A Better Tomorrow Review
Made in 1986 'A Better Tomorrow' was a runaway success that launched the careers of then TV Star, Chow Yun-Fat, actor/singer Leslie Cheung, and also revitalised veteran actor Ti Lung's waning career whilst also establishing John Woo as a directing force to be reckoned with. Just what was it that made Hong Kong audiences go wild over this now cult classic, and what is it that makes fans today yearn for a return to the classic style evident in this early piece of Woo's career?
Well, it certainly is not the story, which is very hard to explain without writing a convoluted paragraph taking you through the film step by step. Rather than give you that paragraph I shall sum up the essence of the film in one simple sentence. Two veteran gangsters are betrayed, one ends up in prison, the other escapes with a crippled leg, after three years apart it is time for vengeance though that too will come at a price. Of course there is a little more thrown into the mix, with the other key plot point being that within this basic premise we see one of the old time gangsters attempt to make an honest living to appease his brother (who is a policeman), but as usual his old connections will not leave him alone so eventually desperate measures are taken to ensure the safety of both friends and family. The writing on display is quite typical of a Hong Kong action film, most certainly devised as they went along it clearly works, but is by no means a tour de force like what we would expect from say, a Wong Kar-Wai film.
The story is by no means bad and certainly serves its purpose, but what really makes it work is the characterisation present that manages to elevate the film to an entirely new level. Western fans had only previously seen gangster films based around the Mafia, in these films there is very little sense of loyalty between the various characters, instead what we see is constant backstabbing and betrayal between the ranks of a mafia family. In a stark contrast what we see in A Better Tomorrow and the Hong Kong gangster films that followed is a sense of honour and loyalty that is shared between select gang members (not everyone, there would be no film if that was the case!), to a point where they are willing to die for each other. This results in the viewer actually caring about the onscreen heroes, or more to the point, the onscreen anti-heroes (they are after all, gangsters) and this is where 'A Better Tomorrow' succeeds by really getting this relationship based on honour and respect across to the viewer, mostly thanks to the career defining performance from Chow Yun-Fat and the excellent complimentary performance from Ti Lung.
John Woo is a very visual filmmaker and it really shows here, storytelling sequences look just as good as the majority of action sequences, but there are a few groundbreaking action sequences that really stand proud and it is these that truly separate A Better Tomorrow from the competition. Woo constructs three such sequences (the Teahouse, the warehouse and the finale) that all work superbly well. The first has a slow build-up, pauses on the biggest grin you have ever seen from Chow, and then a little piece of cinematic history is exposed as Chow vanquishes his enemies with delightful precision using the now standard two gun (double Beretta 92F) method, meaning that this sequence will surely be remembered by everyone who bares witness to its greatness. The second sequence is a little less controlled but again sees Chow employ the twin handgun method to take on the hordes of willing targets, whilst the finale goes all out with all manner of guns and explosions, and although this is not Woo's greatest finale (not by a long shot) it sowed the seeds that eventually flourished into the even more outrageous events seen in subsequent films.
It is worth noting that when Anchor Bay originally released this DVD it contained a 5.1 Cantonese soundtrack. This version of the soundtrack contained incorrect music and was only caught after around 10,000 copies had made it out onto shelves in American stores; the version reviewed here is the corrected version that contains the original 2.0 Cantonese soundtrack. The ONLY way of determining which copy you have is to look at the case and see which version of the Cantonese soundtrack is listed (5.1 or Mono) or to put the disc in your player and see which Audio options you have available (5.1 or 2.0). When buying this DVD now, you should get the corrected version as the faulty copies were apparently removed from stores, with that said there have been reports of people receiving the faulty DVD as recently as December 2002 so it may be in your best interest to contact your retailer of choice prior to ordering.
With old Hong Kong films I never really expect that much from the DVD unless it is a Hong Kong Legends release. However, when Anchor Bay obtained the rights to 'A Better Tomorrow' and announced it would be anamorphic I immediately got very excited hoping they would give us a DVD with a picture that matches much of their other output (i.e. very good restoration and overall picture). While this DVD is not quite what I had hoped for Anchor Bay have made an admirable effort that, though falling far short of their other work is still far better than any previous A Better Tomorrow DVD release. Presented in the original 1.85:1 Widescreen aspect ratio and featuring anamorphic enhancement the print used is in surprisingly good condition. Minor scratches and the presence of dirt on the print are inevitable with older Hong Kong movies though fortunately their occurrence is kept to a minimum. The only distracting features of the print is an extremely high level of grain and the presence of two white dots (one centre of your screen, the other close to the bottom of your screen ands slightly off centre) that are permanently visible for approximately 10-minutes in the mid section of the film. Moving on then you will find that detail levels vary from being very good in close up camera work, to average in the majority of other shots with dark sequences in particular suffering due to a lack of shadow detail. The picture can occasionally appear slightly soft with areas of fine detail lacking in definition as a result, though to be fair this rarely spoils your actual enjoyment of the film as in terms of compression the disc is handled very well and delivers a perfectly acceptable picture that beats any current DVD release.
When you first look at the disc the choice of soundtracks instils you with confidence. We get the choice of either Cantonese (the original) or Mandarin Chinese dubs presented in their original Mono format, or the (extremely cheesy) English dub which is a great inclusion if only for nostalgic reasons (as this is how many fans would have originally viewed this classic). So what is wrong then? Well, the original Cantonese soundtrack suffers from a 10 second silence at the very start of the film, and several sound dropouts at other points in the movie. It is not that bad, but certainly is not the kind of thing we have come to expect from Anchor Bay (who have always done a stunning job with poorly looked after cult films). Apart from this the original Cantonese track sounds fine and is definitely the best choice for fans. Both the Mandarin track and English tracks (which contains alternative music in certain parts of the film) are fine, although the English track is slightly muted when compared to the other options.
Optional English Subtitles are of course available and are presented using an easy to read yellow font while the translation itself is of the preferred literal type with the only disappointment being the lack of subtitles for the songs (brief though they are) featured in the film.
Anchor Bay originally promised us a John Woo Commentary but unfortunately due to time restrictions this never materialised. Instead we are left with a very barren disc that features the original theatrical trailer (in Cantonese/English with optional English subtitles) and relatively in-depth biographies for Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo. Also worthy of note is the superb 5" by 7" replica of the original poster artwork on the Chapter Insert card.
For those who want to know what all the fuss is about then why not start at the source and check out the film that launched John Woo on to the path that has lead him to bigger (but not necessarily greater) things. Of course I do not need to tell the fans to check out this seminal classic, but I do need to stress that while this is not the ideal DVD release, it is the best version currently available right now and in the foreseeable future.