A Better Tomorrow Review
Having already reviewed the Anchor Bay release of A Better Tomorrow I have decided to make this a technical comparison based review only, while the technical details and ratings on this page are solely for the MIA Region 2 release.
For my thoughts on the film and technical details/ratings of the Anchor Bay release please refer to my earlier review.
The discs on trial here are the readily available and previously reviewed Anchor Bay R0 DVD release of A Better Tomorrow, and the forthcoming 27th December 2002 MIA R2 DVD release of A Better Tomorrow. The Anchor Bay DVD (reviewed here) features the film with Trailer on a single layer disc while the MIA DVD is a 2-disc set boasting the film on one single layer disc and extras on another. The fact that both discs are Single Layer says a great deal about the quality of this release before we have even delved any further as the 2-Disc label is nothing more than a marketing ploy, and one that MIA have made sure to promote using a banner on the front cover.
Those interested in the AB (Anchor Bay) release should take note that the initial pressings featured a 5.1 Cantonese soundtrack that used incorrect music. This was only caught after roughly 10,000 units made it out into US stores and was replaced with a new pressing that featured the correct Cantonese Mono soundtrack. However, the only way to tell the difference between the two is by either checking the disc in your player, or by reading the sound specifications on the rear of the case. The corrected version reads 'Cantonese Mono' while the faulty version reads 'Cantonese DD5.1'. The faulty versions were apparently recalled and by now there should be very little chance of receiving a copy from an online retailer, though a report as recently as December 2002 where persons are said to have received the faulty version have prompted me to advise prospective buyers to contact their retailer of choice prior to purchasing.
AB R0: 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 disappointing 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 solid picture throughout.
MIA R2: Presented at a widescreen aspect ratio of approximately 1.74:1 and featuring anamorphic enhancement this MIA release is already off to a bad start as the film should be 1.85:1 (like the Anchor Bay presentation) but has been cropped to better fit widescreen TVs. Before I continue with the bad I shall briefly mention the good points of this release. The print in use is the International Version (only difference is the presence of English language titles) which Anchor Bay also used, and like that release the condition is surprisingly good for such an old film with only the occasional presence of dust and grit on your screen, a very brief jump in the print at the 50:22-minutes mark and those two white dots are also present in the exact same 10-minutes of the film leading me to believe this is the fault of a dirty lens rather than the print itself. That about wraps up the good points! Well, to be fair in comparison to the Anchor Bay release this MIA offering features much lower grain levels which I believe is down to it being a lower contrast presentation, but sadly this comes at a price as the transfer is much softer throughout with washed out blacks and colours while detail too suffers with action sequences in particular looking quite terrible. Compression problems are also present with pixellation being the main culprit that makes scenes such as when Ho and Shing are on the run from the police and hiding in a tunnel all but illegible. This and other dark action sequences suffer the most as smearing rears its ugly head and gives an overall quite hideous murky effect, while throughout you will notice signs of shimmering and jaggies, and even the presence of a single small 'green block' that lasts for roughly half a second at the 9:17mins section and appears to be a digital fault in the transfer.
To be honest, I was never expecting much from MIA given their track record, but this release disappoints more than I ever thought possible simply because the film is so loved by myself and many other fans. To make things worse the transfer occasionally shows signs of coming close to the Anchor Bay disc, though this is restricted to close up shots where there is very little movement. Under these rare conditions the transfer can take on a quite appealing look with its softer palette of colours, but then as soon as any significant movement occurs the disc just trips over itself and all of the problems previously discussed come flooding back. While the Anchor Bay disc does not offer the quality of restoration found on HKL releases, it at least offers a clean print with bold colours and reasonable detail levels, which after all, is the very least we should expect on the DVD format and is something this MIA release cannot even manage.
AB R0: Offering a choice of the original Cantonese language audio alongside Mandarin and English Dubs in DD2.0 Mono audio this disc would seem to offer the best selection for the purists out there but unfortunately a few glitches in the Original Cantonese language track drop the appeal slightly. Said glitches consist of a 10-second dropout just as Ho shouts "Kit" in the opening minute of the film, then later when Mark sets off to seize a tape the audio again suffers from two extremely brief dropouts that result in a 'stutter' type effect. Other than these faults everything else is as you would expect from an old Hong Kong movie presented in Mono sound, slightly harsh but nothing more.
MIA R2: This release offers the original Cantonese language audio and the English dub in DD2.0 format. The specs do not list these tracks as either Mono or Stereo, though after close inspection I can safely say that both are DD2.0 Mono. Unsurprisingly they are very close to the same tracks offered by the AB release, though fortunately the Cantonese track is free of the defects found on that release. In not so good news both tracks on this release do suffer from a slight jump in the audio at the 67:27 minutes mark, which is almost certainly down to poor source materials as it was for the AB release.
AB R0: Using the almost standard easy to read yellow font found on most US DVDs, Anchor Bay have provided us with a literal translation of the original Cantonese audio with not one sign of poor spelling or grammar in sight.
MIA R2: Using an easy to read white font the supposedly 're-mastered' English subtitle track on offer from MIA has several flaws. Firstly, this is not a literal translation. Instead it is subtitle track that is almost identical to the English Dub dialogue with some minor changes that have cleaned it up slightly and removed any additional dialogue. Unfortunately as a result this subtitle track is some way off the literal track of the AB disc and for anyone even remotely familiar those subtitles or even the English dub will know that something is not quite right. Further problems exist with the timing of the subtitles. Though they are not out of synch at any point in the film, they do feel lazily timed throughout as they stay on screen too long or appear a little too early. The final flaw, and this is a minor one, is that during the opening credits the white subtitles are placed directly on top of the white credits and though it only happens once, this kind of sloppy positioning of subs just shows the lack of quality control this disc received. In direct comparison the Anchor Bay subtitles, though yellow, were still positioned above the credits at this point in the film.
AB R0: The only real let down to the Anchor Bay release are the distinct lack of extra features. The only extra material present is 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.
MIA R2: With not one extra feature present on the movie disc you will find all of the bonus material on the second single layer disc of this set. As I have already mentioned both discs of this release are of the DVD5 variety (Single Sided, Single Layer) and as such, the 2-disc label is doing an injustice to the public and in some ways, to MIA. The reasons for why are that the contents of these 2 discs could have been placed on a single DVD9 disc (Single Sided, Dual Layer) that would have looked more ‘packed’ than this relatively ‘slim’ two disc set manages to do. A further bonus is that reviewers such as myself would have looked more favourably upon the extras on offer for the exact same reason.
Anyway, here is what you will find on the one area of this release that beats the AB offering hands down. First up is the original Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (Non-Anamorphic 1.85:1 Widescreen with DD2.0, no subtitles) that is in surprisingly good condition and certainly worth a watch. Also present is the International Trailer (Anamorphic Widescreen, DD2.0, English Dub) that takes its visual cue from the Hong Kong equivalent and then adds a truly laughable English Voiceover that makes it worth a look!
The Featurette (10:40mins, 4:3, DD2.0) is the same 10-minute collection of material that found its way on to the MIA VHS Box set release of A Better Tomorrow several years ago now. Comprising of archive John Woo interview footage, the full Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (yes, all 4 minutes worth, though at least it features English subtitles this time), footage from Chow Yun-fat's 1993 UK Tour, and to round it off some further archive interview footage, this time with Ti Lung. What is here may be interesting but is all so short that it becomes insignificant, with only the Chow Yun-fat footage proving to be of any real worth as it is sure to please the fans due to his wonderful demeanour in the few minutes of footage that includes him in full Mark Gor (A Better Tomorrow) and Jeff (Full Contact) outfits.
An interviews section (4:3, DD2.0 Audio) provides the bulk of the bonus material and kicks things off with Chow Yun-fat interviewed back in 1993 in a segment that lasts 18-minutes and takes place in a noisy cinema projection room. This is a good solid interview that covers Chows work with John Woo and the themes that commonly recur throughout these collaborations. Chow is his usual up beat colourful self which keeps you watching, despite the fact most fans will have most likely seen a large majority of this interview on the few Hong Kong Legends DVDs featuring Yun-fat as they use footage from the same interview session.
The Ti Lung interview is an extension of what you see in the Featurette, albeit with a superior video transfer and a longer running time (2:43 minutes) that sees him discuss movies, acting roles, his martial arts background and A Better Tomorrow. Speaking very good English it is a crying shame there is not more to this segment, as with its short running time it sadly offers very little to the viewer.
The final interview is with John Woo and is also from 1993. With a running time of just under 11 minutes this interview starts off with discussion on how the action in John Woo movies is different to that seen in previous Hong Kong action movies and western movies. The conversation then moves on to discuss the popularity of A Better Tomorrow and the casting of Chow Yun-fat in one of the lead roles, and of course the success that brought him. The interview is then rounded off with the almost compulsory discussion of The Killer and the themes present in that seminal classic. Sadly I found the content of this interview all too familiar, but then that is probably because in every John Woo interview he is asked the same questions, but still, the content is worth a look though I doubt you'll return to it anytime soon. A four page text based interview with John Woo is also present and expands upon John Woo's feelings towards A Better Tomorrow and its success.
The final extra features present on this disc are a Production Stills Gallery and a brief Biographies/Filmographies section. The former contains 22 screens of poster artwork and production stills while the latter covers actors Chow Yun-fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Chung, Emily Chu and Waise Lee, director John Woo and producer Tsui Hark in satisfactory detail.
Sometimes a comparison review can leave the reviewer with a tough decision over which disc to recommend to the readers. This is not one of those situations! The Anchor Bay disc has always been popular with my player and the arrival of this R2 'Special Collectors Edition' has in no way changed that fact.
For a little over £10 you can have the Anchor Bay offering that provides you with a good transfer, acceptable audio quality and a sound literal translation via the English subtitles. Or, for £14 you can have the MIA 2-disc set that while offering improved audio and some nice 'watch-once' extra features, falls down by offering a sub-par transfer and a lousy subtitle translation that make the most important part of the set a somewhat painful experience to get through.