(This is the 22nd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
A Better Tomorrow is not John Woo’s greatest film, nor is it my favorite. But it belongs here nonetheless, because it came first. There are many stories about the cultural impact of A Better Tomorrow. It is said that Hong Kong youth were so attracted to Chow Yun-Fat’s character that they all started wearing dusters, and that the kind of sunglasses Chow wore in the movie sold out all over HK. What I found interesting on my latest viewing is that Chow is really only the third-lead in this one … Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung as brothers on opposite sides of the law are the key characters. And they are both very good, plus the late, lamented Cheung was one of the greatest stars ever in HK pop culture, as an actor and a singer. Chow, at the time, was a TV star on the downhill slide in his career. But he steals the movie with his remarkable blend of charisma and good looks; he was the Chinese Cary Grant, and this film is where his movie career exploded. His character, Mark, was so appealing that even though he dies in the end, when A Better Tomorrow II arrived, Chow played the heretofore unmentioned twin brother of Mark, just to get him back in the picture. Mark personifies cool, yet he spends most of the movie as a marginal lackey with a bum knee. It doesn’t matter; it’s Chow Yun-Fat.
The HK triad films are often variants on the standard buddy movie, but the emotions are pumped up and on the surface; the subtext in the American versions is right in your face here. Yes, it’s overblown, but it was amazing when these films arrived and the heroes and anti-heroes were not strong silent types, but rather men given to excessive displays of love and respect amongst brothers (brothers extending beyond mere family).
And, of course, John Woo has a way with violence. The plots of his movies often argue against the violent way of life, but the operatic aesthetics of his action scenes overwhelm the plot machinations. A Better Tomorrow started a new trend in Hong Kong action that made its way to America, in particular in American hip-hop culture, and the rise in popularity of these movies wasn’t rooted in moralistic stands about the violent life. No, the movies were Cool with a capital C, not just in the way Chow held a matchstick in his mouth, but also in the way he used a gun in each hand to blow away his enemies.
I had another 200 words listing all of my fave HK movies, but I’ll limit myself to this: if I had chosen my true favorite instead of the film that kicked off the HK explosion, it would have been Woo’s Hard Boiled.
One person expressed confusion, as others did throughout this series, about why I chose a movie that I declared was neither “favorite” nor “best”. I admit to my own confusion, since I often went back and forth and back between favorite, best, and “important”.