Tuesday, June 7, 2011


John Woo, 1986
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung
Ho (Ti Lung) is a successful career criminal about to quit the business for the benefit of his younger brother Kit (Leslie Cheung), who wants to be a police detective. In his last job he is set up, which results in the death of his father and a prison sentence. In addition, his partner Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) is crippled while getting revenge, which removes him from the #2 position in the crime family. When Ho gets out of prison a few years later, everything is in further shambles. His brother is unable to advance in his career because of Ho's prison tenure and is tailing dangerously close behind the new crime boss, Shing (who originally betrayed Ho). Mark is a cripple and beggar, living off the crumbs Shing will throw him. Ho gets a job as a cab driver and tries to pick up the pieces, though Shing (and the rest of the gang) desperately try to get him back into their world.

For those of you not acquainted with Hong Kong cinema, Ying hung book sik (the literal translation is "True Colors of a Hero") aka A Better Tomorrow is one of the classics. Written and directed by the great John Woo and produced by the arguably greater Tsui Hark, it has two of Chinese cinema's biggest stars and two of my favorite actors: Leslie Cheung and Chow-Yun Fat. Aside from the fact that you want to slit your wrists during the entire second half of the film, it's a good introduction to the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema. Plus, it has one of my favorite scenes of all time, but I'll get to that later.

It's a wonderful film, but is so depressing. The first half an hour is so bad-ass that when it cuts to the second act and we see how desperate everyone has become (especially Mark), it's a punch to the gut. I would say in the U.S. it's relatively rare for an action/crime film to be able to reach dazzling heights with shoot-outs and fisticuffs and then also be able to display extreme pathos and tragedy, but John Woo and the actors all handle the transition masterfully. Though Leslie Cheung has become renown for his acting skills and pop-stardom, among other things, he and Chow Yun-Fat essentially made their careers with A Better Tomorrow. Chow, in particular, became a national (and soon international) star after the film, with thousands of people flocking to buy the outfit he wears as Mark - Alain Delon sunglasses and a duster jacket, which is allegedly known as Brother Mark's coat in the local dialect. Even Quentin Tarantino talks about how he started wearing a duster because of Chow Yun-Fat. Nerd.

A Better Tomorrow comes highly recommended, just don't watch it when you're in the mood for a light, fun action film. I would say that anyone who considers themselves an action aficionado has to see this film, if only for the early, amazing scene in the restaurant where Mark goes to get revenge for his partner's fall. The use of quick editing, slow-motion long shots has an almost operatic feel, as Mark shoots his way through the restaurant with a single mission: bloody revenge.

I'm reviewing the region 1 Anchor Bay release, which is unfortunately bland. It's a widescreen single disc with options to watch it in Cantonese or English (though why would you do that?). Just the basics. The print is fairly awful and looks like you're watching an '80s VHS tape, which I actually find kind of charming. I've also heard that the subtitles are appallingly bad. Unable to speak or understand Cantonese, I wouldn't know, but it would explain why some of the dialogue seems silly or overly expository at times. There are a handful of impressive region 2 collector's editions and box sets -- A Better Tomorrow was expanded into a trilogy because of its success. I'd like to get my hands on and I'll review those when I do.

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