I don’t think it’s too much hyperbole to say that John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” changed how the world looked at Hong Kong cinema. The film centers around two childhood friends who also happen to be counterfeiters, Mark (would-be International superstar Chow Yun-Fat) and Ho (former ’70s kung fu action star Ti Lung). As the film opens, the two men are living the high life and lighting cigars with paper money. But as is often the case with these gangster movies, the end of their reign is right around the corner.
That end comes when Ho is double-crossed and sentenced to prison, prompting Mark to do what all gangsters are wont to do in Heroic Bloodshed films — namely seek revenge at the earliest possible convenience. During a gunfight with a room full of rival gangsters, Mark is wounded, but not before perforating the room’s occupants in a hail of slow-motion and bullets. But the wound makes Mark a liability, and soon an up-and-coming gangster has wrested the criminal empire that Mark and Ho had built away.
Meanwhile, Ho is released from prison determined to go straight, not just for his own sake, but for his kid brother Kit (Leslie Cheung, “Inner Senses”), a rookie cop whose blood ties to a known gangster has all but destroyed any career advancement opportunities. But as is often the case in films of this genre, the “going straight” part turns out to be a notion mined with obstacles. One of those obstacles come in the form of Ho’s former prot’g’, now the head of the criminal empire, who has been keeping Mark in the garage, relegated to bum duties.
What you have in “Tomorrow” is a movie that combines Sam Peckinpah’s notoriously violent shootouts (think a Hong Kong version of “The Wild Bunch”) with a style that hasn’t been seen before. Unlike the “Godfather” movies that came before it, “Tomorrow” is gritty and dirty and jagged around the edges. Of course the gritty look can be blame on poor Hong Kong filmstock, a common problem with films of the era, but in this case the harsh aesthetics work to the film’s advantage.
The action, not surprisingly, is stellar. Those familiar with Woo’s works know that he doesn’t go for realism. The shootouts are stylish, even if they are a little rough around the edges. Back in 1986, John Woo (“Windtalkers”) was still trying to define his style. Still, one can see the kernels of inspiration everywhere, from the gunplay to the overwrought themes of brotherhood and loyalty and how family means everything. “A Better Tomorrow” was one of Woo’s first films to explore the Heroic Bloodshed genre, where tough men bonded in the heat of battle and a whole lot of people died as a result.
But if Woo made the movie a hit with his trend-setting style, the actors do it with their chops. Although he was a supporting actor, Chow Yun-Fat (“Bulletproof Monk”) would eventually come out of “A Better Tomorrow” as an international star. And there’s absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t have. His performance here is superb, rife with compassion, coolness, and vulnerability. No one could have played Mark better than Fat. No one. The lead was actually Ti Lung (“First Shot”), a long-time veteran of the Hong Kong industry, having made his name in the ’70s with kung fu films. Lung’s low-energy performance might be one of the main reasons no one remembers that Lung was the original star of the movie.
For those who want to see where Woo’s style came from, “A Better Tomorrow” is certainly a great start. As mentioned, it’s sometimes too rough around the edges, and the Hong Kong film stock is a bit hard to stomach. Even so, this is a masterwork of Hong Kong cinema, and it’s always a worthwhile effort to re-visit a master’s early works.
John Woo (director) / Hing-Ka Chan, Suk-Wah Leung (screenplay)
CAST: Lung Ti …. Ho Tse Sung
Leslie Cheung …. Kit Sung
Yun-Fat Chow …. Mark Gor/ Mark Lee