A Better Tomorrow III
After the huge success of the Tsui Hark produced/
JohnWoo directed A Better Tomorrow I and II, there was a bitter falling
out between these two film giants. There had been a constant struggle between
them over those two films in terms of editing and content. Tsui had forced
Woo to edit ABT II down from nearly three hours to less than two hours
and had in fact partly taken the film away from Woo to do this.
Woo suggested making a prequel in Vietnam and
was in the process of writing the script when Tsui announced to the public
that he was directing ABT III. Woo was shocked and hurt by this, but Tsui
Hark went on to direct this film, while Woo was to come out a year later
with his Vietnam film, A Bullet in the Head. A Bullet in the Head is generally
considered a classic, while A Better Tomorrow III is treated with general
indifference for the most part. Though the two of them remained in partnership
together through The Killer, there was a great deal of enmity in the relationship.
As the third film in the series (even though
it is actually a prequel – taking place many years before A Better Tomorrow)
it is only natural for people to compare it to the two previous films and
it has usually been found wanting in doing so. I feel it is somewhat of
an unfair comparison though because while the first two films were male
estrogen “heroic bloodshed” bonding films, this one is really more of a
romantic adventure film – to some degree it plays out like Jules et Jim
meet Year of Living Dangerously.
The film was made soon after the massacre at
Tiananmen Square and some critics have pointed out that there are obvious
references to this in the film – i.e. a lone man standing against a tank.
Tsui (they say) is using Saigon as a substitute for HK in the future (mass
panic in trying to escape the city) when China takes it over. This is perhaps
true – Tsui is after all a political director to some degree – but when
watching the film ten years after it was made and three years after China
took control of HK, none of this feels obvious any more. Other themes like
the importance of family, of sacrifice for the family and Chinese living
outside of China – always strangers in a strange land as shown in the recent
events in Indonesia – seem much more significant now than viewing the film
as a political protest.
There are a number of strong points to this film.
Though Tsui Hark was born in China (Canton province), his family moved
to Vietnam when he was quite young and he lived there until he was 16 years
old when he moved to HK. So he brings a feel for the country and for the
social implications of being Chinese there to the film and there are a
number of nicely played out scenes that encompass this such as the father
not wanting to leave his store sign behind. The acting from the three main
leads – Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Anita Mui - is excellent. The
action scenes are pretty good – though this being a Tsui Hark film rather
than a John Woo film, the action is executed primarily by Anita Mui and
not Chow Yun Fat. There are a number of well-designed scenes such as the
mass protest that Chow and Tony run into, the feeling of helplessness in
the face of brutal authority that Chow faces at the airport, the sense
of danger that pervades the film at all times.
So why was I less than enthralled with this film?
Why did I feel general indifference to the outcome of the characters? I’ve
been grappling with my feelings toward this film and still don’t clearly
understand them. This is generally the type of film that I would love –
fascinating historical context, strong female role, Chow Yun Fat, full
of intrigue and suffused with complex themes – but I never felt connected
with this film. The characters feel too one dimensional, almost too honorable
and many of the plot devices feel heavy handed at times. Perhaps Tsui limited
himself by making this a prequel – by using the Mark character from A Better
Tomorrow – and felt he had to follow certain ground rules and didn't
allow his imagination to flourish. Certainly, there was a strong forboding
regarding the outcome of this film which detracted from the tension and
that is because you know Mark survives. Though it was enjoyable watching
Anita do her Chow Yun Fat gunplay impersonation, I think Tsui was again
limited to imitating Woo in his action scenes. I really think that if Tsui
had started the film with a clean slate and no baggage that it might have
been a better film.
It’s 1974 and Saigon is falling. Daily life
is out of control and nowhere and no one is safe – from either the Viet
Cong infiltrators or the South Vietnamese Army. This is established in
an early scene as Chow and Tony wave to two pretty girls going by on a
motorcycle who wave gaily back and then proceed to throw a molotov cocktail
at a tank. Chow has come to Saigon to help his cousin Tony Leung and Tony’
father – Shek Kin – get out of Saigon and back to HK. To finance this they
enter into an arms deal with Anita Mui as the middleman and some other
They are both babes in the woods when it comes
to this type of deal and Anita takes then under her wing and teaches them
how to shoot and how to look cool. But its never really established as
to why she does so – or why she constantly risks her life for these
two guys. Is it love or is it a sense of Chinese fellowship? Both
of them also fall in love with Anita – but the expected conflict from that
scenario never really comes about – because family counts more than love.
There are a number of conflicts, betrayals
and shootouts involving the triads, the military, the Viet Cong and the
threesome, but much of it feels overblown, illogical and too influenced
by the large shadow of John Woo.
Though to some degree this film is a failure,
it is an ambitious one and even a Tsui Hark failure is well worth viewing
for many reasons. This film has some terrific moments, but overall it is
lacking the sense of humanity that Tsui has imbued so many of his other
My rating for this film: 6.5
Distributed by Mega Star
The transfer is quite good - great colors for
the most part. I am not sure if I watched a defective copy but though the
picture looked fine from a distance, up close (as visible in some of the
pictures above) little purple lines were going through the film. Strange,
but it did not effect the viewing.
Previews - only the Media Asia snippets of
a number of films - shown on many DVDs.
Written information on Chow Yun-Fat, Anita
Mui and Tsui Hark
Easy to read subs
Subs in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, English,
Bahasa Indonesian and Malaysian, none