Bucking the usual trend, the 2010 remake of John Woo’s 1986 immortal heroic bloodshed classic “A Better Tomorrow” came not from Hollywood, but from Korea. With Woo taking an executive producer role, the film was directed by Song Hae Sung, a man with a CV mainly made up of tough melodramas including “Maundy Thursday”, “Failan” and “Calla”. Unsurprisingly, though he sticks to the same themes of brotherhood and bullets, Song takes the remake in a more emotional direction, mixing the explosive gun battles with even more angst and a great deal of suffering. Taking up the inevitable challenge of the roles made so iconic by Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung are Song Seung Heon (“Fate”), Kim Kang Woo (“Le Grand Chef”) and Ju Jin Mo (“A Frozen Flower”) respectively, with Jo Han Sun (“Attack the Gas Station! 2”) as the treacherous villain of the piece.
The plot basically sticks to the original, with a few twists. Ju Jin Mo plays former North Korean defector Hyuk, who left behind his mother and younger brother Chul (Kim Kang Woo) during their escape over the border. Now one of Busan’s top gangsters, he combines gun running with searching desperately for his brother, finally finding him after he is deported from South East Asia. After being betrayed and landed in a Thai jailed by his traitorous second in command Tae Min (Jo Han Sun), his comrade in arms Young Choon (Song Seung Heon) goes in a revenge mission, wiping out the Thai smugglers but getting crippled in the process. 3 years later, Hyuk is released and heads back to Busan, to find Tae Min now in charge of the gang, Young Choon a shadow of himself, and Chul now a detective hell-bent on bringing in the gang, not to mention his own brother, who he still blames for the death of their mother.
Remaking “A Better Tomorrow” was always going to be a mighty tall order, with the film not only being a beloved classic of 25 year ago, but one which is still highly influential today, its plot, techniques and themes having left an indelible impact on the action genre. However, it’s also true to say that the film was to an extent a product of its time, and so a revisioning is by no means an entirely unpalatable suggestion. As such, Song’s decision to stick to the themes whilst taking a different approach was a wise one, and by avoiding a simple update he manages to avoid too many direct comparisons with the original, giving his film a chance to stand on its own right.
The two films are certainly different in a number of ways, with John Woo going for a fast moving, stylised burst of action that, whilst laying on the guilt and brotherly love, was still essentially a fun piece of cinema. Song’s film, on the other hand, is far darker, with the grim past of the brothers adding even more pain and sorrow, and with their relationship being more complex and layered. Although the film still focuses on the dynamic between the two, most of the other characters have also been further fleshed out, making for a story which, though similar, is more grounded and painted with less broad strokes. This works well, and Song’s experience with harsh melodrama shines through as the film does get pretty bleak, without any romance or comic relief to lighten things up. The story is engaging, and though the film’s two hour running time is a touch over-stretched (mostly due to every dying character being gifted a couple of minutes for a final heart-tugging speech), the themes of brotherhood, betrayal and honour ring as true as ever.
The film also scores highly with its action scenes, which without attempting to replicate those of the original are almost as impressive, with Young Choon’s Thailand revenge strike being one of the more memorable Korean gun battles of the last few years. Song aims for realism rather than John Woo style balletic choreography, and the film is a far more violent affair, every bullet hit filling the air with bloody red mist. The action is well paced throughout the film, and serves well to keep things moving and to up the tension, helping to bring things to a suitably thrilling conclusion – albeit a downbeat and depressing one.
The only area in which the film notably pales in comparison is in terms of the cast. Though the three leads are all on decent form, none ever catch the imagination or truly make their roles memorable in the way of Chow Yun Fat, Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung, who arguably were largely responsible for the success of the original, with John Woo yet to fully blossom into an action director as he would with “The Killer”. To be fair, this is in part due to the script, which never gives them quite as many chances for flamboyance or to shine, with Song Seung Heon’s stylish gangster having been noticeably toned down, and with Kim Kang Woo’s cop frankly being a bit of a whiner rather than a conflicted young man. Ju Jin Mo does better, with a creditable Ti Lung impression, though it’s Jo Han Sun who steals most of his scenes as the ruthless back-stabber, primarily since he seems to be the only one in the film having any fun.
Still, it’d be a bit unfair to mark the film down too much on this score, and “A Better Tomorrow” is a worthy remake that successfully captures the essence of the original without merely repeating it. A tough, at times harrowing thriller that deserves to be considered in its own right, it compares favourably, if not to the source material, then at least to the majority of other Korean action films of the last couple of years.
Hae-sung Song (director) / Hyo-seok Kim, Taek-kyung Lee, Geun-mo Choi, Hae-gon Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Jin-mo Ju … Tae-min
Seung-heon Song … Yeong-choon
Kang-woo Kim … Kim Cheol
Han Sun Jo … Kim Hyeok
Kyeong-yeong Lee … Lieutenant Park