"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Better Tomorrow II

After the smash box office success of A Better Tomorrow (1986) in its native country of Hong Kong and other Asian territories, the film’s producer Tsui Hark convinced its director John Woo to quickly crank out a sequel imaginatively titled A Better Tomorrow II (1987). The two men had a contentious relationship during production and this spilled over during the editing phase where they argued over the length of the film. It got so bad that a mediator had to step in, allowing Hark and Woo to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a flawed yet fascinating mess of a film that divided Woo fans but helped popularize what became known as the Heroic bloodshed movie, a genre of Hong Kong cinema distinctive for its overtly stylized action sequences often involving excessive gunplay and melodramatic themes consisting of brotherhood, honor, duty, and ultimately redemption.

A few years have passed since the events depicted in A Better Tomorrow. Sung Tse Ho (Ti Lung) is recruited from prison to infiltrate and bust an international counterfeiting operation in Hong Kong. His target is Lung Si (Dean Shek), his former mentor. He’s asked to go undercover and investigate Lung but Ho refuses out of loyalty and the belief that his friend has retired from the business. So, his younger brother Sung Tse Kit (Leslie Cheung), now a police lieutenant, takes the job instead. He manages to impress Lung by helping his daughter in a dance contest.

When Kit’s wife Jackie (Emily Chu) visits Ho in prison upset and worried about her husband’s “secret mission,” he reconsiders the deal offered him. Ho is quickly reunited with Lung and finds out his mentor really has gone straight despite crippling debts and pressure from rival mob boss Mr. Wong (Ng Man-tat) to buy Lung’s shipyard. However, at a meeting with Mr. Wong, Lung is framed for the crime boss’ murder and so Ho puts his mentor on a boat to New York City. However, Lung’s beautiful young daughter is killed on orders from crime boss Ko Ying Pui (Shan Kwan), which, coupled with seeing the kindly priest that took him in and a little girl get killed by assassins, drives him off the deep end. Just how much more trauma can this guy take?

Before he’s about to be given electroshock therapy at a mental institution Lung is sprung by Ken “Gor” Lee (Chow Yun-fat), the twin brother of Mark who was killed in A Better Tomorrow. It takes approximately 20 minutes before we’re introduced to Ken in a ridiculously drawn out scene where he rants about a plate of rice that a customer doesn’t like. It is a shameless bit of overacting even by Hong Kong cinema standards and I suppose is intended to show that Ken is just as wild and unpredictable as his brother. However, the scene goes on and on into self-parody and one has to give Chow Yun-fat credit for fully committing – or something like that. The overacting continues as Ken tries to get Lung out of his catatonic state. Of course, just as Ken makes a breakthrough they are attacked by assassins. Only in a Woo film would a bloody shoot-out snap a character out of his catatonia. Having survived yet another attack, Ken and Lung go back home to Hong Kong, team up with Ho and Kit and exact unholy vengeance on Ko and his army of crooks in what proves to be one incredible action set piece after another.

In keeping with the tradition of Heroic bloodshed movies, A Better Tomorrow II is essentially a soap opera for guys, albeit a bullet-ridden one. It features incredibly heightened emotions (see the rice scene) as the main characters constantly make life or death decisions. Their lives are continually in danger, which creates an intense bond – the hallmark of many Woo films, especially his Hong Kong ones. Around the one-hour mark the slow motion mayhem really kicks into gear as the Chow Yun-fat action hero we all know and love manifests itself when a gang of bad guys tries to kill Ken and Lung at a flophouse they’re hiding out in. Among the beautifully orchestrated carnage we get a breathtaking shot of Ken sliding down a flight of stairs while dispatching an anonymous baddie with two guns – an iconic image that perhaps best encapsulates what the Heroic bloodshed genre is all about. This stunt was also a warm-up for a similar one that would be pulled off in Hard Boiled (1992), Woo’s Hong Kong swan song.

The rice rant aside, Chow Yun-fat demonstrates why he was such a super star in Hong Kong. He gives off an air of effortless cool as the unstoppable action hero and Woo’s cinematic alter ego. He has loads of charisma and the camera really picks up on it in a big way. Ti Lung is also quite good as the conflicted ex-con that risks his life by going undercover to protect his brother. Leslie Cheung plays the tragic cop with everything to lose. His character has a pregnant wife yet constantly risks his life in order to take down Ko. Finally, Dean Shek is excellent as the father figure of the group and shows considerable chops as Lung goes from honest businessman to catatonic victim to ruthless avenger.

After the financial success of A Better Tomorrow, the film’s producer Tsui Hark wanted to capitalize on it by quickly making a sequel. Originally, the film’s director John Woo agreed but only if it was a prequel set in Vietnam. To him, it didn’t make sense to make a sequel because Mark, A Better Tomorrow’s most popular character was dead. Woo came up with a story that depicted how the main characters in the first film became friends and got to where they were in life. This was ultimately rejected and he later used it in one of his most personal films Bullet in the Head (1990).

One of Woo’s good friends, actor Dean Shek was going through a rough patch in his career. He was no long popular with audiences and had gone to the United States with the intention of retiring. So, Hark and Woo met with Shek in America and convinced him to come back and make another film with them. This inspired Hark to come up with an idea for a sequel with Shek’s character Lung being coaxed back into action by his friends. Hark also came up with the idea of Mark’s twin brother Ken living in New York City. Woo wasn’t thrilled with these ideas because it ended any notion of his prequel idea but he wanted to help out Shek.

Problems arose during production when Woo came up with the idea of shifting the focus of the film to the two younger brothers – Ken and Kit – because he felt that they had a lot in common. The director shot several scenes with them working and talking together. However, when the film’s original cut ran almost three hours, Hark felt that the film was too long and that the focus should be on Lung. He wanted all of these additional scenes removed. Woo refused to make these cuts and so Hark secretly made edits only for Woo to then put the footage back in afterwards. A mediator stepped in and gave Hark and Woo one week to each edit a half of the film. The end result is a version of the film that neither men were happy with, especially Woo who considers it his least favorite of anything he’s done (Really? Has he seen Paycheck?).

Like many Woo films, A Better Tomorrow II examines themes of honor and loyalty. Ho goes to great extremes in protecting his mentor and his brother Kit as well. These guys are willing to face insurmountable odds and die for each other all in the name of friendship. But it is more than just friendship. When you’ve come so close to death as these guys have there is an unbreakable bond that connects them in a way that clearly fascinates Woo as he has explored it so many times in his films.

Sure, he lays the angst and melodrama on thick but in doing so raises the stakes in the action sequences. This was a pretty novel notion at the time. It makes the climactic showdown – where Ken, Lung and Ho are decked out in black suits (anticipating Reservoir Dogs by a few years) – that much more memorable because these guys have sacrificed so much that they’re due for some well-deserved payback and man, do they ever dish it out by staging a full-on assault on Ko’s compound with automatic weapons, grenades and, in one memorable bit, a samurai sword. But it is Woo’s trademark dual handgun action that is used the most and to greatest effect. A Better Tomorrow II takes the first film and ups the ante with more bloodshed and more melodrama for an installment that some prefer over the original. For a film that had such a troubled production, it is surprisingly coherent and in terms of its action sequences a classic of the genre. Woo would improve greatly on this template with The Killer (1989) and the aforementioned Hard Boiled before trying his luck in Hollywood with mixed results.


  1. I want to see the first and second films, thanks for the review. Hard Boiled is fun times, such excessive amounts of violence, don't they call these movies "Bullet Ballads"? At one point it's like EVERYONE is shooting their guns! Looking forward to seeing this one.

  2. Thrilled to read your coverage of A Better Tomorrow II. Is it better than A Better Tomorrow?

    "Soap opera for guys." That's a great truth about these Hong Kong films. That is a very succinct and accurate reflection shere J.D., because they do have a certain degree of soap-like cheese infused into their films. Even The Killer has this component and I love The Killer.

    I have yet to see any of the BETTER films or HARD BOILED. I have Hard Boiled on Blu-Ray and have yet to crack it open. So busy. So many films.

    Anyway, I do love anything with Fat. He is a charaismatic legend. Love him. He's the epitome of the cool action guy. He's like a template not that he's the original, but he is an original.

    I loved your back story to this. Boy, a lot of these Woo films never have an easy history do they?

    I saw your swipe at Pay Check. I always had an interest in it, but I'm not so sure now especially if you like these films much better.

    Great coverage here on Fat and Woo. Thanks, sff

  3. "In keeping with the tradition of Heroic bloodshed movies, A Better Tomorrow II is essentially a soap opera for guys, albeit a bullet-ridden one."

    Nailed it with this line, J.D. I agree with SFF, too, Chow Yun-fat is HK's "charismatic legend". Fine review.

  4. I just LOVE the fact that they killed Chow Yun Fat's character in the first one, then brought him back in the sequel after they realized what a huge hit they had on their hands. It's his twin brother we never heard about! I love the transparency.

  5. Nice! It's an enjoyable watch although not nearly as great as the first one. I believe they made a umber of sequels beyond part 2, but I haven't seen any beyond this one. There's a recent Korean remake of "A better tomorrow" which I haven't caught yet (not sure that I will ) Great write up! It's always nice to hear what happened behid the scenes. It helps explain a lot of this film!

  6. The Film Connoisseur:

    I love HARD BOILED. It may be my fave Woo film out of anything he's done. "Bullet Ballads"? I hadn't heard that one before. Ballet of bullets is a common description I've heard applied to his action films. I think you'll dig this film. The first one is quite good as well.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    A lot of people prefer the first film over the second one as it is tighter, makes more sense but for sheer spectacle and over-the-top violence, I prefer the second film by far. I would recommend checking out HARD BOILED immediately! It is my fave Woo film as I mentioned above. Just love it. THE KILLER is also amazing and many consider it his masterpiece.

    I concur with your sentiments on Chow Yun-fat. I had the pleasure of seeing him introduce a film at the Toronto Film Festival many years ago and he was even more charismatic in person! It was quite amazing.

    Stay away from PAYCHECK and most of Woo's Hollywood output. I'd say FACE/OFF is his best studio film with the director's cut of HARD TARGET a close second.

    Thanks for stopping by and for your great comments, my friend.


    Yeah, Chow is THE man. He really makes Woo's film that much more amazing just by his presence and the effortless way he does his thing in them.


    Hah. Yeah, I love it, too. And somehow they manage to pull it off, kinda sorta. Well, it works for me and you gotta love that kind of logic.

    Brent Allard:

    As far as I know they made a Part III and a Korean remake but I've heard that neither one are as good as the first two films. I am curious to see Part III if for the cast alone. Too bad they couldn't get Woo back to direct. Oh well. Thanks for the kind words.