A BETTER TOMORROW 2018 (2018) review

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There’s probably no Hong Kong film more seminal and iconic than John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Mixing his own richly melodramatic sensibility with his mentor Chang Cheh’s themes of heroic brotherhood, Sam Peckinpah’s throbbing, elegiac brutality and Jean-Pierre Melville’s urban Bushido, Woo brought to life the Heroic Bloodshed genre and its visual grammar of slow-motion, bullet-riddled valor and gut-wrenching montages. He also revitalized Shaw Brothers stalwart Ti Lung’s career, made Leslie Cheung a star, and turned Chow Yun Fat from an affable TV lead to a true film icon. A Better Tomorrow was then milked for an entertaining sequel, a solid prequel, a mediocre Wong Jing re-run (1994’s Return to a Better Tomorrow) and a more recent, passable Korean remake. Announced concurrently to a rival remake to be directed by Stephen Fung (of which nothing has been heard since), Ding Sheng’s A Better Tomorrow 2018 isn’t the first time he tries his hand at an iconic Hong Kong property, and the flawed but interesting Police Story 2013 has shown that the writer/director isn’t one to slavishly regurgitate a franchise’s formula.

But despite a few key changes in location and plot, the narrative is fairly similar to the 1986 film. Two brothers: one, Zhou Kai (Wang Kai), is a smuggler, and the other, Zhou Chao (Ma Tianyu), is a cop. Together with his blood brother Ma Ke (Darren Wang, with a character name that’s a play on Chow Yun Fat’s name – Ma Ge in the original), Kai uses a sea route from Qindao to Tokyo, smuggling drugs for Boss Ha (Lam Suet), until a deal gone wrong and the betrayal of his partner Rubber Band (Wu Yue) sends him to prison for three years. During these three years, his dementia-stricken father dies, his brother rises through the ranks in the police department, and his friend Ma Ke exacts revenge on Rubber Band, but becomes a cripple after being shot in the leg during the gunfight. Upon his release, Kai finds his world much changed: Chao hates him for bringing dishonor and tragedy on the family, Ma Ke has become a lowly boat cleaner in the harbor, and the king of the Japan smuggling route is now Cang (Yu Ailei), Boss Ha’s son. Kai tries to become an honest businessman, but soon he sets out to bring down Cang.

The success of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow hinged on three key elements: a keen sense of melodrama, plentiful stylish action, and radiant charisma. Ding Sheng’s remake, despite replacing Hong Kong and Taiwan with Qindao and Japan, stays close enough to the plot of the original that it can be judged on these same three levels. Ding Sheng is not a melodramatic director: his films avoid melodrama either by a tragicomic edge (Little Big Soldier, Railroad Tigers), an offbeat rhythm (The Underdog Knight, He-Man), a true-crime angle (Saving Mr. Wu) or a single-setting (Police Story 2013). His down-to-earth style, the hand-held camerawork he favors and uses again in this film, are mismatched with the broadly shakespearian accents of this story. And yet, Ding Sheng still doubles down on the drama by adding two love interests into the mix: there’s still the girlfriend of the cop brother (Zhang Yishang proving just as grating as Emily Chu was in the original), but now there’s also a love interest for Ma Ke (Jiang Peiyao in a pointless role) and for Kai (the superb Li Meng in a role that goes nowhere after an interesting start). These make the runtime fifteen minutes longer than Woo’s film but add nothing.

Throughout, the films oscillates awkwardly between restraint and flamboyance, and it doesn’t help that Ding literally hammers the viewer over the head with shots of seagulls (no doubt a riff on John Woo’s doves, though A Better Tomorrow was largely doveless) and reference to the original film. Leslie Cheung’s iconic song is not only – understandably – the main musical theme of this remake, but it’s also repeatedly used as source music, whether it be a street band, a music box or an old LP player, heavily winking at the audience while a quickly-glimpsed photo of Chow Yun Fat as Mark brings a useless meta dimension. And while it’s fun to see Eric Tsang cameo during a short prison yard scene, one wonders why blogger/director Han Han had to pop up.

That the action is rather sparse is not a flaw in itself: after all, the 1986 wasn’t exactly wall-to-wall shootouts either, though its gunfights were so memorable that one could easily get the impression that it was. Here, Ding Sheng makes sure to replicate the key actions scenes of the original: Ma Ke’s vengeance shootout, the home invasion during which the father dies, and the final shipyard gunfight. But he finds clever ways to diverge from Woo’s film: the vengeance shootout in a restaurant is quite exciting and now includes two little girls, a pair of sumo wrestlers and a different outcome, while the final gunfight has a more static feel reminiscent of Johnnie To. Still, none of this will stick in the memory, as once again Ding doesn’t really choose between gritty and baroque.

And when it comes to the charisma, it’s a mixed bag. Wang Kai is simply perfect, just as manly, handsome and touching as Ti Lung was, his sturdy charm a perfect fit for the character. Ma Tianyu fares less well; he does look like Leslie Cheung from a certain angle, but that is irrelevant, and even a little bit distracting. The character is simply less fleshed-out than in the original, and while Ma is solid, he simply doesn’t possess Cheung’s aching vulnerability. Darren Wang, on the other hand, is grossly miscast, and the film’s true Achille’s heel. Granted, Chow Yun Fat’s shoes, in that role, are just too big to fill.

Another remake of a Hong Kong classic, Wilson Yip’s A Chinese Ghost Story, had cleverly avoided that kind of problem by shifting the focus from one character to another: Yu Shaoqun’s lightweight replacement of Leslie Cheung wasn’t an issue, as the character itself was sidelined in favor of Louis Koo’s. But here, Ma Ke/Mark is just as important as in the original, a tragic embodiment of brotherly sacrifice. Unfortunately, Darren Wang’s range (he can not only do goofy, but also…goofy), doesn’t include Chow’s burning intensity and tortured humanity. So Wang can monkey around like Chow did, but when it comes to exposing the character’s soul, he’s a blank. Around the lead trio, Wu Yue and Yu Ailei competently share the load of Waise Lee’s traitorous Shing in the 1986 film, though the character’s dramatic weight can only suffer from being split into two people. Still, Ding Sheng proves once again that he’s the only director who knows that Lam Suet can have gravitas and an intimidating menace, and isn’t simply a funny fat guy.

For all the odd choices and unbalance in tone from which this remake suffers, Ding Sheng still goes in a few interesting directions. Qindao may seem like an odd choice for a change of setting, but the immensity of the sea – repeatedly celebrated in song by Darren Wang’s character – is an interesting substitute to sprawling Hong Kong – the soft greys and greens of the seaside replacing the neon lights of the former British colony. And the ending, which we won’t reveal of course, manages to leave us with a final image more striking than in the original. It still emphasizes heroism, brotherhood and duty, but wraps the story both more warmly and more tragically than in the original.

Long Story Short: A solid crime drama on its own terms, A Better Tomorrow 2018 can however not sustain comparison with the original. But despite a wavering tone, some heavy-handed references and a grossly miscast Darren Wang, it still manages to introduce interesting variations, and benefits from Wang Kai’s charisma. **1/2

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