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A Better Tomorrow - The Godfather of Hong Kong Action Movies

Written by Florence Li Tell a Friend

Battles, Brotherhood, Betrayal, Bloodbaths, Bullets, and Bad-Boy Look - these six images undoubtedly bring to mind the masterpiece A Better Tomorrow, the film that launched the career of Chow Yun Fat and catapulted John Woo into international spotlight. One of the top Hong Kong cross-breed movies that forged the specific triad based action film generation, A Better Tomorrow was named film of the year at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1986. A hit at the box office as well as the critics, it has brought honor and esteem to the triad and martial arts genres by paving a totally new and successful artistic style.


While Ti Lung was crowned as Actor King at the Golden Horse Awards for his performance, it was Chow Yun Fat's portrayal of Mark that helped create a new and unconventional concept of the hero in Chinese film. His popularity soared after A Better Tomorrow and thus began a Scorsese-DeNiro type of partnership between John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. Woo would bring him back in the sequel about redemption, as Mark's long lost twin brother.


The A Better Tomorrow series created the era of heroic bloodshed, which wove action, melodrama, and strong storylines together into a uniquely Woo-style film. Following are examples of how John Woo uses his distinct techniques to create the film that is often considered the godfather of action movies.


Battles - Inside and Out

Conflicts in Woo films are not only physically apparent, but inner battles are just as intense and heart-wrenching. In A Better Tomorrow, Ho, a triad leader who lives in a constant battle between righteousness and corruption, is further bombarded by his sense of duty to his brother Kit, played be Leslie Cheung, who as a cop despises everything Ho stands for.


Previously, action movies stood for action only, where acting skills were meant only for sappy romance films. A Better Tomorrow allowed actors to flex some acting muscle while interspersing dramatics with ballistic shootouts and death-defying car chases, raising the bar for all action films that would follow. Following the lead of A Better Tomorrow is the Infernal Affairs series, which also deals with the peril of triad life, complete with undercover cops and double-crossing schemes.


Brotherhood and the Code of Honor

One of the styles of Woo is to give the protagonists steel-clad devotion and honor, characteristics deemed critical for any budding triad members. (According to legend, the first triads formed by seventeenth-century monks.) In today's world, loyalty is one of those things we often wish we had but conveniently can do without. Especially apparently in the dog-eat-dog market in Hong Kong during the 1980s, the unwavering sense of brotherhood gives Mark, Ho's stanch sidekick, the status of an awe-inspiring role model to anyone watching the film.


That is of course, unless you are a back-stabbing bastard. Various films of brotherhood among criminals followed Woo's steps, including Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Ringo Lam's City on Fire, also starring Chow Yun Fat.


Betrayal

Just like you don't know what is good without evil, you can't have loyalty without betrayal. It has been said that great hate only happens when there was great love, which is especially true when he is the one you took a bullet and went to prison for him. But heck, if there's no need for revenge, where's the excuse for all the bloodbaths?


Unlike other movies, A Better Tomorrow incorporates betrayals as a buildup to the climax rather than the actual clincher as often seen in other films. Another film that tests the strength of friendships after an occasion of betrayal is Young and Dangerous, a story of five young men who work their way up the triad ladder, only to be torn apart by a new leader.


Bloodbaths and Body Counts

John Woo's films never leaves the audience without oodles of blood and body counts, and the shootings are further enhanced by his cinematographic slow-motion techniques. Who could ever forget the scene where Mark takes on everyone at the restaurant single-handedly, or the collective gasps when his kneecap gets blown off? Followers of slow-motion battle scenes are The Matrix, Tomorrow Never Dies and every Tarantino film you can recall.


Fans of Woo's bloody shootouts should also check out The Killer, also featuring Chow Yun Fat. With the telling of an unlikely friendship brought together by triad activities, Woo delivers a combination of high impact action spliced in with dramatic slow motion shots.


Bullets and Roses

Besides the fact that guns never seem to run out of bullets except during convenient chat-with-your-enemy times, one of Woo's unmistakable trademarks is double-action handguns. However, the double-guns were born out of necessity rather than for pure looks. John Woo explains, "I needed the character to kill all ten people in the room so I made him hold two guns." Inspiring others movies such as Antonio Banderas' Desperado and Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing, his influences extend even to PC games such as Counterstrike to have double-guns as a weapon of choice. Woo makes use of his trademark again with leading man Chow Yun Fat in the 1990 hit, Hard Boiled as well as Bullet in the Head starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Jacky Cheung.


Bad Boy Look

Sunglasses, black trench coat, and oh, don't forget the matchstick in your mouth. These three items are critical in enabling Mark to become the definition of ultra-cool, so much to the fact that director Quentin Tarantino wore a trench coat (and matchstick) during his youth to "dress like your hero and be like him". Besides all of the characters in The Matrix have seemed to follow suit, as well as Wesley Snipes in Blade and Van Helsing's Hugh Jackman.


Countless numbers of films and directors have been influenced and inspired by A Better Tomorrow. Woo has said "We truly believe that even though we live in an evil world, if you can stand up with a stronger will, then you can't be beaten down." Check out his masterpieces and find out how his own beliefs and inspirations transfer onto film, in true Woo-style.






Published June 1, 2004


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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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