Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.
Ding Sheng’s remake of John Woo’s classic A Better Tomorrow (1986) encapsulates much that’s wrong with contemporary mainstream cinema, both in China and abroad. Ding, most known for directing moderately successful latter-day Jackie Chan vehicles like Railroad Tigers, Little Big Solider, and Policy Story 2013, is a competent director of action who seems to feel deeply bored by anything that doesn’t have an explosion of some type, and so he cuts aimlessly and pointlessly through expository dialogue and ostensibly character-building scenes, a remedial Michael Bay without any of the panache. The remake hews closely to the plot of the original film: a pair of gangster “brothers,” Triad counterfeiters in the first film, now Mainland smugglers, are betrayed on a mission in a foreign territory (first Taiwan, now Japan). Kai goes to jail, while Mark, after exacting revenge, is seriously wounded in the leg. Kai has a younger brother, Chao, who is a cop and doesn’t know of his brother’s illegal activities until he catches him in the act. Three years later, Kai is released and, now estranged from his real brother, attempts to go straight with Mark, but the two are sucked back into their gang life in order to protect Chao, who in his relentless pursuit of criminality, has been getting too close to the gang.
The words are mostly the same, but the music is all wrong. Ironic given that most of the soundtrack of the remake is made up of variations on the first film’s theme song. The original A Better Tomorrow was a huge hit and remains a masterpiece for a number of reasons: Woo’s skill at melding violence with intense masculine emotionality; his sense of composition and editing, knowing when to break with reality (with slow-motion, freeze frames and the like) and when not to; a degree of violence that while not exactly shocking after 20 years of martial arts movies, had nonetheless never been quite so successfully adapted to a contemporary setting. That latter point hints at the film’s importance to the action film genre, with Woo adapting elements of his mentor Chang Cheh’s school of swordplay film, all brotherhood and honor and heroic sacrifice (Vengeance!, Blood Brothers, The Heroic Ones), to the gangster film. There had been crime movies before in Hong Kong, of course, grittier affairs inspired by American blaxploitation, Italian gallo and Japanese yakuza movies throughout the 70s and early 80s, from Josephine Siao and Po Chih-leong’s Jumping Ash to Johnny Mak’s Long Arm of the Law, to several films of the Hong Kong New Wave (Tsui Hark’s Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind, Yim Ho’s The Happening, Patrick Tam’s Nomad) and even Sammo Hung’s comedy Carry on Pickpocket. But Woo, following Chang and the template of his own 1979 wuxia Last Hurrah for Chivalry, was the first to successfully merge the melodramatic elements of bloody heroism with the present-day urgency of the New Wave, while adopting the basic plot elements of Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 social realist drama Story of a Discharged Prisoner. That, plus the enormous star power of his incredible cast: pop star Leslie Cheung, Shaw Brothers icon Ti Lung, ultimate heel Waise Lee (making his film debut) and, of course, Chow Yun-fat, a heartthrob best known for his work in television soap operas who was catapulted to superstardom with his iconic performance, was what made A Better Tomorrow one of the most popular and influential Hong Kong films of the 1980s.
To say that A Better Tomorrow 2018 comes up short in all of these areas would be an understatement. Saddled with a cast mainly made up of bland Mandarin TV stars, Ding does them few favors. Pop star Ma Tianyu, as the cop, looks a lot like Leslie Cheung, but with none of the deep sadness behind the pretty face that marked Cheung as one of the most soulful actors of his generation. Wang Kai has something of Ti Lung’s upright decency, and Darren Wang is smart enough not to try to ape Chow Yun-fat, instead trying for a more modern take on the character, a younger punk orphan whose idolization of the older gangster matches the man’s real kid brother. What star power there is comes in the form of Johnnie To talisman Lam Suet, now firmly ensconced in the aging crime lord phase of his career. But, locked in Ding’s humorless, unimaginative scenario, even Lam’s gregarious charm and sense of absurdity is lost. The remake doesn’t attempt to do anything new with the gangster genre (now known as “Heroic Bloodshed” a name which derives from the Chinese title of Woo’s film, “True Colors of a Hero”), hampered as it is by the government restrictions on Mainland cinema: much like Hollywood under its Production Code, things aren’t allowed to become too graphically violent, the authorities are always good, and crime most definitely must be punished.
It’s not insignificant that while the film takes place in Qingdao (a port city about equidistant between Beijing and Shanghai, roughly parallel to Seoul), the criminal elements are lead by a Hong Konger and a Japanese gang, while the orphan gangster hails from Taiwan. The is a story of a Chinese man led astray by foreign criminal influences who, with his Taiwanese protege, claws his way back to righteousness. There’s a strong undercurrent of social realism in Woo’s film, as Ti Lung tries to make his way in the straight world. He’s dogged by a relentless cop (played by Woo himself) who is convinced that reform is impossible, but aided by a small cab company owner played by Kenneth Tsang who only employs ex-cons. In the face of an indifferent and exploitative system that refuses these men a chance at earning an honest living, they carve out a small support community for themselves, an oasis of brotherhood in 1980s Hong Kong’s dystopian laissez-faire economy. Nothing like that can be found in 2018. Rather, Kai is on his own, attempting to build a fish retail business with sheer hustle and a salvaged pickup truck, until he gets pushed around and locked-out by a slightly wealthier gang of toughs. There’s no sense of togetherness to be found at the margins of China’s capitalist system, only petty corruption. It’s everyone for themselves. But all of this is rushed through and quickly forgotten, as if Ding knew he had to have Kai find a job, but didn’t really care to explore what that would mean, it’s just an unfortunately necessary pause before the inevitable twin handguns come out blazing.
There’s nothing especially unusual about a bland, over-edited and undercooked crime movie. And without the A Better Tomorrow connection Ding Sheng’s film would barely be noticed among the sea of mediocrity that is mainstream Mainland cinema. But rather than engage with or update Woo’s template, or taking the bold step of trying to capture the spirit of the earlier film by affecting a similar transformation of the genre, perhaps by localizing its story more seriously to the concerns of present-day China, or maybe examining how the codes of brotherhood that have so dominated Chinese action cinema (and literature) for years are fairing under schizophrenic state capitalism (this is essentially Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin), Ding leans into the film’s karaoke elements, brazenly announcing its reverence for the original, with countless shots of seagulls (in flight, at rest, swimming) and the old theme song dominating the soundtrack, in all the versions heard in the first film plus a few new ones. In fact, the most interesting thing about the new film is that the movie A Better Tomorrow not only exists in its world, but is extremely popular. A rickety bar set in a broken down, dry-docked ship (one of the movie’s best new additions) has a framed photo of Chow Yun-fat, in character complete with matchstick between his teeth, and an oft-played record of Leslie Cheung singing the movie’s theme song. In a world where this past triumph is so omnipresent (and A Better Tomorrow was rereleased in Chinese theatres just this past fall, where it again was a hit), where does the impulse to remake it come from? While in prison, Kai meets an older inmate played by Eric Tsang (actor and producer, he was part of the Cinema City studio’s brain trust at the time A Better Tomorrow was made). Tsang tells him that things are cyclical, that every couple of decades everything happens again. He doesn’t say they come back only as washed-out facsimiles, cheap imitations of past glories.