In the second of my series of articles looking at John Woo's cycle of "heroic bloodshed" films, I discuss the the smash hit A Better Tomorrow, the director's hugely influential breakthrough.
The decision by Golden Harvest to shelve Heroes Shed No Tears can only have deepened John Woo's feeling of dejection. The director might easily have been condemned to making yet more comedies, continuing to be kept away from the themes and images that interested him. Fortunately, an escape route presented itself in the shape of Tsui Hark. With Tsui's assistance, Woo would make his passion project: an emotional, contemporary thriller fusing a novel style of action with the chivalry of old. A Better Tomorrow would be a massive hit across Asia. With it, John Woo would truly arrive.
Woo and Tsui had been indirectly connected since 1981. In that year, Cinema City & Films Co. Ltd. was founded by Karl Maka, Dean Shek and Raymond Wong. The company was a new player in the Hong Kong film industry, a "mini-major" studio which in Jeff Yang's words intended to combine "Hollywood-style production values" with "a distinctly Hong Kong sensibility" (Once Upon a Time in China, 2003). Woo and Tsui both directed films for Cinema City at its inception - Woo's successful comedy Laughing Times (1981) was the studio's very first film.
While Tsui was a little younger and less experienced than Woo, he had built on his success as a fledgling director by founding his own company, Film Workshop. Seeing Woo as someone who could help the company "push the envelope" of Hong Kong cinema, Tsui invited him to come on board and make a film. Both men were fond of the 1967 Patrick Lung Kong film Story of a Discharged Prisoner, and it was decided that they would remake it as A Better Tomorrow (the two films have the same Cantonese title, "True Colours of a Hero"). The film was co-produced by Film Workshop and Cinema City, and written by Woo together with Chan Hing-kai and Leung Suk-wah. Tsui acted as producer.
A Better Tomorrow is only a loose remake of Lung Kong's original film, which had a more social dimension and is very much about the stigma faced by a released prisoner. By contrast, Woo's film is far more action-oriented, and uses the release of a convict from prison as the launchpad for its own themes: specifically, the fight for traditional values of honour and brotherhood in a rapidly-changing world. The English title is often interpreted as an ironic reference to the upcoming 1997 handover of Hong Kong, the Sino-British Joint Declaration setting out the arrangements having been ratified in 1985.
The film opens with a snapshot of the lives of Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung) and Mark Lee (Chow Yun-fat). They are fairly senior triad gangsters involved with a lucrative scheme to counterfeit the US dollar. Ho is sent to Taiwan to conclude a deal with a criminal faction there - the meeting turns out to be a trap, and Ho is arrested. These events have a profound effect on Ho's literal brother, rookie cop Sung Tse-Kit (Leslie Cheung) and his triad blood brother Mark. Kit has his police career damaged by the revelation that his older brother is a gangster, while Mark is severely injured when he travels to Taiwan to seek revenge for the trap.
The plot is fairly complex, and certainly far more so than that of Heroes Shed No Tears - but Woo and his cast handle each twist and turn with real skill, extracting the maximum excitement and emotional impact. Eventually, all three "brothers" - Ho, Kit and Mark - are drawn into a final conflict with Shing (Waise Lee), the venal gangster who has taken over the triad. Within the context of the story, Shing is a true menace not because he is a criminal but because he is without honour. A reflection of the changing times, his loyalty is not to his brothers but only to wealth and power. It's easy to see this as Woo's comment on the increasingly wealth-obsessed atmosphere of 1980s Hong Kong. It's also easy to see why Woo was accused of glorifying crime, and why he chose to go the other way altogether with his last heroic bloodshed film, Hard Boiled (1992).
With Heroes Shed No Tears, Woo was beginning to find a new way to film action in Hong Kong cinema. In A Better Tomorrow, he establishes a real working template for his heroic bloodshed style which is neatly introduced during the scene in which Mark avenges Ho. Then a TV actor whose films had underperformed, Chow Yun-fat was transformed by his involvement in A Better Tomorrow and in this scene in particular. After seeding his escape route with hidden pistols, Mark launches a surprise attack on Ho's Taiwanese betrayers. The shootout is masterfully edited, intercutting slow-motion with shots at normal speed - and as is typical for Woo's films, the violence has profound dramatic and narrative implications. This scene, more than any other, would set the template for Woo's later films - and by extension, much of the global action cinema of the last 30 years.
As gripping as the action is, the dramatic elements of A Better Tomorrow are every bit as accomplished. Within the main cast, Chow was joined by Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung. The former was a classic Shaw Brothers star who had fallen on relative hard times, while Cheung was a singer on the brink of superstardom. Fading star, rising star and Chow - soon to be Hong Kong's biggest star - worked perfectly together with capable support from Waise Lee and Woo's friend Kenneth Tsang, who plays the owner of a cab company who helps Ho attempt to go straight. In the West, A Better Tomorrow has frequently been accused of "melodrama" - but in truth it's simply more honestly and realistically emotional than Western action films have ever been. It's this that forms such an intoxicating combination with Woo's themes and his intense style of action.
Upon its release in August 1986, A Better Tomorrow was a massive success in Hong Kong and became the top-grossing film of the year with a huge take of HK$34 million. In testament to its strong critical reception, it won the Best Film award at the Hong Kong Film Awards (Woo's only film to do so) in 1987. A minor masterpiece in its own right, it made a superstar of Chow Yun-fat and enabled Woo to further explore his new heroic bloodshed style.
Notes on UK Availability
A Better Tomorrow was released on region 2 DVD in the UK by Optimum Asia in 2006. Two versions exist: a fairly commonplace 1-disc version and a more scarce 2-disc "ultimate edition". The film has never been released on Blu-Ray in the UK.
Sometime film reviewer, Letterboxd user, novice Blu-Ray collector. Top 3 directors: Woo, Hill, Leone.
Henry V (UK, 1989) ★★★★½
The Fast and the Furious (USA, 2001) ★★★★
Goodfellas (USA, 1990) ★★★★★
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