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 dubious characters.

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 films with.

My rating for this film: 6.5



DVD Information:

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.

Letterbox

Trailer

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

9 Chapters

Easy to read subs

Subs in Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, English, Bahasa Indonesian and Malaysian, none