3.5 stars out of 4. The film that firmly established HK action cinema.
A Better Tomorrow is a film that made many firsts. It was the first in the wave of Triad/gangster films that took China by storm in the classic period of Hong Kong action cinema (mid 1980’s to early 1990’s), the first major film from the partnership of producer Tsui Hark and director John Woo, Woo’s commercial breakthrough and last but most important: the film that brought together Woo and Chow Yun-fat.
Oh, and it did become the most successful Chinese film of all time too. (At the time.)
People simply couldn’t get enough of this story. The freshness that ABT brought to the Chinese film world is incalculable. It is a film about young people made by a younger generation ready and willing to do what was necessary to bring the story to life.
Did they actually succeed? You be the judge.
A Better Tomorrow follows the lives of two young Triads and the trial they must go through in order to maybe achieve the film’s title. As in all the HK action films, the characters are always human no matter what death defying feats they accomplish. This means they can feel pain, fear and especially anguish just as much as the rest of us. And it is this that really sets all of these films apart from simple action fare. It is because they can emote that we so strongly relate to these characters. It is because he is still human that Chow Yun-fat’s Mark in this film became so universally heralded. And imitated. Anybody know where to find a long trench coat and Alain Delon sunglasses?
Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Ling) is one of the Triad’s most successful operators, primarily dealing in the distribution of counterfeit money with his partner in crime, fellow Triad Mark Lee (Chow Yun-fat). His younger brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) is in training to become a policeman. Ho’s father knows of his true occupation and appeals to him to give it up so that he and his brother will never have to be on opposing sides.
Ho is then sent on an assignment to make a deal with a gang in Taiwan. The boss sends along a new man to learn the ropes from Ho, with Shing being the dutiful employee. They are double crossed by the Taiwanese and in order to let Shing get away, Ho turns himself in to the police.
Mark reads of Ho’s capture and goes to eliminate the Taiwanese leader. He succeeds but not without sustaining a significant wound to the leg which leaves him crippled. Kit is attacked by a gunman, and in the resulting struggle his father is killed. Ho gains his release in three years and is quickly shown by all that there is nothing left for him.
All Ho wants to do is go straight and live a simple life just like any other man. Shing is now in charge of the Triads and stirring up trouble. Kit blames ho for their father’s death and would rather kill him than even speak his name. And Mark, the once charismatic Triad one-man army is reduced to being Shing’s crippled janitor.
Mark wants to go back to where they were by taking down Shing. Ho cannot believe the change that has happened to Mark, but cannot reconcile this plan with his new reformed self. Kit also begins to become obsessed with Shing’s eradication. Ho becomes caught in the middle when Shing begins to pressure him to rejoin the Triad.
Once again, Ho is between tumultuous choices but now between the two people he holds most dear. The Triads are now closing in. and all poor Ho wanted to do was to drive his little taxicab.
What quickly becomes apparent is the mastery the filmmakers have for the craft of character. Unlike what you might think, there isn’t really that much action in this film. Everything is and must be motivated by character. Thus each decision made is totally weighted by conscience so heavily that you can feel that weight just watching in the dark.
But when the action does erupt…you know it can only be John Woo behind the lens. The moment when Mark enters the restaurant where the Taiwan gang is cavorting, trench coat flowing in the slow motion breeze and .45 in hand you know it’s about to seriously go down. It’s a really interesting thing to see, a director just beginning to discover his own cinematic voice. A large part of A Better Tomorrow is this foundation of Woo as a distinctive filmmaker.
And the other is…
In a film designed to favor one actor as the standout, being given the cripple role really doesn’t sound like much to write about does it? But it was not Ti Lung who became the massive star because of ABT. There is a reason why all the youths of Hong Kong dressed in dark trench coats and sunglasses . Chow steals the film. Completely. He sparkles. He shines. He positively smoulders. We first see him in coat/sunglasses uniform lighting a cigarette with a flaming $100 bill! And this is in the opening minute or so of credits! This character has an internal sense of self that gives this outer sense of invulnerability. It looks as if nothing could ever touch Mark, and yet something does. We meet him three years later, his spirit seemingly as broken as his braced leg. But it isn’t. He has simply played the sides and bided his time until he can make his way back to the top. But when Ho refuses to re-team for this blaze of glory, Mark must try and gather together the shambles of his life. Whether he can do this becomes our central concern because of how much we care for this guy. He is still just a human being like the rest of us. And why can’t a Triad be a hero?
Ultimately, A Better Tomorrow is about the struggle of morals in our modern culture. It doesn’t matter that this is a Chinese film, the problem is universal. A gangster can be a better person than a cop, but if you are that gangster with good morals, what do you receive in the end other than loss?
EDITIONS: For those of us here in NTSC land, it can be extremely difficult to see Asian films in a proper format. And I’m just talking about the basics: Correct aspect ratio, original audio, English subtitles actually translated from the dialogue and NTSC format. For ABT, the choice is pretty simple: choose either the Anchor Bay DVD or the remastered Fortune Star/IVL A Better Tomorrow Trilogy boxset. Both will give you NTSC, 16:9 1.85:1, original Cantonese mono, and English subs. That said the IVL subtitles do have errors and really aren’t up to scratch. You’ll get the idea but this is a big flaw. The Anchor Bay image is darker and to my eyes a little more representative of a film image. The subs are better though. The IVL box can be imported from playasia.com for about $25, while the AB disc is out of print. It was released with the first sequel and these might be found for cheap in used shops. Just make sure you get the second pressing because these were originally issued with parts of other films on the soundtrack!