A BETTER TOMORROW Directed by John Woo Anchor Bay DVD

Long ago in a mystical land called Hong Kong, John Woo made fabulous action films. Then came the American movie deals, bloated stars and OSHA. The film that brought Woo to the attention of American movie audiences (geeky and underground as they were) was A BETTER TOMORROW. After directing film for twelve years, Woo found a formula that entranced audiences craving action and operatic themes of loyalty and betrayal. A BETTER TOMORROW delivered all of that and the promise of better films to come. This promise was soon realized in THE KILLER and HARD BOILED.
While often touted as staring Chow Young Fat, the lead character is actually Ho Tse Sung. Fat plays Ho’s sidekick and is amazing to watch in his acting infancy playing the a swaggering hoodlum in sunglasses, who is always sporting a toothpick at the side of his mouth, when he’s not sucking on a cigarette. Ho is played Lung Ti who shows every nuance of believable emotion through his eyes. Mark and Ho are working for a counterfeiting gang and as loyal henchmen are unwitting pawns in a coup within the organization. Ho’s problem, beyond being a henchman for a bunch of back stabbers, is that his young (very cute) brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) is a rising young star in the police academy. When things go bad and Ho ends up in jail, Kit doesn’t stand a chance of making promotion. As one of the evil characters tells Ho, “I pity your brother, because of you his white has turned to black.”
Ho shoulders the burden of shame further because his and Kit’s father is killed as part of the organizational coup. Kit disowns his brother and Ho dedicates his life to making amends. Meanwhile, Mark is sent on a fools errand and ends up in a horrible (read fabulous) shootout. As a result he ends up in a leg brace cleaning car windows for the new bosses for a few tossed dollars. This is where Ken finds him after he has done his time and is out on the street trying to make an honest living as a cab driver. The two begin to hang out and it’s not long before Ho is being forced to turn down repeated offers to rejoin the organization, on top of that, he is being hounded by his bitter younger brother Kit, who is now a full grown policeman. In a heartbreaking scene in an alleyway, Kit forces Ho up against a wall and pats him down. When Ho pleads, “Kit…”, Kit responds by yelling at Ho to call him “Officer.” You can see hurt and humiliation in every inch of Ho’s face as he humbles himself and addresses Kit as “Officer.”
Push comes to shove as the characters move toward the inevitable gun battle: not that there’s anything wrong with that. This is vintage, raw Woo, bullets fly, lead characters bleed from every limb, and even die. Familiar themes that will re-occur in future Woo films are seen here struggling to be born: a temple meeting; things on fire; character’s desire for forgiveness and redemption are all here.
As Ho and Mark await their fate, Ho asks Mark if he believes in God and Mark replies: “Sure. I am a god. A god can be human.” In the end, Woo believes this too. As his characters struggle to be good loyal human beings in the rat infested world in which they live they achieve god-like existence as they lay down their lives for each other. Mark, in order to make Kit realize that he must forgive his brother, is willing to die (in a blaze of glory and bullets, of course.)
This is one of Woo’s best films, possibly because of the raw nature of his talent at this point. The bare emotions of the characters are also captivating. The film is filled with mostly men doing manly things (girls are silly things in most Hong Kong films) but these are men who cry and hug and beg each other for forgiveness. The later American script choices Woo makes give him stronger female characters but hollower men: a poor exchange at best.
A BETTER TOMORROW II is often heralded as the better of the TOMORROW pictures, but it really depends on what you consider a better film. Missing from this second installment is even the frailest notion smooth segues between scenes and the emotional content is more forced. The action is this second film is much more throbbing and continuous, and the satire has been honed to a fine edge, especially in the ending, which may contain the greatest Samurai warrior shot in the world.
We pick up the story of Ho and his brother Kit once more. Kit is working undercover trying to break a case on another counterfeiting gang. This one is lead by Ho’s first mentor, Lung. Kit is in danger and Ho is blackmailed by the police into becoming their agent. Ho goes to work for Lung, who is framed for murder and so they send him to New York where he will be safe (??!!) He is sent to stay with Ken (played by Chow Young Fat), who is the twin brother of Mark (played by Chow Young Fat in A BETTER TOMORROW.) Whew! Ho is then left alone with the men who framed Lung and to prove his loyalty is asked to shoot his brother in one of the most unbelievably brutal scenes in the film. Honor and justice are the key foundations to these men as is evident when Kit whispers to Ho, “Shot me again, as long as he trusts one of us, it’s enough.” Can you say “code of honor” sparky.
Through a very convoluted story line, Ken, Lung and Ho end up going on an amazing kamikaze mission to kill the counterfeit boss. There are grenades and snappy dialogue and in the end, Lung faces the man who took his life away. Bloody and barely able to move, his nemesis asks him, “What makes you think good guys always win?” Lung, of course lets him know what. As the three stand amid the carnage looking a bloody mess, Ken asks Lung, “We’re dying, can we go now?” But they don’t leave and when the police arrive, they are sitting, beautifully back lit, in three separate stuffed leather chairs with Ho on the end, sword in hand looking exceedingly feisty yet bored.
The both films are fabulous fun, and the Anchor Bay DVD’s look amazing: the fires are bright, the blood is brighter, and there are no dust speckles or scratches to worry about. There was one second of digital burping on TOMORROW II, but nothing to spoil the fun. Another company named Tai Seng released a DVD set of the films but the color and clarity were lacking. The films are presented in a widescreen format with the only downside being that the English track is mono, but personally I would rather hear the actors speak in their native tongue to get the emotional weather and read the subtitles. Overall, I highly recommend both titles, just make sure to have plenty of popcorn on hand