Director John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) began his trademark series of action films in Hong Kong cinema’s sub-culture of ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ movies. These films tended to deal with less that white characters trying to redeem/revenge past misdeeds against the overwhelming odds set against them. Woo, aligning with luminaries such as Ringo Lam and Tusi Hark ushered in a new benchmark for action films that is still being replicated in current action cinema to this day. Woo was a great fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, the French auteur director responsible for the New Wave French crime cinema of the late 50’s to early 70’s. His timeless Le Samouraï (1967) is a template for many of Woo’s films and he has cited the director as an influence on his career. A Better Tomorrow apt title characterises the three main protagonists who are all looking for a better days ahead, though it is clear, crime pays little, they are all striving to better themselves. The stylistic feel of the film is very slick with expensive suits, Hong Kong neon lit streets and multiple upon multiple explosions which make Western films look a little tame in comparison. That saying, as these series of films became popular in the Western cinema, there were many copies made of this type of film. Gunplay, blood and loyal friendships became the staple of Hong Kong cinema during the late 1980’s to the 1990’s, with many Hong Kong directors trying to out do each other in the blood-soaked celluloid arena.
Woo also began a very successful partnership with actor Chow Fun Fat, an elegant and handsome actor, with a great screen presence and a boyish grin, which made him the coolest gangster in modern cinema. They created the über cool gangster archetype, with smart suits, long trenchcoats and a two gun firepower back up. From this film, through to The Killer (1989) then to Hard Boiled (1992) (reviewed here), Woo/Fat became a super cool working team, with many fans still waiting for another film from these two one day. A Better Tomorrow leading actor, Ti Lung, veteran of many Shaw Brothers movies was an instant face that Hong Kong audiences could relate too. A Better Tomorrow was a small budget movie, so the inclusion of Lung made this film a great success, securing Lung an award as best actor at the Golden Horse awards in 1986. The violence A Better Tomorrow is very startling, not because we haven’t been introduced to cinematic carnage, but because its deaths are rarely frivolous and needles. Even as the bad guys are being blown halfway across the room, there’s a sense of heroic disquiet to be had, that the justification is righteous and true. It maybe gangster verses gangster, but you do root for the fallen Triad members and not the ones in power, as underdogs go, these guys are better on your side than against.
The plot has Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Lung) works for the a Hong Kong Triad gang, whose principal operation is printing and distributing counterfeit US bank notes. Ho is a respected member of the organisation and is entrusted with the most important transactions. Mark Lee (Chow Yun-Fat), another high-ranking member of the group is his best friend and partner in crime. Ho has a younger brother, Kit (Leslie Cheung), who is training to become a police officer. Ho keeps his criminal life secret from his brother and encourages Kit’s career choice. Ho’s father is aware of Ho’s criminal activities and appeals to him to go straight. Ho agrees, deciding that his next deal in Taiwan will be his last one before leaving the Triad. Shing (Waise Lee), a new member, is sent along as an apprentice. The deal turns out to be a trap by the Taiwanese gang. A shootout ensues in which Ho and Shing flee, pursued by local law enforcement. Ho eventually surrenders to the police in order to buy time for Shing to escape.
Meanwhile, a Triad member attempts to kidnap Ho’s father to ensure Ho’s silence. In the ensuing fight also involving Kit and his girlfriend, Ho’s father is killed. Just before dying, he pleads with Kit to forgive his brother. Meanwhile, after learning of Ho’s capture, Mark finds and kills the Taiwanese gang leader and his bodyguards. However, Mark’s leg is shot in the gunfight, leaving him crippled. Ho is released from prison several years later. Remorseful and determined to start a new life, he finds work as a driver for a taxi company, run by another ex-con named Ken. Ho spots Mark during one of his shifts. He realises that Mark has been reduced to an errand boy for Shing who is the leader in waiting of the Triad gang. During an emotional reunion, Mark asks Ho to confront Shing and reclaim their positions in the organisation, but Ho refuses. Ho seeks Kit, now a police officer, out and attempts to reconcile with him, but is disowned by Kit who sees Ho as a criminal and responsible for their father’s death. Kit is also resentful that his family tie to Ho is preventing him from professional advancement. In an effort to prove himself to his superiors and further distance himself from his brother’s criminal past, Kit becomes obsessed with bringing down Shing’s criminal group, despite Ho’s warnings to stay away from the dangerous case.
Shing finds Ho and presses him to come back to his organisation, offering to reinstate Mark if he returns. Ho flatly refuses. Consequently, Shing begins harassing Ho in order to get him to return, including luring Kit into a trap and injuring Kit, attacking Ho’s co-workers at the taxi firm, and having Mark beaten severely. Ho is dismayed but is still hesitant to take action, but an impassioned speech by Mark finally convinces Ho to join Mark in attacking Shing. Mark steals a computer tape containing printing plate data from the counterfeiting business and wins a shootout with gang members, with Ho arriving to aid Mark’s escape. Ho and Mark use the tape to blackmail Shing in exchange for money and an escape boat. However, Ho ensures that the tape is passed to Kit to hand to the police. Using Shing as a hostage, Ho and Mark take the money to a pier, where Shing’s men await.After Mark leaves, Kit arrives on the scene intending to make an arrest where he is captured by Shing’s men. A deal is made to exchange Shing for Kit, but the trade explodes into a wild shootout. Ho and Kit are wounded, but Mark returns with guns blazing out of loyalty to Ho. After Ho, Kit and Mark kill many of Shing’s men, Mark berates Kit, telling him that Ho’s actions had atoned for whatever wrongdoings he had done in the past. Mark is then killed by Shing. As the police approach, Shing mocks Ho, stating that he will surrender, but his money and power will ensure his swift release. Kit, finally seeing eye to eye with his brother, hands Ho a revolver, with which Ho kills Shing. Immediately afterwards, Ho handcuffs himself to Kit, expressing his desire for redemption and his admiration that Kit always walked the right path.
A Better Tomorrow was a benchmark for John Woo’s directorial career, with two sequels made soon after. It set the bar for the Hong Kong film industry to follow and for Western cinema to take note and reinvigorate their action thrillers. Though it was not till Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992) his first American film, that Western audiences saw ‘first hand’ what Hong Kong cinema knew all along, that John Woo was a master actioneer and that action cinema could not get any better than Woo’s prolific cinematic input. The influence of A Better Tomorrow on action cinema is still felt to this day and as an example of the operatic Heroic Bloodshed genre, a perfect example for film fans to savour.
‘My films are always concerned with family, friendship, honour, and patriotism. …’ John Woo, Director.