trendy and today oriented Hong Kong people, ABT remains something of a cherished memory.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Reviewed by Brian

This 1986 film is the first of the great Heroic Bloodshed collaborations between John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. The movie plays in some ways like Heroic Opera as tragic themes of loyalty and betrayal pervade this film with great overflowing passion and gunfights take the place of arias. Woo manages to take these two small time crooked characters and make them noble and heroic in the environment he places them in - the last of a breed who still take honor as a test of character.

It is a simple story. Chow (Mark) and his friend Ti Lung (Ho) are members of a counterfeiting gang while Ti Lung's brother Leslie Cheung (Kit) is about to graduate from the police academy. Kit is unaware that his brother is a Triad member which certainly would make him suspect in my eyes as much of a policeman! Though Chow's character steals the movie with his flashy matchstick in mouth persona, lighting cigarettes with fake $100 bills, the long black leather overcoat , the cool sunglasses - the focus and heart of the story is really the love/hate relationship that develops between the two brothers. There is actually much less action in this film than in Woo's later Heroic Bloodshed epics - with the big emotional and gunplay blast coming near the end - but even this is tame compared to Woo's later films. ABT  is much more a character study than a running gun battle.  This is just a terrifically heartfelt film that is irresistible as it lays its bare rough emotions out for all to see and respond to.

This film also was a personal triumph for a number of the participants. John Woo had spent the last few years in a career free fall and had begun to drink quite heavily. He was frustrated and angry that he was not getting the opportunity to direct the kind of films that he wanted to. For years Woo had been pitching to make heroic gangster films - like the old sword fighting films except with guns. One of his very favorite films is the French film Le Samourai - about a hitman - and though this influence is even more pronounced in The Killer, the mood is evident here as well. As a small homage, Chow wears sunglasses that were Alain Delon's (star in Le Samourai) brand. Tsui Hark had confidence in Woo's ability and gave him this opportunity. Chow Yun Fat, though successful in TV,  was thought of as a light comedian and romantic star. Woo though thought Chow was perfect for this role - and fought very hard to get him over the money men's objections. Ti Lung was of course a huge star in the Shaw kung fu films, but with the loss of popularity of those films, he had fallen on hard times. This film revitalized his career.
Look for Tsui Hark in a small role in the audience during Emily Chu's (Kits girlfriend) audition. And Woo of course plays the Taiwanese cop after Chow. Other supporting roles are Kenneth Tsang as the taxi business owner, Tien Feng as the father and Kam Hing Yin as Leslie's supervisor.

My rating for this film: 9.0