A Better Tomorrow (2010)
Director: Song Hae-sung
Writers: Hyo-seok Kim, Taek-kyung Lee, Geun-mo Choi, Hae-gon Kim, Hing-Ka Chan, Suk-Wah Leung
Starring: Ju Jin-mo, Song Seung-heon, Kim Kang-woo and Jo Han Sun

The Plot: Hyuk (Ju Jin-Mo) is a North Korean ex-patriot who has moved to South Korea in order to find his riches via the gun smuggling business. His intentions are actually earnest, as he hopes to make enough money to help save his family from the despotic North, but he is quickly caught up in the criminal element. When he finds immense success, he begins the search for his only surviving relative… his brother. When he finds his brother, Chul (Kim Kang-woo), it turns out that the young man had actually been searching for Hyuk as well. However, he searches for him with the intentions of killing him. Chul feels that Hyuk abandoned the family, and inevitably lead to their mother’s death. When Chul is found in an internment camp, Hyuk manages to have his brother released. However, Chul still resents his only brother. While this is going on, Hyuk and his partner Lee Young-Choon (Song Seung-hun) run into some trouble due to a snitch within their organization. The young and seemingly naive Jung Tae-Min (Jo Han-sun) is the snitch, and it turns out that his naivety is nothing more than a ruse to place Young-Choon and Hyuk in a compromising situation. When Hyuk is abandoned by by Tae-Min, he is imprisoned for two years. During this time, Chul manages to become a police detective and must face up to his brother’s past. With Hyuk hitting the streets again, what will become of this sordid situation?

The Review
It probably doesn’t take much for readers to realize that I am a pretty big fan of John Woo’s Hong Kong work. Although I haven’t reviewed any of his films in years, I have seen all of his heroic bloodshed titles and nearly everything he has made outside of Hollywood. For those of you who don’t keep up with foreign cinema, however, allow me to explain the “heroic bloodshed” genre for you. At the climax of the eighties, Hong Kong action films were moving away from the classic period-setting Kung Fu movies of the past and were finally escaping into the modern era. Audiences liked seeing modern Hong Kong, and they wanted to see modern action. John Woo, along with Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam, helped instigate a new wave of Hong Kong cinema by delivering a new breed of action cinema. Creating a new style of “gun fighting” that the world had never seen before, John Woo showed that the specialized choreography that had made the Kung Fu genre so special, could very well be adapted to a more contemporary form of combat. Later co-opted by Hollywood and The Matrix, Hong Kong saw a torrent of John Woo clones popping up during his formative years, but for the most part his films remained the best. The original A Better Tomorrow marked the arrival of both John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, and the two would become superstars in their respected fields afterward. Although it may have had some weaknesses, it can generally be seen as one of the best showcases for John Woo’s ballistic style of action and also his adoration for thick melodrama. This South Korean remake, A Better Tomorrow (2010), does as fair a job as any film possibly could when given the reputation of the original movie. This new take on the classic film attempts to take the melodrama and try and make it seem less over-the-top, and manages to craft a fairly tight familial drama. Although the action takes a backseat this time around, the filmmakers generally craft a movie that is worthy as a piece of entertainment but will suffer due to its constant comparisons to the original.

South Korea has proven itself to be a country that doesn’t fully shy away from prospective remakes. Although the notion is much more alive in Hollywood than in any other nation, the Koreans have never been bashful about reinterpreting popular trends for their own demographic. When they quickly remade the Japanese film Ringu as Rasen, many heads were left spinning. The choice to remake Patrick Swayze’s Ghost may been even more baffling, some twenty years after the release of the original. However, the choice to remake A Better Tomorrow seems even more surprising, because it is hard to imagine a relatively obscure genre film from the eighties being heralded enough to actually warrant the budget that is required to create something like this. Still, the filmmakers and producers felt it was viable and their remake certainly doesn’t strive to completely separate itself from what had come previous. There is a definite adoration felt for the original film, and there are numerous winks and nods to the original movie throughout this modern retelling of the story. When Song Seung-hun shows up wearing a trenchcoat very similar to the one that Chow Yun-Fat wore in the original film, fans of the original shouldn’t be able to help but smirk a tiny bit.

Ultimately, the film shares many of the same beats as the original A Better Tomorrow, but it differentiates itself in some important areas. With a film such as this one, the main obstacle that it must overcome is the comparisons that fans will make to the original. As a reviewer, watching the movie with a critical eye, I find it hard not to continually think of John Woo’s masterpiece. How does one not? It is as if someone were to remake Goodfellas. Scorsese’s movie may be much more famous, but the point is that it’s an extremely popular and iconic title within the world of crime cinema. The same is true for John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, and its legacy is something that honestly cannot be ignored while watching any attempted remake. Although I do enjoy those previously mentioned winks to the audience throughout the movie, there are times where the movie simply seems content to rehash complete sequences from the original film in a nearly shot-for-shot basis. The moments where the movie attempts to be something different are probably the aspects that I most thoroughly enjoyed. The changes made to the character of Chul, a role originally played by Leslie Cheung, are probably the most prominent. The other two lead roles, however, also feature some fairly dramatic changes as well.

Part of me likes what the film does with the Chul character. I like the concept of Hyuk having abandoned his family before the credits even roll, and early into the movie the differences between North and South are felt between these characters. It makes for some intense drama, but the changes that this character makes now seem drastic and all too quick moving. To become a cop after illegally crossing the border seems to be a rather large step, and to do so (and make detective) in only three years comes across as a bit on the extreme. If you can forgive the logical gaps, however, the movie does do some interesting things with this character. In the original film Leslie Cheung’s character always seemed a bit demure, and maybe even naive, in comparison to his older and wiser brother. In this retelling of the story, this character may be even more hardened than his gun-smuggling older brother. While the original film always had a emphasis on the older brother character, played by Ti lung, this remake takes the interesting choice of placing much more focus on the younger brother. In many ways, I think this comes across as the more poignant and dynamic approach to the drama. Whith the writers also throwing in the theme of abandonment on top of everything else, the conclusion to the film becomes that much more powerful. Even if it is almost too downbeat for a movie such as this one.

The Conclusion
While I won’t try to convince anyone that this is a remake that achieves the same power that the original had, I can’t help but admit that I liked the movie quite a bit. Clocking in at two hours in length, the film still remains brisk and delivers a decent amount of action and many strong performances. Kim Kang-woo (Chul) may actually outshine the Chow Yun-Fat character, who most assuredly stole the show in the original film. Having no per-disposition to dislike the film, I found myself enjoying it immensely. I give it a four out of five. This might be a controversial rating, but I can’t help but recommend it to other potential viewers. This is solid stuff.

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