Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5
The original A Better Tomorrow directed by action maestro John Woo was a seminal gangster flick that, while steeped in pulp and melodrama, was a cultural touchstone that launched both Woo’s and Chow Yun-Fat’s then embryonic cinematic careers.
It was a ballistics ballet fondly remembered by fans of Hong Kong cinema for its ultra-stylized shootouts and inspired an entire generation of Asian kids to don duster trench coats in sub-tropical weather.
This new Korean remake by Song Hae-song (with Woo serving as executive producer) takes all the same ingredients - the swaggering gangsters, the sibling strife, the themes of bitter betrayal – and attempts to add a pretty boy kimchi spice to this hardboiled hoodlum tale. While the formula seems scientifically up to snuff, the end product appears to be a middling, hollowed out facsimile of a crime classic.
Besides a change in scenery, language and superficial circumstances, the story stays fairly true to the 1986 version. This retelling is simply a shiner update with a bigger budget – A Better Tomorrow ala mode so to speak. The action shifts from Hong Kong to the South Korean port city of Busan where we first meet Hyuk (Joo Jin-mo) and his partner-in-crime (international arms trafficking to be precise) Young-chun (Song Seung-heon).
The outlaw duo are very good at what they do, and more importantly, they do it with elegance and panache. While Young-chun is clearly a flashy wildcard who enjoys being a feared, badass gangster, Hyuk is only in the life for selfless reasons. He just needs to earn money and resources to find his missing brother Chul (Kim Gang-woo). We learn early on that Hyuk and Chul are North Korean refugees who became separated under heavy gunfire while attempting to cross the Parallel.
While Hyuk made it out unscathed, Chul was apparently captured and subsequently disappeared. Chul is then discovered in the South but unsurprisingly, he holds quite a grudge against the brother that seemingly abandoned him. Perhaps just to spite Hyuk, Chul becomes a police detective, putting him on opposing sides against his hated sibling. The film inevitably follows familiar familial leitmotifs, with biological brothers being inseparably torn apart juxtaposed with Hyuk’s inseparable brotherly bond with Young-chun.
Just as kith and kin drama provide the emotional core of the tale, elements such as double-crosses and vendettas, staples of any crime drama, serve as plot catalysts. What bugs about the narrative mechanics isn’t how predictably strung together it is (don’t all birds of this feather flock together?); it’s how implausibly and illogically most of the characters seem to behave at a number of junctures.
It’s almost as if these otherwise reasonably smart human beings are robbed of their brains for a moment or two depending on what direction the plot needs to head. Why didn’t so-and-so do this at this particular time, when it was the obvious solution to their troubles? Well simply because the movie needed conflict. It’s painfully infuriating, and not to mention terrible writing, when characters are used as plot devices so blatantly. They become props, not people.
Despite uniformly decent acting and technically accomplished action choreography, this Korean copy fails to really touch a nerve with its audience the same way John Woo did. This version of A Better Tomorrow is by no means terrible; it’s just a shame that the highest compliment that can be hurled towards it is merely passable.
About Hidzir Junaini
Hidzir Junaini is 24-years-old and a wealthy playboy billionaire by day and a caped crusader by night. Only one of those is true. He’s actually a freelance writer, blogger, full-time film buff and some-time socially awkward nerd. He also writes about music, restaurants and nightlife for MetroWize Asia.
Hidzir was the winner of the inaugural inSing Movie Lover contest that garnered over 1,000 participants. The Movie Lover contest is a search for a candidate who possesses outstanding passion for movies and a talent for writing engaging movie reviews.