I was maybe fifteen or so when I came across a book called Sex and Zen & a Bullet in the Head . Not only did it have some sexy ladies on the cover, it also had a picture of two men pointing guns at each other’s heads. I still had memories of seeing Reservoir Dogs with my French cousin four years prior (she probably rented it because it had a French word in the title), and, regardless of what I thought about that movie at the time, the whole Mexican Standoff idea had been etched into my memory. Now, I had seen a few movies from Hong Kong thanks to my parents, but while some of them had included some mild depictions of sex, none of them featured two men pointing guns at each other. So, of course I leafed through the book trying to find the movie that corresponded to that picture. It was, of course, The Killer, the 1989 classic by famed director John Woo. I had to track it down, along with a couple other movies by him that seemed interesting: A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II. The latter had promised a scene of four men going into a mansion and going on a bullet-riddled rampage. Awesome. Yeah, I totally need to check out these movies. It would be a few years later before I managed to find them and…well…The Killer was okay. It was A Better Tomorrow, however, that I really liked.
Available online. Approximately 96 minutes.
Tse-Ho and Mark work for the Triad, part of Hong Kong’s organized crime. They are pretty high up in the counterfeiting business. Tse-Ho’s father is in the hospital and begs him to give up his life of crime.
Tse-Ho has a younger brother named Kit. Kit is about to become a full-fledged member of the Hong Kong police force, yet has no idea that his brother has deep connections to the criminal underworld. Oh, and Kit’s girlfriend, Jackie, is a musician and a total klutz. A real klutz Har Har. Good job with your presentation of women, John.
Ho is assigned to go to Taiwan to make a deal with a crime boss over there, taking newcomer Shing along. Because of his brother, Ho decides that the Taiwan deal will be his last job, provided that he makes it back alive. Unfortunately, it is a setup and a shootout occurs.
While Shing escapes the Taiwanese police, Ho is arrested. Someone from the Taiwanese gang tries to abduct Ho’s father, but ends up killing him during a fight with Kit and Jackie. Mark gets revenge on those who attacked Ho and killed his father, but gets shot in the leg in the process.
Three years later, Ho is finally let out of prison and hoping to turn his life around, finding it in a cab company staffed by former convicts. Shing has risen up the ranks of the organization to the point of practically sidelining the official boss and wants Ho to work for him, mostly to keep an eye on Kit.
Kit has become a hardened inspector, but has a major chip on his shoulder due to feeling that his brother’s activity has soiled the family name and hurt his own prospects in the police force. He had been investigating Shing, but has been taken off the case once his superiors found out about Ho’s return. Jackie, now Kit’s wife, tries to get Ho and Kit to reconcile, but Kit is blinded by rage, sometimes to the point of stupidity.
Mark has been downgraded to a driver, walking with a limp and eating in the office garage. He wants to team up with Ho again and take back their former glory, refusing to accept that those days are gone or at least about to disappear. Meanwhile, the cop who initially investigated Mark’s mass killing is out to catch Ho reverting to his old ways.
It would be impossible for me to properly describe the impact that this movie had on Hong Kong cinema, so I guess that I will just have to settle for describing it improperly. This movie was huge. It broke the Hong Kong box office and became big in other Asian countries. For better or worse, it started a trend of triad films. While Ti Lung was supposed to be the main star of this movie as Ho, it was Chow Yun Fat who broke out. Both he and John Woo had done action movies before, but this movie would cement their reputation as action movie star and director respectively, and they would collaborate on a few more movies after this. A Better Tomorrow, and films that came after it, would have a direct influence on American action cinema. And not just on Tarantino movies. Let’s not forget Mark’s long trenchcoat.
I am sure that anyone in Hong Kong who actually managed to own a gun would be putting in plant pots for no reason other than to take it out again a minute later.
As cheesy as the movie may be at times, it tapped into ideas of loyalty, honor, obligation, and family. Before the advent of the “bromance,” many considered Woo movies to have a hint of homoeroticism in how he presented friendships between men. Or maybe that was just Westerners unused to how close Asian men can get when they are friends.
There was also a sense of ambivalence about the future, the future being the handover of Hong Kong from British rule back to Mainland China during the next decade. Sure, the good old days may have included Mark getting forced to drink his own urine, but things would never be the same. It is pretty clear from Woo’s movies after the turn of the millennium that he has largely…erm…got past this ambivalence, but this movie was a decade before the turnover.
A Better Tomorrow pretty much singlehandedly popularized the genre of “Heroic Bloodshed”, which was barely a couple of years old at the time. I have tried in vain to find a proper definition of the genre that did not seem overly vague, so don’t worry if you don’t know what it means don’t worry about it. The best that I can come up with is that it has almost as much bloodshed as a slasher movie or exploitation flicks, except the action protagonists are also directly involved in the bloodshed. I am not sure what is so heroic about it, since the protagonists are basically two criminals and an idiot cop, but I guess that Hong Kong loved throwing the word “hero” around during that time. That is totally unlike how things are in America. Cough. There is a hint of choreography to the violence that John Woo would improve upon during his later movies, but it is still pretty good here, being larger than life without going too over the top until it needs to go there.
Due to the violence of the film, Hong Kong would introduce a ratings system for its movies two years later. When the rating system was amended in 1995, A Better Tomorrow found itself saddled with a Category IIB, which is the second highest rating, similar to an R rating in the United States. Of course, the rating system is not legally enforceable except for Category III, which restricts anyone under 18 years. So…A Better Tomorrow is fine for the kids.
This movie is actually a remake of a 1967 film called Story of Discharged Prisoner…actually both films were originally called True Colors of a Hero, but using that title for this kind of movie probably would not fly in America, even if we have a tendency to throw the word “hero” around. There were two sequels to this movie (they were okay), a semi-sequel called Bullet in the Head (pretty good), and a few remakes of this film as well, including a 2010 South Korean film called Mujeogja or Invincible. The Korean movie is really dull. I do not recommend watching it except maybe as part of some sort of academic project. I cannot judge any other remake.
Now, I would not say that A Better Tomorrow is movie is perfect; far from it. Some of the story does not really add up or seems incomplete. Kit’s cowboy cop routine makes him come off like an idiot at times. There is a fight scene two thirds of the way through that takes about thirty seconds to occur. The lead-up to the climax is convoluted and seems to just involve multiple people acting inexplicably. Jackie, while eventually turning out to be a perfectly fine supporting character, is just annoying in the beginning. Mark may be a great character, but his limp is…erm…inconsistent. While I love most of the music in the movie, there is one part with singing kids that is not only dull, but also badly dubbed over. Even with the flaws, the movie is definitely a classic.
John Woo would make a few more movies in a similar vein, refining his style and incorporating new elements before trying to transition to Hollywood in 1992/3. Other movies may be held in higher regard (I personally feel that The Killer is overrated), but this is the one that started it all.
WTF ASIA 99: Twilight Gangsters (South Korea: 2010, approx. 108 minutes)
WTF ASIA 100: Parzania (India: 2005, approx. 115 minutes)