A Better Tomorrow
Anchor Bay // 1986 // 94 Minutes // Not Rated
A Better Tomorrow II
Anchor Bay // 1987 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // May 10th, 2004
"Apologize to the rice...RIGHT NOW!"
The granddaddy (and firstborn son) of all modern Asian gangster action films, A Better Tomorrow is now available packaged with its sequel, A Better Tomorrow II in a box set from Anchor Bay. Both versions are identical to the single-disc versions currently available on the market, but if you have yet to acquire them for your collection, well, you now have the perfect opportunity.
In A Better Tomorrow, two lifelong friends run the Hong Kong counterfeiting underworld. Ho Tse Sung (Lung Ti) and Mark (Chow Yun-Fat), they live the high life, making a fortune, partying, and celebrating their existences as any good crime lords are apt to do. When a lucrative deal goes down in Taiwan, Ho Tse and a young (but overenthusiastic) associate named Shing head off to make the transaction, but are ambushed and attacked. Rather than seeing the young man go to jail, Ho Tse surrenders to the authorities and allows Shing to escape.
Mark, outraged, takes a pair of guns and vows revenge on the villains who attacked Ho Tse, and unleashes hot lead all over them. However, during the assault, he is shot in the leg, rendering him crippled. Ironically, as it happens, Shing himself conceived the betrayal, engineering the situation in order to remove both Mark and Ho Tse as leaders of the counterfeit ring so he could take command of the business.
Flash forward a few years later, and things are very different for the two lifelong friends. Ho Tse is serving his time in jail, vowing to reform his life of crime. His young brother, Kit, a quickly rising up-and-coming police officer, is devastated at the news that his older brother was a gangster -- and so are the heads of the police department. After being denied a promotion based on his family associations, Kit vows never to speak to his older brother again. When Ho Tse is released from prison, he attempts to reconcile with his brother, but Kit will have nothing to do with him.
Mark, on the other hand, is now a crippled subservient to Shing's new organization, and washes cars and polishes shoes in order to survive. Waiting for Ho Tse for all these years, anxious to reclaim their power and authority in the organization, he is dismayed when Ho Tse announces that he is going straight...he is out of the business, forever. Ho Tse finds employment at a taxi company, run by a man whose entire staff is comprised of ex-criminals; as an ex-con himself, he understands firsthand how hard it is to find work with a criminal record.
However, the past has a way of catching up with those who try to turn their backs from it. Soon, Shing comes calling on Ho Tse, and tries to forcibly persuade him to come back to the organization. Ho Tse will have nothing to do with it...until he finds out that Shing betrayed him. After the horrible realization, Mark and Ho Tse re-join forces in order to bring Shing down once and for all. Unfortunately, Kit has begun dogging his brother around town, harassing him, blaming him for his lost promotion. Once a criminal, always a criminal, thinks Kit, and he is determined to bring his brother down...no matter what the cost!
Like all good sequels, A Better Tomorrow II takes place a few years after the events of the previous film. Ho Tse Sung has served a number of years in jail, and is now working for the police as an informant, trying to right his past. His brother, Kit, has gone undercover investigating a "reformed" gangster named Si Lung, who was Ho Tse's counterfeit mentor. However, in his later years, he operates a legitimate shipping company and teaches his daughter tango lessons. Unfortunately, the past dies hard, and in comes a hotshot mob boss, ready to execute a "hostile" takeover of Si Lung's business.
Forced to flee to America, Si Lung finds refuge with Mark (Chow Yun-Fat), the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant in New York City and who just happens to be the twin brother of Ken, Ho Tse Sung's crime partner and lifelong friend. Meanwhile, Ho Tse has gone undercover with the new leader of his old gang in order to replace Kit, who he still wants to keep out of harm's way. Unfortunately, Kit cannot back away from a challenge and ends up deep within the syndicate, where his identity as a police officer is soon discovered. And Ho Tse, as a rising figure, will be expected to deal with the traitor...
A Better Tomorrow is an oddly prophetic title, considering that the images, tropes, and themes outlined in this 1986 Hong Kong action spectacular would re-emerge time and again in both Woo's future work and in the works of countless imitators. This is it...the first, the alpha, the archetypal Asian action film, with the long flowing coat, sunglasses, and dual pistols, the slow motion action sequences, the guns that shoot seventeen hundred bullets and never once need re-loading. This is where it started.
And if you haven't seen these films, you probably really should. One should always have a firm understanding of the past, especially in the cinema, and especially in movies as cool as these. Unlike John Woo's Hollywood career, which is decisively hit-or-miss, Woo's Hong Kong career put him at the forefront of an entire cinematic genre. A Better Tomorrow broke all box office records and birthed an entire fashion movement of kids sweating under the humid sun beneath gigantic, thick duster coats, matchsticks deftly balanced between their lips, sneering at passersby from behind cheap, imitation French aviator sunglasses. Woo, as a filmmaker, was hungry...he broke rules, he bent conventions, he invented the never-needs-reloading pistol, and most importantly, made some fantastic films. A Better Tomorrow was the start of an amazingly successful and prolific Hong Kong movie career for Woo, from which came some of the most influential action films ever to grace this planet. Immediately after his breakthrough film came the rambunctious sequel, A Better Tomorrow II, then Tragic Heroes, followed by the masterfully ubiquitous The Killer, then Bullet In The Head, the entertaining Once A Thief, and finally, culminating into the spectacle that is Hard Boiled, a film that arguably represents the pinnacle of the Asian action genre and has yet to be outdone.
Yes, John Woo made a fantastic name for himself during his Hong Kong cinematic career, and in A Better Tomorrow I + II, he began to develop an auteur style that would become uniquely his own. Especially before he moved to Hollywood, you could always count on a John Woo movie for a few things: thousands of bullets, electronic synthesizer soundtracks, guns that never need reloading, trench coats, highly suggestive religious imagery, and of course, Chow Yun-Fat, who ended up appearing in virtually all of Woo's films after A Better Tomorrow and into Hollywood. But even though Chow Yun-Fat is forever synonymously associated with the distinctive duster coat, matchstick, French sunglasses, and dual pistols, establishing him as the archetypal anti-hero of all Asian action films; in both films, he plays third billing. His is a supporting character role only, which is ironic considering that the imagery crafted in this film would become so infamous in the world of action films. Even more ironically, his face alone adorns both DVD covers. While this may be misleading, it is certainly understandable. Both Woo and Yun-Fat became incredibly famous after A Better Tomorrow, which absolutely decimated Hong Kong box office records, and his swarthy, cocky portrait of Mark was the visual imagery that forever sticks in people's minds.
Considering its ultra-violent action foundation, A Better Tomorrow is a surprisingly dense, complex, sentimental, and moving film, weaving dramatic elements of family tension, destiny, and honor throughout the fine spray of bullets. A mere plot summary does not the film justice, for the developments, pacing, and acting performances have a surprising level of depth. The performances by Lung Ti and Leslie Cheung (the actual stars of the film) are skilful and moving and deserve recognition onto their own. In particular, Lung Ti executes a fantastic role as Ho Tse Tung, the tortured former gangster trying to go straight. It has been said that when A Better Tomorrow came along in Hong Kong, people were absolutely floored because there had never existed a film quite like it before. While perhaps this praise sounds a tad over-inflated, it cannot be denied that A Better Tomorrow deftly manipulates and blends action, comedy, intelligence, a well-written plot, dramatic action, gripping tension, and incredible amounts of style together in a decisively unique and stylized fashion, with marvelous and awesome results quite unlike anything else...that is, until Woo made A Better Tomorrow II.
It could be persuasively argued that A Better Tomorrow II is a better film than its classic predecessor, because it does everything that the first film did, but with the intensity turned up, the bullet count quadrupled, the body count magnified by a factor of ten, and with more money to blow things up. And yet it, oddly enough, manages to do all of that, but with the intensity and pacing slowed down. Compared to the frantic energy of A Better Tomorrow, the sequel feels almost languid, as if slyly implying that yes, the bullets are coming, just keep your pants on. Far more attention is devoted to slow-moving dramatic tension, character development, and dialogue, as if to shy away from the undeniable fact that, at its core, A Better Tomorrow II is a sillier film with a weaker plot than the original. Chow Yun-Fat, in true soap-operatic glory, plays (get ready for it...) the twin brother of Mark, his original character in the first film, and he spends his time taking care of a successful gangster-turned-businessman driven mad by the death of his daughter, who twitches and howls on the floor, convulsing in grief and sorrow for almost twenty minutes at a stretch on camera. This is dramatic narrative worthy of a high school play. But when the action finally comes...oh, mama! The film climaxes in an astonishing orgy of pre-Reservoir Dogs carnage, complete with four dressed-up, suit-wearing people tackling an entire house full of enemies, who seem to reincarnate spontaneously only to get back into the double-file line so they can be killed again. It is a spectacular sequence absolutely without peer...until Woo went ahead and topped himself by making new movies, that is.
Watching actors speak English dialogue in a Hong Kong action film is like watching someone eat a bowl of squirrels. The entire affair is remarkably un-coordinated, always painfully overdubbed, ungainly, amusing, and awkward, and downright uncomfortable to look at. By far, the funniest part of A Better Tomorrow II is watching Chow Yun-Fat gnaw his lines (and his food) in a Chinese restaurant in New York City, where things are done to food that would make anyone feel queasy (ironically, much more so than the thousands of corpses that pile up throughout the film). He has a special connection to his rice, or something. Either that, or the squirrel-eating thing. It's hard to say.
Even more so than the original, A Better Tomorrow II is classic Woo; which is kind of like "classic mirth making," except with more bullets. The conceptual seeds planted during the original film have gestated and borne their marvelous fruit, and all of the trademark Woo elements -- the stylized visuals, the slow-motion shots of facial expressions (or sometimes, nothing at all), the ultra-hip gangster homage, the incredible action choreography -- have developed into fully articulate elements, no longer mere experimentation or radical departures from the norm. A Better Tomorrow II cements firmly into place the trademark style of Woo's films into reality, a style that he would continually hone throughout his career in Hong Kong, each time refining and elevating the body count and visual flair, until his triumphant move to Hollywood (where inexplicably, the momentum ground horribly to a halt).
Both films are the seminal entries into the Asian action genre, and they should be mandatory viewing for just about every person with both an "x" and a "y" chromosome. But do these Anchor Bay discs live up to the legacy? As it turns out, the answer is yes and no. In the 1980s, proper storage and preservation of film negatives was low on the priority list of the Hong Kong industry, ranking in at 879th, just under "forgetting to pay the craft service team," which was 878th. As a result, most films from this era suffer ghastly damage, scratching, and degradation, and sadly, neither of these films is immune to the affliction. One can only imagine that the film canisters containing A Better Tomorrow I + II were kept in the trunk of an automobile and used as spare tires. Frequently.
Okay, it's probably just me who imagines that. The point is, however, that the original footage A Better Tomorrow I + II has bee treated very poorly throughout the years and has not been preserved with the respect and posterity the films deserved. Anchor Bay's anamorphic widescreen transfers are respectable and commendable, but ultimately, slightly futile, like trying to bail out a small lake with a plastic bucket. Both films suffer atrocious damage throughout the film, including terrible dirt and scrapes, long-running vertical line scratches across the negatives, tears, warping, peculiar white dots that stay on the image for minutes at a time, and about every other conceivable type of damage. While A Better Tomorrow suffers more from an unfortunate washed-out, grainy image transfer compared to A Better Tomorrow II, whose clarity and sharpness is much more respectable, ironically, the sequel is in far worse physical shape than the original, marred and scratched to an almost inconceivable state. Now, either the quality of both negatives increases as the film runs on, or the brain starts to edit out the dots and scratches, but either way, the image quality improves marginally throughout the films as time runs on (with the exception of A Better Tomorrow II, where it cleans up quite nicely right up until the end, when all hell breaks loose on the film negatives). Colors look stronger in A Better Tomorrow II, with oranges and yellows in particular, but again, it is hard to say which is better...both suffer serious problems that cannot be overlooked. However, it can be universally agreed upon that Anchor Bay has released A Better Tomorrow I + II with the best image possible without having undergone an exhaustive and expensive restoration effort, and that no more pristine copies of the film exist to be purchased on DVD. Unfortunately, this is as good as we get...for now.
The audio isn't much better. Both films offer an English mono track and a Cantonese mono track, which are...well, mono. Once upon a time, A Better Tomorrow came packaged with a 5.1 Dolby Cantonese mix, but was immediately recalled by Anchor Bay due to massive complaints about the overall crumminess of the mix, as well as the complete exclusion of the awesome vintage synthesizer soundtrack. All versions now feature the original mono track. For mono tracks, these are pretty good, but again, like all mono tracks, the films suffer from an incredible lack of audio fidelity and response. The mixes are peculiarly high in the treble end, lacking the effective "oomph" of a good action film. The English dubs have been remixed slightly, effectively balancing out the ambient music and sound effects in a more balanced fashion, but the dialogue is oddly muffled and indistinct, and the conceptual quality of the English dub itself is laughable. Both English dub versions are hilariously bad, and aren't worth a single empty bullet casing. We're talking corn city here. But if your fond memories of the film come from watching it at four in the morning on a cable access station showing Asian programming (like, say, this reviewer), then the dub should inspire some fond memories. Otherwise, stay away, because evil lives here.
It is a shame that the original Cantonese tracks sound so tinny and compressed, but then again, this is probably an accurate transfer of the original soundtrack as recorded. Occasionally, the dialogue hisses in the "s" range, like the slurred speech deficiency of a megaphone speaker. The soundtrack is pure cheese...vintage 1980s synthesizer fare, which only adds to the ethereal vintage beauty of these films, but peculiarly, when bouncing back and forth between the English and the Cantonese audio tracks, the soundtracks vary slightly. Scenes that are synth-scored in the original track are missing music in the English version during the exact same sequences, which, to me, is an unacceptable variation that strays beyond the boundaries of simply desiring a film to be dubbed in one's own native language.
It is truly a shame that Anchor Bay included virtually no supplemental content with these DVDs...both films merely contain a cast/crew biography (featuring snippets of transcribed interviews) and international trailers. But I will say this. If you ever feel down and depressed, and need a pick-me-up, throw on the English language trailer for A Better Tomorrow I + II.
Trust me. You won't be sorry for long.
Keep in mind that this is nothing more than the re-packaging of two previously released DVDs into a bundled pack, to re-sell it to the public. If these weren't such amazingly awesome films, I would have some harsh words about such studio tactics where the same product is re-marketed over and over.
Rather than a bundling of previous products, what we consumers really need are some definitive special editions of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II. These Anchor Bay discs look and sound reasonably good, but action fans could stand with a commentary or two, or some special featurettes, or even better, a restoration! Despite the absolutely atrocious state of the original negatives, if money were thrown into the effort, we would have fantastic versions of the films to stand the test of time.
Considering that you can nab both films for the same list price as buying the first movie alone, this DVD box set is an absolute no-brainer. If only for posterity, every action genre fan should pay tribute and own these films. Though better versions of these films should righteously exist, sadly, they do not; so in the meantime, there is little reason why you should not add both of these seminal films to your DVD repertoire.
Too bad there is nothing here for fans who already own Anchor Bay's previous versions of A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II, but you should all be able to sleep at night with the knowledge that a) you are not missing out on anything here, and b) you had them first.
Fantastic value + two seminal action movie classics + thousands of bullets = you buy it!
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice, A Better Tomorrow
Perp Profile, A Better Tomorrow
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Cantonese, original language)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distinguishing Marks, A Better Tomorrow
* Talent Files
* International Trailers
Scales of Justice, A Better Tomorrow II
Perp Profile, A Better Tomorrow II
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Cantonese, original language)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Distinguishing Marks, A Better Tomorrow II
* Talent Files
* International Trailers
* IMDb: A Better Tomorrow
* IMDb: A Better Tomorrow II