Rating: [star rating=”3″ max=”5″]
A classic? Really?
Am I really the only person in the last twenty five years to think John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色) is an enormous crock of horse manure? It certainly seems so. Voted the second best Chinese language film of all time at the 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards and – maybe a little more sensibly – the 17th greatest by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in 2011, Woo’s 1986 ‘classic’ is apparently a film more worthy of greatness than the likes of Chungking Express, Infernal Affairs, and, ahem, Kung Fu Hustle.
A Better Tomorrow became the top-grossing film in Hong Kong film history upon its release and established John Woo as one of Hong Kong’s top directors. Thanks to its choreographed gun battles and the memorable portrayal of its match-chewing, trenchcoat-wearing antihero by – up until then – dependable box office poison Chow Yun Fat, the film has gone on to be regarded as a classic of the so-called heroic bloodshed genre. But though it was indeed considered groundbreaking in its day, the best that can be said these days, is that it hasn’t exactly aged well.
I know it isn’t 1986 anymore, but surely the bad-guy-attempting-to-go-straight-with-added-romantic-and/or-family-subplot angle, must have seemed a pretty tired excuse for a storyline even then. Two brothers, one, Kit, a rookie cop (Leslie Cheung) looking to do the right thing, the other a supposed Triad big shot running a sophisticated counterfeiting syndicate (Ti Lung), it is the play between their respective loyalties and the different paths their lives have taken that gives the story its dramatic tension.
Guns & Cheese
At times, however, the film gives the impression of being more a sequence of events leading to the next big gun battle rather than a fully-rounded story of brotherly love and competing interests – the brothers’ father is murdered after a deal goes wrong; Ti Lung is double-crossed for some vague reason and ends up in a Taiwanese jail; and when Chow attempts to avenge this betrayal, he winds up getting shot in the leg leaving him more or less crippled for the rest of the film. Oh, and there’s Kit’s very one-dimensional girlfriend – in an afterthought to a female perspective on events – somewhere in the mix as well.
Of the more melodramatic moments, there’s the feeling that they could have been lifted straight from a Hong Kong TV drama, with that same cheesy ballad repeating endlessly over every emotional tête-à-tête or slow motion lock of eyes. The music during the action scenes is only marginally less offensive – all synthesizers and 80s urgency that almost distracts from the action on screen as you try and come to terms with how it could ever have been deemed suitable for public consumption.
Chow Yun Fat was certainly more believable as hitman Ah Jong three years later in The Killer. But to be fair, it’s more the script than Chow himself that’s the biggest hindrance to his credibility here. That Chow and Ti Lung’s characters are apparently major figures in the Hong Kong underworld is almost entirely unconvincing. You see them observing a bit of counterfeit money printing over the opening credits and there’s the little scrapes they get themselves into and out of along the way. Other than these nods to their villainous lifestyle, however, Elton John and David Furnish would probably have been more believable as gangsters.
Things on Chins
The film is also notable for one more thing I should mention – the curious phenomenon of ‘things on chins’. I’m not sure I would personally rank as a marker of fine acting the ability to stay in character whilst something peculiar dribbles down your face, but in A Better Tomorrow, it seems that little bit of tea, chewed-up rice, or spit on the chin, just adds to the emotion of the scene.
Despite all this, if it’s action you want, action is what A Better Tomorrow most definitely delivers. It may be utterly over-the-top – all flying bullets and slow motion grimacing – but it was perhaps the film that introduced modern Hong Kong cinema to the wider world. It made a star of Chow Yun Fat after years of TV dramas and movie flops. And, with its charismatic antihero and stylish action, it laid a template of sorts for the countless Hong Kong and Hollywood action films that followed, inspiring Robert Rodriguez, Tarantino, the Wachowski brothers et al, when making their own blood-soaked, bullet-riddled odes to the cinematic virtue of violence.
The Chow-Woo collaboration has given us more polished and, let’s face it, better films than this, but despite its flaws there is still an affection for A Better Tomorrow amongst the connoisseurs that its groundbreaking status affords it. It may be dated, the music may be beyond awful, there may even be strange things dripping off many a quivering bottom lip, but you can’t doubt the influence of the film that launched a thousand imitators.