John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow by Karen Fang (Hong Kong University Press)

As I was walking to work the other day, I couldn’t help but notice the poster for a forthcoming film that would soon be shown at my local theater, a Korean remake of a John Woo classic –A Better Tomorrow.  Sometime in the mid to late 80s, a friend introduced me to the world of Hong Kong cinema.  This was long before John Woo or Chow Yun Fat became popular in the United States, back when the only opportunity to see Hong Kong films was at small independent theaters that would have Hong Kong film festivals from time to time.  This particular film was probably my first exposure to Hong Kong action movies and after one viewing I was hooked.

But this book isn’t just a film review, it is a critical analysis of the New Hong Kong Cinema and its impact on the film industry at home and abroad.   It explains its rise along with the globalization of film, which both occurred over the same period between the mid 80s and late 90s.

Before this movie was released, John Woo was known as a director of romantic comedies while Chow Yun Fat had the lead role in some movies but was known mostly for the TV soap operas he appeared in.   However, with the release of this film, it became one of the highest-grossing the year of its release and shot John Woo and Chow Yun Fat to superstar fame.  This film also sparked a new genre – the action/crime film, or yingxiong pian which translates to a “hero” movie, which the West described as “heroic bloodshed”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the movie, the plot centers around three main characters – Sung Ji-Ho played by Ti Lung, Mark Gor, or Brother Mark, played by Chow Yun Fat, and Kit played by Leslie Cheung (a very popular pop idol at the time).  Sung Ji-Ho is a successful criminal who built his empire upon counterfeiting.  Brother Mark is his loyal partner.  Kit is Ho’s younger brother who is a cadet in the police academy and does not know that his older brother is involved in criminal activities. On a business trip to Taipei, Ho is framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He eludes the police, however, in order to protect his younger brother and Mark, he decides to turn himself in but insists that a rookie member of his gang, Shing, should escape.  The following day Mark makes a trip to Taipei to avenge Ho and kills most of those responsible but is shot and crippled in the leg.

Ho spends the next three years in prison with hardly any contact with Kit or Mark.  Kit, who learns of his brother’s criminal activities, trains even harder with the police force.  When Ho is released and tries to reach out to Kit by telling his younger brother that he has gone straight, Kit shuns him.  However, Mark is overjoyed at being reunited with his friend and suggests taking revenge on Shing, whom they have discovered was the one who betrayed them.  They plan to do this by exposing Shing to the police and to help Kit advance in his career and to prove that Ho has indeed gone straight.

Everything goes as planned but comes at a really high cost.  Mark is killed but before he dies, he chastises Kit for not recognizing the love Ho has for him.  In the end, Kit goes against police regulations and lets his brother kill Shing.  Ho wants to do right by his younger brother so he handcuffs himself to Kit and returns to police custody.

Getting back to the core of the book, Fang describes the different ways in which the film was received by its home audience and its global prominence as well.  In Hong Kong when the film was first released in 1986, it became a record-breaking blockbuster.  The original title in Mandarin is Yingxiong bense or in Cantonese Yinghuhng bunsik which translates to True Colors of Valor or The Essence of Heroes, suggesting that the plot is about chivalry, family ties, loyalty, and honor.  However, with the international English title of A Better Tomorrow,the foreign press suggested that the movie was politically influenced by Hong Kong’s forthcoming return to China.

However, I’m not one for analyzing movies in minute detail.  If it entertains me, then the movie has served its purpose.  After watching this film, I found myself becoming biased, feeling as if these yingxiong pian films made Hollywood action movies seem like Disney productions.  If this film excites you as much as it did me, you will find yourself becoming a fan of John Woo’s other Hong Kong action films which also star Chow Yun Fat such as Hard BoiledThe Killer, and Bullet in the Head.

I may have to make a trip to my local DVD rental store to watch these all over again.  And of course I look forward to seeing the Korean remake as well.~Ernie Hoyt