TSBH: A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)

Following the high-grossing success of A Better Tomorrow, Cinema City all but scrambled to solicit a sequel from Woo. Collaborating with friend, fellow filmmaker and producer Tsui Hark, the two eventually came to blows over the final cut of the film, of which is said to have differed drastically a la their respective creative visions. As a result, Woo is said to have nigh-disowned it, opting to solely laud the agreeably ludicrous finale chock full of more blood-soaked pyrotechnics than most would deem conventional by even today’s standards.

Professional grievances aside, A Better Tomorrow II is a noticeable step down from its obviously innovative predecessor, opting to pelt us with expository cheese that fails to elicit more than boredom at frequent intervals. Employing a deep undercover conceit to immerse the estranged Ho and Kit in the seedy world of triad counterfeiting, the two are thrown for a loop when their initial target – Lung Si (Dean Shek) – is betrayed by former cohorts that have an obvious interest in acquiring his profitable assets. In pops Chow Yun-fat as the deceased Mark’s twin brother Ken to rekindle A Better Tomorrow‘s cool factor via ostensibly exploitative fashion sense, trench coat and all.

Although themes of brotherhood and betrayal are ever-present and employed to an effective enough extent, the sheer amount of pound-for-pound repetition becomes tiresome. Ho and Kit have since let bygones be bygones, yet their mere presence and perpetuated moral code remains too familiar to maintain our investment. Chow’s turn as Ken is literally identical to that featured in the initial film, of which is a plus in and of itself, that is until an awkward rehabilitative moment involving a catatonic Dean Shek and oranges teeters on the brink of unintentional self-parody.

An altogether weaker effort undoubtedly hamstrung by editing conflicts and the like, A Better Tomorrow II boasts a fair amount of Woo playing with his toys but can’t combat glaring conventionality and offbeat tendencies. Ken wielding handguns akimbo whilst gliding backwards down a flight of stairs is assuredly a treat, as is the aforementioned finale; it’s just a shame that shortcomings brought about by various (and often silly) idiosyncrasies place it upon a lackluster tier of Woo’s filmography.

To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.


TSBH: Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)

Serving three years in prison for an unfortunate manslaughter beef, mild-mannered Yiu (Tony Leung Ka-fai) must part with his loving parents and unassuming bride-to-be and harden up should he intend to survive in the slammer. Ill-equipped by way of demeanor, the going gets rough early on and frequently until the arrival of Ching (Chow Yun-Fat) – a wisecracking hothead that reluctantly takes Yiu under his wing. As their bond strengthens amid continued adversity, the contributed tension a la prison officials and violent fellow inmates transforms their established co-dependence into a mortal necessity.

In emulating its predecessor’s effective slow burn, Prison on Fire is a film steeped largely in arbitrary exposition, intermittent conflict and a latter act blowup that remains more gratifying than not. All of the standard prison drama tropes remain front-and-center – amenity smuggling, brutish two-faced gang members, oppressive authoritarian guards – yet they don’t render the proceedings forgettable. This is largely due to the breezily sustained charisma of and chemistry between the film’s leads, their interplay competently segueing into a palpably meaningful relationship between the two.

With Ching remaining the unfailingly naive Yiu’s sole lifeline, the latter’s ignorance toward conformity isn’t so much grating as it is an effectively hopeful impetus. His resolve crumbles as you’d expect it would, as does Ching’s, and it’s with these moments that the film largely becomes one of perseverance for the sake of the ones you love on the outside. Character moments aside, Prison on Fire thrives mostly in the vein of what Lam does best in the vein of the increasingly riotous. From an initial incident in the yard to the climactic no-holds-barred barracks blowout, the film’s outwardly familiar theme of brotherhood laces these moments with an extra dimension that makes you hope Yiu and Ching will pull through prior to a predictably bittersweet conclusion.

To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.

TSBH: City on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)

Focusing on undercover cop Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) and his struggle in helping to apprehend a band of violent jewel thieves, the at-first black-and-white City on Fire turns grey as a slow-burning but inevitable bond with ring leader Fu (Danny Lee) is established. Morally conflicted and on the outs with an estranged fiancée, Chow’s predicament begins to harbor unwelcome complexity as an explosive sting operation draws nearer. With already tenuous law enforcement ties thinning further still, what will become of Chow in the face of absolute uncertainty?

Given the pink elephant that is City on Fire‘s influence on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the film, needless to say, is a modest triumph given the strength of the latter’s borrowed elements. On its own, City‘s first half is a largely procedural affair meant to set the stage for the more pivotal moments to follow. It systematically brands and maintains key players as Chow’s friends or foes, its only weak link being a questionable emphasis on his duties infringing upon an already tenuous marriage arrangement.

Enter the aforementioned Tarantino parallels. Those familiar with the all-grey conflict dynamic characteristic of undercover cop fare, Fu’s former menace is rendered sterile as his bond with Chow strengthens. A faux-brotherly aura emanates from their later interactions as they confide in one another, affecting Chow’s moral compass in a way that belies his already waning loyalty to a handful of shady law enforcement higher-ups.

Following A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire helped further exemplify heroic bloodshed by way of a revolving door of common characters, thematic tropes and exploitation of a target audience’s excitability. Chow thrives within this niche, hence his uncommonly prolific career as a viable part of several HK auteurs’ bodies of work. Although slow to build, Lam’s ability to switch gears is laudable on account of the film’s wildly entertaining back-end bombast.

To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.

To Shed Blood, Heroically: A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

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.