Derived from a term coined in the late 1980s, “heroic bloodshed” refers to the revisionary period of Hong Kong action cinema that steeped itself fervently in cop and crook subjectivity, themes and rampant gun play instead of more traditional wuxia fare. Perpetuated and improved upon by John Woo and his contemporaries, this agreeably voluminous body of work has finally graduated from my periphery to front-and-center in my film viewing endeavors. From the omnipresent Chow Yun-Fat to expertly choreographed “bullet ballets,” I begin my journey with the film that’s considered a forefather of this particular movement, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.
As far as narrative convention goes, A Better Tomorrow comfortably fits the bill as it familiarly pits brothers on opposing sides of the law against one another; to varying degrees of intermittent gun play, of course. Honing in on the wake created by a criminal struggling to break the shackles of gangster-dom following a three-year prison stint, the film wears its earnest simplicity on its sleeve as said brothers and down-on-his-luck lackey Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) concisely strut their stuff.
Undying fraternal devotion comes into play regarding the gang as a whole, the ensuing familial dynamics played fast and loose in between Woo-heavy action sequences that flaunt the director’s trademarks in a famously oppressive manor. Gratuitous slow mo lends itself wonderfully to the shootouts throughout – sequences presented in a way that perfectly accentuates the film’s primary attributes. Make no mistake though, A Better Tomorrow‘s emotional underbelly isn’t entirely tacked on for substance’s sake as Ho’s (Lung Ti) desire to go straight proves insurmountable. While not substantially affecting, conflictual engagement remains intact throughout his worsening transition from mere ex-con to a man desperate to reconcile with estranged brother and police inspector, Kit (Leslie Cheung).
Throw in a side impetus in the form of Mark pining for redemption following his own fall from grace and you have yourself a solidly crafted HK actioner. Effectively employing the strengths of both Woo and the subgenre it ascribes to, A Better Tomorrow is an obvious precursor to the auteur’s later and supposedly greater works. Although trite by way of core narrative, things are still kept interesting enough in between the clinking and clanking of bullet casings tumbling almost endlessly into the puddles of blood beneath our protagonists’ feet.