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The Better Tomorrow Series - An Appraisal

Darren Murray
The Better Tomorrow Series - An Appraisal

With the recent news that John Woo was finally returning to the gangster genre with his remake of the Japanese movie Manhunt (1976), I thought that it would be good to look back at the series of films that turned Woo’s career around, the Better Tomorrow series. Before A Better Tomorrow (1986), John Woo had worked in a number of genres such as comedy, romance and martial arts films. Although he had made action movies before such as the early martial arts movie Hand of Death (1976), which featured an early role for a young Jackie Chan, it wasn’t until A Better Tomorrow that his signature style and themes started to take shape. The closest he had perhaps come to a movie with similar themes would have been Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), or the underrated Heroes Shed No Tears (1986). Both of these movies share similar themes of brotherhood, loyalty and betrayal but are not shot in the same style that would have come to define Woo’s later work.

The Better Tomorrow series isn’t only the work of John Woo, as the series has had contributions from other directors, mainly the great Tsui Hark, who took over the series with part 3. There have also been a great number of rip-offs and homage’s due to the success of the first movie. It would be hard to count how many Heroic Bloodshed movies (a term created by Rick Baker, editor for Eastern Heroes magazine at the time) were released in the ensuing years after the release of the first movie in 1986. For the purpose of this, I will mainly focus on the original series, but may include some asides to other films of the time.

A Better Tomorrow – 1986

Prior to the release of A Better Tomorrow, John Woo had a bit of a crisis with his career and felt burnt out. Luckily Tsui Hark came along and offered to produce a long gestating project that Woo wanted to direct. Loosely inspired by the Chinese movie Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967), A Better Tomorrow went on to make John Woo one of the most significant action movie directors in the world. As well as this it revived the failing career of Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung, and contributed to making Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung stars.

Considering how famous Chow Yun Fat has become in the years since the movie’s release, it is interesting to note that he is not actually the star of the movie. The main character of Sung Tse-Ho is played by the excellent Ti lung. Yun Fat plays the more flamboyant (in the beginning of the movie at least) Mark Gor, who unfortunately does overshadow both Ti Lung and co-star Leslie Cheung, who is also good but is quite annoying as the whiney Sung Tse-Kit.

Originally the production company did not want to hire Chow Yun Fat. At this point, Yun Fat had only done a few movies, all considerably lower budget fare, and none of them financially successful. He had considerable success as a television star, starring in the TVB series The Bund at the start of the 80’s. Audiences had thought at the time there was no point in paying money to see Chow Yun Fat in the cinema when you could see him for free on television each week. Luckily Woo stuck to his laurels, Yun Fat was cast, and a star was made.

The main plot revolves around gangsters Sung Tse-Ho and Mark Gor, whose organisations main operation is the printing and distribution of counterfeit currency. Ho has a younger brother Kit, who is a police officer in training. Ho keeps his criminal activities a secret from his younger brother. Their father is aware of Ho’s occupation and wishes for his to go straight. Ho decides that his next job in Taiwan will be his last. On the job he brings along gangster apprentice Shing (Waise Lee). The job turns out to be a trap, and Ho is forced to give himself up to the police in order for Shing to escape.

In order to keep Ho quiet, the gang from Taiwan send someone to kidnap his father. In the ensuing struggle, which also involves Kit and his girlfriend, their father is murdered. For retribution Mark decides to confront the gang. In one of the most famous scenes from the movie, Chow Yun Fat places guns within plant pots in the lobby of the restaurant. Once the shootout begins, he recollects his guns to save him from reloading. This scene went on to be copied in numerous action film, and not just ones from Hong Kong. Woo had commented in interviews, that the opening shot of the scene, where Chow Yun Fat walks into the restaurant in slow motion was his homage to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).

After the shootout, Mark’s life goes to hell, until he is reunited with Ho and they decide to get back at the organisation that betrayed them both. This leads to a number of violent confrontations. Those who know Woo more for The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992) may be disappointed at the scale of the action, as there are no action scenes with the scope of the Church shootout from The Killer or the hospital set finale of Hard Boiled. This is not to diminish the action scenes included in A Better Tomorrow. There are three main action scenes in the movie, with smaller skirmishes also taking place, but they are more spaced out in the movie. A Better Tomorrow is more an action drama than a full on action movie. It would be good to see Woo going back to something this scale in the future, as his later movies such as Red Cliff (2008/09) & The Crossing (2014/15), have been large scale epics, being released in two parts due to their length.

As mentioned before, the main performances from the three leads are great, with Chow Yun Fat standing out in his star making role. Waise lee makes an impression as the slimy Shing, the villain of the movie. There are also a number of smaller roles which also stand out such as Kenneth Tsang as a reformed gang boss and Big Silly Head himself, Shing Fui On. Woo also has a cameo appearance as a cop. Only actress Emily Chu is wasted in the thankless girlfriend role.

There are a number of scenes and themes used in A Better Tomorrow that Woo would continue to use throughout his career. Although there are no doves, there is some religious iconography used in the film. Loyalty and the brotherly bond between characters is also something which he has continued to focus on. Some people sometimes view this as somewhat homo-erotic. This could also be due to his characters seemingly being more comfortable around men, than women. One of Woo’s weak points in his filmography has been the lack of strong female roles. There have been notable exceptions perhaps, but these are in the minority in most of his films.

Woo’s use of slow-motion also began to develop with A Better Tomorrow. Woo doesn’t only use this in his action scenes, but sometimes to emphasise something within a scene or a characters feeling at that time. There are also scenes that Woo would revisit. In one scene, when Mark, Ho and Shing are at a bar, Mark tells Shing a story of being confronted by someone who pointed a gun at his head and tried to force his to drink his piss. This scene that Mark speaks of is actually shown in Woo’s masterpiece Bullet in the Head (1990), although this time it is Tony Leung Chiu-Wai that it happens to.

The soundtrack for the movie has also become iconic, but like other Hong Kong movies incorporates music from other movies. It’s not clear if they cleared the copyright to do this, as a lot of Chinese movies use music cues from other movies without permission. Although the main score by Joseph Koo is great, it does incorporate Peter Gabriel’s score from Birdy (1984). This wasn’t the only Woo movie to do this, with The Killer using musical cues from Walter Hill’s Red Heat (1988). Years later Walter Hill would try to return the favour by working on an American remake of The Killer.

John Woo and Tsui Hark would both go on to bigger and better movies, but A Better Tomorrow still manages to stand out from the crowd, and even after 30 years is still in most peoples 10 best Hong Kong movies of all time lists.

Regarding the previously mentioned The Bund. Tsui Hark went on to produce a remake of that show, with Shanghai Grand (1996), directed by Poon Man-Kit. The movie starred Leslie Cheung and Andy Lau. Cheung starred as Hui Man-Keung, the role made famous by his A Better Tomorrow co star Chow Yun Fat. For fans of A Better Tomorrow and heroic bloodshed movies I would definitely recommend it.

A Better Tomorrow 2 – 1987

Set a number of years after the first movie, A Better Tomorrow 2 works as a direct sequel to the original, and also as a pastiche to the many copy cat films that arrived in its wake.

Both John Woo and Tsui Hark return as Director and Producer. Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun Fat also return from the first movie. The return of Chow Yun Fat is one of the silliest aspects of the film, and one that places the movie in a kind of hyper reality, much removed from the original film. This time round Fat plays Ken Gor, identical brother to Mark Gor, his character from the first movie. Obviously due to the success of the original movie and the popularity of Chow Yun Fat, there was no way that Fat wouldn’t be involved. It is good that he is back, even if his character does feel shoehorned in.

A good percentage of Fat’s part in the film takes place in America, which does give the film a different feel from the usual Hong Kong fare of the time. This does mean that there is some unintentional hilarity by some of the poor acting by the westerners in the film. This is when Hong Kong productions seemed to pick any white guy off the street to be in their movie. As well as this some of the English dialogue delivered by Chow Yun Fat seems to be done phonetically, so is a bit jarring in some scenes.

Ti Lung’s Ho is still the main character. This time round he is permitted early parole on the condition that he spies on his old mentor Lung Sei, played by Dean Shek. The authorities suspect that Lung Sei is involved in counterfeiting. Ho initially declines the offer of parole, but changes his mind when he finds out Kit; his younger brother is also involved in the case.

A good portion of the film revolves around Dean Shek’s character, as he is really put through the ringer. His daughter is murdered; he has a psychological breakdown, survives numerous assassination attempts and gets shot multiple times in the blood soaked finale. Unfortunately Shek is guilty in the film of going over the top, especially when his character has his breakdown. He isn’t terrible in the film, just that he is inconsistent in the role. You can’t really complain though, as Shek’s production company Cinema City, which he co-founded with fellow actors Karl Maka and Raymond Wong, financed and released the film.

Leslie Cheung’s Kit is more likeable this time round, as his character has come to terms with his brother’s gangster lifestyle, and the two of them seem to get on a lot better. This means there is a lot less of Cheung whining, and more of him being a bit of a bad ass. He takes part in quite a few of the films action scenes, which Woo directs here with a much more sure hand than the previous entry.

Kenneth Tsang is also back, and gets more involved than he did in the previous entry. As well as Tsang, Shing Fui-On is back but in a different role from the first film. He has an extremely brutal fight scene with Ti Lung during the finale.

There is a lot more action this time round, all of it extremely well done and over the top. Whereas the first film was a gangster movie with violent action, this is a straight up Hong Kong action movie, with characters being shot multiple times and still going. The finale to A Better Tomorrow 2 is in my opinion one of the best action scenes he ever produced. Although the sequel is not as good overall as the first in the series, it does work better as a straight up action movie.

Like the first movie, A Better Tomorrow 2, uses music from other movies. Most noticeable is again the theme from Birdy, but you can also notice excerpts from Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Extreme Prejudice (1987), and Gary Chang’s score for 52 Pick Up (1986).

Unfortunately the production of A Better Tomorrow 2 caused a rift between John Woo and Tsui Hark. The studio had said that the first cut ran too long. Both Woo and Hark then separately worked on their own preferred cut of the film. According to producer Terence Chang, a long time collaborator of Woo’s, Hark felt that Woo had ruined the film, and wanted Woo to be fired from the studio. Apparently Hark’s preferred cut of the film focused more on Dean Shek’s character. After A Better Tomorrow 2, any ideas for future film projects that Woo proposed were then rejected by Woo. This pretty much signified the end of their partnership, with Hark only producing Just Heroes (1989) & then The Killer, when both stars of the movie, Danny Lee & Chow Yun Fat, got their production companies to co-produce the movie. Recently it seemed Woo and Hark were back on speaking terms, and in 2014 there was even talk of them collaborating on a Wuxia movie. Since then it has been reported that Tsui had been brought on to re-cut Woo’s The Crossing part 2. It is not clear if he done this with Woo’s blessing.

A Better Tomorrow 2 would be the last in the series to be directed by John Woo. He would revisit the series somewhat with the similar Just Heroes which he co-directed with actor Wu-Ma. The movie has very similar characters and themes to A Better Tomorrow and even has a cameo appearance by Ti Lung. As mentioned earlier it was also produced by Tsui Hark. There probably weren’t as many clashes between Hark and Woo as the film was made as a benefit to the Directors Union, in order to aid legendary film director Chang Cheh, who had some financial difficulty. The film was developed by actors David Chiang and Danny Lee to closely resemble the popular A Better Tomorrow. The film, although a lesser entry in the Woo canon, is still worth watching. It also works as a reunion of sorts for Shaw Brothers stars David Chiang, Danny Lee, Chen Kuan Tai, Ti Lung and also producer Chang Cheh. Hong Kong superstar Chow Sing Chi also shows up in a rare villainous role. There are numerous nods to A Better Tomorrow throughout, especially a character obsessed by the film who tries to replicate scenes throughout, nearly getting him-self killed in the process.

A Better Tomorrow 3: Love & Death in Saigon – 1989

With John Woo stepping aside from the franchise, it was up to producer Tsui Hark to take the reigns as director this time round. John Woo had originally written a script for A Better Tomorrow 3, but due to his and Tsui Hark’s differences during the production of the sequel he left the project. The script that Woo developed would go on to form the basis of his movie Bullet in the Head, a film which A Better Tomorrow 3 shares many similarities with.

The third in the series is actually a prequel to the first movie, bring back one of Chow Yun Fat’s most popular characters, Mark Gor. Set in 1974, the film outlines how the inept Mark Gor of this movie became the character audiences came to love in the original film. The plot concerns Mark visiting Saigon towards the end of the Vietnam War, in order to bring his cousin and his uncle back to Hong Kong. Whilst in the airport, Mark is accosted by the local authorities who strip and attempt to steal from him. He is saved by Chow Ying-Kit, played by a scene stealing Anita Mui, who it turns out, is involved in gun running. She takes an interest in Mark and his cousin Cheung Chi-mun (Tony Leung Ka-fai). Throughout the film a love triangle develops between the three, and we begin to see Mark become the killer he was introduced as in the first movie. Around three thirds of the way through, Ho Cheung-ching (Saburo Tokito) shows up to mess everything up for them, culminating in an impressive action climax that involves helicopters, tanks and motorbikes.

Unlike the first two movies in the series, A Better Tomorrow 3, has a very strong female character as one of its leads. In matter of fact it is Anita Mui and not Chow Yun Fat that gets the majority of the films action. Chow Yun Fat does get more involved in the action towards the end of the film. With a twist on his usual image of brandishing two handguns, Mark brings two M-16’s to a gunfight, one in each hand.

Chow Yun Fat is once again excellent in the role of a very different Mark Gor. He goes through a range of emotions in this film. This time round Mark is more of a romantic lead than he was given the opportunity to be in the previous two movies. Tony Leung Ka-fai as Mark’s cousin Mun is also good in a bit of a gormless role. He does get involved in the action though and looks crazy in the films climax. Anita Mui as Kit is the true scene stealer of the film. Like Chow Yun Fat did in the original, she takes a supporting role and runs away with the film, essentially becoming the star of the movie. Of the supporting roles, Japanese actor Saburo Tokito makes an impression with the limited screen time he has. Shih Kien, most famous as the villain in Enter the Dragon (1973) also makes a small appearance as Mark’s uncle, but looks quite frail in the part.

As being directed by Tsui Hark, the film does have a very different look to the original movies, with having much richer colours akin to his other movies such as Peking Opera Blues (1986) and Once Upon a Time in China (1991). As previously mentioned there is also more of a focus on strong female characters. The action scenes are also quite different. Although still excellent, they look very different from the “bullet ballets” featured in Woo’s movies. Hark’s action can also go quite over the top, which is true of the finale, with Mark firing M-16’s in two hands, and with him facing down a tank with a motorbike.

A Better Tomorrow 3 was quite a financial failure in comparison to the first two films in the series. Some critics put this down to the change in director. This is a shame, as I actually think that out of the two sequels, the third is the better film. It is a more emotional movie than the sequel, only let down by the fact that it is a prequel, so we are never in doubt to Mark surviving the film.

There is an alternative version of the film from Taiwan which runs to 145 minutes, which is the full uncut version. It was released on Taiwanese VCD a number of years ago but is since out of print.

A Better Tomorrow 3 would prove to be the last part of the original series. Although there were a number of rip-offs and homage’s still to come, the series essentially ended here. One noteworthy rip off would be Return to a Better Tomorrow (1994), directed by the prolific Wong Jing. Starring future Hong Kong stars Ekin Cheng (credited here as Dior Cheng), Lau Ching Wan (credited as Sean Lau), Collin Chou (credited as Ngai Sing) and Michael Wong (credited as Michael Wong, unfortunately), the film is one of Wong Jing’s better efforts, and he seems to raise his game. It doesn’t come close to the work of Woo or Hark, but it is an enjoyable exploitation action movie, happy enough to ride the coat tails of a Hong Kong classic. I wouldn’t let the fact it being a rip off put you off seeking it out.

A Better Tomorrow – 2010

The Korean movie A Better Tomorrow is the only official remake of the original movie. This time it was directed by Song Hae-sung and executive produced by John Woo. Although the framework of the film is essentially the same as the original, focusing on the relationship of a gangster and his policeman brother, there are added elements to the plot to make it more culturally significant to a Korean audience.

The plot this time centres round Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-mo), who is this films version of Ti Lung’s Ho character. Unlike the original film, he is also a police officer. He moonlights as an arms smuggler on the side. The film opens with him defecting from North Korea. He is forced to leave behind his mother and brother, Kim Chul (Kim Kang-woo). He later finds out that his mother has died and his brother, who is in an internment camp, wants nothing to do with him, blaming him for his mother’s death.

Like the original movie, Hyuk wants to go straight, and is betrayed on a job in Thailand. He is set up by young gangster Jung Tae-min played by Jo Han-sun. He is equally as slimy as Waise Lee in the original movie. A shootout ensues, with Hyuk being captured by the local authorities, and Jung’s duplicity is kept a secret. Hyuk’s friend, Lee Young-choon enraged at the capture of his friend, confronts the Thai gang, and like the original movie ends up crippled. Song Seung-hon plays Lee, this films version of Mark Gor. Unlike that film, this won’t give him the same kind of worldwide fame that the original gave Chow Yun Fat, as he doesn’t make the same kind of impression.

Performance wise, no one really stands out. There aren’t any bad performances, but they also don’t stand heavy scrutiny when compared with the performers in the original movie. Song Hae-sung also doesn’t make as much as in impression in the director’s chair as John Woo did with the original. He made more of an impression with his earlier film, the excellent wrestling biopic Rikidozan (2004). He does have a sure hand when it comes to the films action scenes, and the finale is a lot larger in scale to the original film.

There are slight differences between the remake and the original. The main character is also a policeman, and not just a gangster. They are arms dealers instead of counterfeiters and Hyuk knows that he was betrayed by Jung, where in the original the character of the villain, Shing’s motives are not known until later in the film. To the detriment of the film, the run time is also considerably longer than the original, running at 124 minutes compared to the originals 95 minute run time.

For people that complained about the homo-erotic overtones of the original, they really should give this film a miss, as they are turned up to 11. Like a lot of Korean dramas the characters are very emotional, and cry a lot. Every reunion or farewell has scenes of men crying. It kind of ruins the supposed tough guy mystique. Of course you want the characters to appear somewhat realistic, but I don’t think hardened gangsters wear their hearts on their sleeves like these guys do. There are also no main female roles at all, not even a poorly written girlfriend role.

Compared to other Korean action thrillers of the time, such as Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil (2010), A Better Tomorrow really pales in comparison. Compared to the original film it is also a failure, being more of a curio for fans of the original series than being able to stand on its own.

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A Better TomorrowActionAnita MuiChow Yun FatHong KongJohn WooKoreanLeslie CheungTi LungTsui Hark

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