Before watching the new Mainland release, A Better Tomorrow 2018, I was wondering why the world of cinema needed such a remake. I was still asking myself the same question after seeing this movie last week.
Film remakes are problematic at the best of times, and Hollywood is an industry leader at producing the best in bad remakes. My recent favourite titles in this sub-genre are Tony Scott’s Taking of Pelham 1,2,3, and Simon West’s The Mechanic. I can safely say A Better Tomorrow 2018 isn’t of this quality, although it is a movie we could have done without.
But let’s pause a moment and look back at what made the original A Better Tomorrow such a landmark film of modern Cantonese cinema.
In 1986, the stars aligned when Hong Kong producer Tsui Hark contracted then journeyman film-maker John Woo to direct ex-Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung in a crime movie. To widen the audience appeal, rising star Chow Yun-Fat and Cantopop sensation Leslie Cheung were given co-starring roles. The eternal themes of family loyalty and brotherhood were cornerstones of this bloody gangland melodrama. A Better Tomorrow was a huge hit in Hong Kong and with Chinatown audiences worldwide. Chow and Cheung became major film industry figures overnight, and John Woo’s career went into overdrive. It was also one of the first films to subtlety tap into the growing public disquiet over the impending return of Hong Kong to China. Woo’s film makes it very clear that the world outside family and kinship is not to be trusted and is often a dangerous realm.
So would why would a Mainland film company want to remake this movie so many years later? Apart from a remake supposedly offering easy money, the social and political elements aren’t in play today. But for Mainland producers it’s not an unreasonable idea to try and create/imitate a slick and entertaining Hong Kong production; Xu Zheng’s Lost in Hong Kong from 2015 showed it can be done and done well.
I did quite like ABT2018. It’s well acted and visually impressive. The story-line is virtually a clone of the original and only offers minor cosmetic differences. I found Zhou Kai (Wang Kai in the Ti Lung role) and Zhao Chao (Ma Tianyu in the Leslie Cheung role) as the criminal / policeman brothers to be believable as these scorned siblings, with Chao looking very much like the 1980’s Leslie Cheung. Darren Wang is Ma Ke, fellow smuggler and best friend of Zhao Kai, he reprises the Chow Yun-Fat part nicely and captures the physicality and exuberance of this charismatic figure.
The cosmetic changes include making the port town of Qingdao the film’s main location, as opposed to Hong Kong in Woo’s film. Taiwan has been replaced, not surprisingly, by Japan, where the flow of drugs into China is being controlled from. In this version, Zhao Kai and Ma Ke have steady girlfriends, but whom are given such fleeting screen time (and context..) that’d I’d question the need to have women cast in the first place.
The movie’s director and writer is Ding Sheng, who has helmed most of Jackie Chan’s recent Chinese productions, all of which are easily forgettable. At best his films are workmanlike and at worst just plain hard going. Of contemporary Mainland directors, I would never have thought Ding Sheng would be chosen to remake ABT. I’m sure he considers himself an action film-maker, but pics like Police Story 2013 and Railway Tigers just aren’t good action movies. And it’s the action content in ABT2018 which really lets the movie down with a thud. The set-pieces from the original are all recreated and the results are woeful. Instead of trying to create strong, memorable scenes and sequences, all director Deng does is throw everything into the moment and hope something might actually work. Add to this a weak digital transfer where much of the action is on the verge of pixelating.
The big shipyard gun battle which closes the film is a chaotic mess, and made worse by the local police arriving en-masse like the PLA — guns drawn and gangsters wasted. The final image of the three stars has a smug, Law and Order, take-no-prisoners message — which is pure state propaganda.
Hong Kong character actor Lam Suet (Three) is good value as Boss Ha, the low-key Mr Big of the Qingdao drug trade, who, early in the movie, warns an ambitious Kai “Don’t run two boats…”). Legendary Cantonese film identity Eric Tsang (Comrades: Almost a Love Story, Infernal Affairs) has a cameo as an ageing lag who sets Kai on the road to redemption.
If you’re not familiar with the iconic ABT theme by Joseph Koo… you certainly will be by the end of the film. It’s presented in so many and varying musical forms — ad nauseam! One scene in a low rent bar has Kai and Zhou hearing the soundtrack theme as they walk through the door. The barman glances at a turntable which is playing the ABT stanza and has a large photo of Chow Yun-Fat resting against it. Subtle this film ain’t!
After sitting through this 2018 remake of such an iconic film, I was hoping that director Ding Sheng wouldn’t be turning his attention to other Woo movies. But the early, poor box-office returns should put off any future plans to remake The Killer or Bullet in the Head — at least for the time being!