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A Better Tomorrow Print E-mail
Tuesday, 22 February 2000

A Better Tomorrow

Anchor Bay Entertainment
MPAA rating: Not rated
starring: Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat, Emily Chu, Lee Waise, Shing Gui-On, Kenneth Tsang, John Woo
release year: 1986
film rating: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

This dazzling, sentimental and handsome crime thriller from Hong Kong is the movie that at once started and established John Woo's reputation as one of the greatest of all action-film directors. Over the next few years, 'A Better Tomorrow II,' 'A Bullet in the Head' and, especially, 'The Killer' only confirmed his talent. For the first time, 'A Better Tomorrow' has been given an excellent US DVD release by, no surprise, Anchor Bay. This busy company has developed a strong reputation for high-quality releases of foreign thrillers, horror movies, the movies of cult directors and so forth. They deserve the support and patronage of every movie buff.

'A Better Tomorrow' was written by Chan Hing-Ka Chan and Leung Suk-Wah Leung (with uncredited contributions by Woo), but it's not the plot that makes the film so memorable. In fact, the story is relatively conventional.

Ho Tse Sung (Ti Lung) is a compassionate Hong Kong gangster who's followed faithfully in the footsteps of his dying father. But Kit (Leslie Cheung), his younger brother, has no idea that his father and brother are criminals; in fact, Kit himself is a dedicated young cop. Ho's principal henchman is the dashing, charismatic Mark Lee (Chow Yun-Fat), who's like another brother to him.

There's a lot of stuff about counterfeiting and rival gang leaders culminating in an attempt to assassinate Ho. He manages to escape, however, and turns himself in to the police. In an effort to avenge Ho's near death, Mark attacks the traitors in a restaurant (in the sequence that everyone remembers), killing most of them, but being severely wounded himself.

Several years later, a subdued Ho is released from prison, met only by an enigmatic cop (played by director Woo himself). Having learned what his brother really did for a living, Kit will have nothing to do with Ho, who gets a job at a taxi company staffed entirely by ex-convicts like himself. Mark has been reduced to a bum who washes car windows for a living, click-clacking around Hong Kong on a leg brace.

But as in most I-want-to-go-straight gangster movies, Ho cannot get away from his past, so he turns against his former gang, with the help of Mark and, later, Kit. There's a memorable shootout at the docks, complete with gunfire, explosions, gunfire, speedboats, and lots more gunfire. Plus a heroic death.

Not only did 'A Better Tomorrow' establish John Woo as a major director -- the film was a huge hit everywhere it was released (which didn't include the U.S., really) -- but it abruptly shifted the direction of Chow Yun-Fat's career. He was already a big star in Hong Kong, but primarily in romantic films. His vivid, ingratiating performance here instantly enlarged his scope as an actor. He has become one of a tiny handful of actors worldwide who can play simply anything he's physically suited for -- comedy, romance, action, straight drama, anything. Also, he's dreamily handsome, and looks smashing in a tux. Among the few others who could do all this are Cary Grant, Michael Caine and Marcello Mastroianni. Can you think of anyone else?

The real leads of 'A Better Tomorrow' are Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung; both are very good, but it's Yun-Fat who steals the picture without even trying to. Of course, he has the most colorful role, which always helps. Mark is a wise guy, funny, sexy, courageous and dashing, but always with the hint of a tear in his eye. (In fact, an appropriate image for John Woo's Hong Kong movies would be Chow Yun-Fat in a trenchcoat, sliding down a staircase on his back, blazing away at his enemies with twin .45 automatics, with a matchstick in the corner of his grin and a tear on his cheek.) Yun-Fat is so incandescent in this role that even though his character dies (hope I didn't spoil anything), he returned in Woo's 'A Better Tomorrow II' -- as Mark's twin brother. He's even in the non-Woo third entry.

The movie also gave Leslie Cheung a major boost up. He also returned in the sequel, and more famously starred in 'A Chinese Ghost Story' and its sequel. Even though he'd been in quite a few movies by the time of 'A Better Tomorrow,' he often looks as though he's about sixteen. Unlike Yun-Fat, he has yet to try to launch an American career.

John Woo, of course, is having an American career even more stellar than his Hong Kong experience. His first American movie 'Hard Target' was compromised by a low budget and a star who fought with the director, but from 'Broken Arrow' onward, Woo has delivered one astonishingly accomplished action movie after another. His 'Windwalkers' opens later this year.

Like many fine directors, Woo synthesized the approaches of directors he admired himself -- there are elements here of Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and French director Jean-Pierre Melville (his 'Le Samourai' is the source of Mark's much-imitated trenchcoat). All of these influences filtered through Woo's own imagination; he uses a good deal of slow motion, but in a different manner than Peckinpah did. He's down among the criminals like Scorsese and Coppola, but is neither man-on-the-street like the former nor operatic like the latter -- Woo's gangster movies are more sentimental, more violent, and also more like fables or fairy tales.

Ignore the English-dubbed track on this DVD; even though the subtitles could be better, the Cantonese track is in flashy, ingenious Dolby 5.1. Woo already was using sound mixing in manner similar to his editing and cinematography styles: not realistic, but intensely stylized and expressive. The Foley is occasionally strange, as when some photos are torn off the wall; Mark's brace clacks loudly, far more so than it would in reality. And the shootouts are incredible, of course -- they're what the film is known for.

Chapter 8 features the first gun battle; the brief burst of sound is artfully exaggerated. Chapter 9 features a scary/funny fight in an apartment, in which Jackie (Emily Chu), Kit's girlfriend, participates. (Women rarely have much to do in John Woo's movies.)
Chapter 11 is Mark's astonishing shootout at the restaurant, so vividly staged, both by Mark (he plants guns in flowerpots to grab them later as he runs out of bullets) and by Woo -- it's the signature scene of the movie. In Chapter 21, Mark is badly beaten, but gets some of his own back in Chapter 23, in a shootout in a garage, full of echoing gunfire, shattering glass and screams.

The climax is spread over Chapter 27 and 28, in the big fight at the docks; here, Woo uses a hand-held camera at times. It's spectacular and well-staged, but not as memorable as the restaurant scene.

If you have any interest in movie history, 'A Better Tomorrow' is a DVD to look for.

more details
sound format:
Cantonese track Dolby 5.1; English-dubbed track: Mono
aspect ratio(s):
letterboxed (16X9 enhanced)
special features: only extras are trailers and language choice
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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