Despite whether you believe remakes are necessary or not, you have to admit that John Woo is at least going about it in the correct way, and that way means he serves as a guiding hand. He remade his own Once a Thief (1991) upon his foray into Hollywood territory, and in 2007 helped guide Alexi Tan’s remake of Bullet in the Head (1990) into Blood Brothers (2007). One was tolerable, the other a reasonable cinematic experience, but nothing spectacular. In the coming years we’ll be treated to a 3-D remake of The Killer (1989), but regardless of what the remake, John Woo ensures he has some degree of creative control. Which I think is a good thing. Enter the Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow (1986).
I’ll start off by saying that this film holds a special place in my heart, so I knew I would find it hard to be very objective. Plus, it’s a colossal masterpiece of Hong Kong cinema, a film that literally changed the cinematic landscape of Hong Kong film. Sure, John Woo’s made better films, but this film made Chow Yun-Fat, Heroic Bloodshed and trench coats cultural icons.
Structurally, the films are identical with many of the same emotional and visual beats. But this being a Korean remake, it does one thing very well, and that is make the film very Korean-centric. Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-Mo) is a North Korean living in Pusan, South Korea, a mid ranking gangster haunted by the memory of his mother and younger brother whom he had abandoned whilst escaping the DPRK. He uses his high paying job in the criminal underworld so that he can search South East Asia for them, and has aspirations of leaving the criminal life once they’re reunited. His closest friend is Lee Young-Choon (Song Seung-Heon), also a North Korean. They work for an old and not so savvy gang boss with a peon as a nephew, Jung Tae-Min (Jo Han-Seon), who has treacherous aspirations of his own. When South Korean agents pick up Kim Hyuk’s brother and they are reunited, he decides his next job will be his last. It doesn’t matter that his brother Kim Chul (Kim Kang-Woo) blames him for their mother’s death after she was beaten and killed by North Korean soldiers and has a burning hatred for him. Unfortunately, Kim Hyuk is betrayed completing his final job in Thailand, and spends the next three years in prison. During that time Kim Chul enrolls as a police officer under the guidance of the same cop who took in Kim Hyuk and Young-Choon when they first escaped to the South. Young-Choon is injured during a revenge attack on the Thai gangsters he believes responsible for the treachery against Kim Hyuk, and his leg is badly injured forcing him to work as a street side car washer. And the sneak Jung Tae-Min evolves into a big time gangster running the Pusan scene. But with Kim Chul working Jung Tae-Min’s case, and Kim Hyuk’s return to Pusan, things come to a boil as the fates of the four men come to a head.
The inclusion of the North/South Korea take on the tale works really well. I find it interesting that all the protagonists in the film are North Korean, whilst the antagonists are either South Korean or Thai. I’m not sure if there was some kind of political intent buried within the film, or if I’m reading too much into it. It’s also very interesting to note one big change they made was the removal of the romantic interest/subplot. If the original helped start the Heroic Bloodshed genre of films, we could call this the Heroic Tearshed genre. Because females are completely absent, the entire film revolves around the relationships between these four males, which isn’t a bad thing. But here, the relationships are taken to the next level, elevating it into an intertwining pseudo-love story between the characters. Of course Chang Cheh and John Woo have been accused of making homoerotic films (which I don’t really agree with), but here it pours the macho melodrama on so thick and heavy, I half expected them to kiss and I think it would have been refreshing if they did. I call this a gangster love story, even some of the music cues are straight out of romantic melodrama. Kim Hyuk of course cares deeply for Kim Chul, as his little brother. Like the original there is also a lot of love and companionship between Kim Hyuk and Young-Choon, and much of that love pours out of Young-Choon. And then there is Tae-Min, who it seems has that scorned lover evil lust for Young-Choon. The character of Tae-Min in the original had little development for actor Waisee Lee who nonetheless was still captivating, but here he’s fleshed out and turned into a fourth leading male, filling in the void left by the absence of the romantic subplot. Here we’re given a young gangster who idolized Young-Choon but after being rejected wants to do nothing more than usurp him, spite him and better him. And so we are treated to whole rainbow of men crying in each other’s arms.
So how does this all rate? In terms of action, the film does deliver. Unlike the original, there is almost no slow motion, and the small amount that exists is used instead to heighten emotional beats. The action is fast, violent and bloody, and comes at the exact same beats as the original, in some cases with the exact same visual cues (Young-Choon’s entrance when he seeks vengeance for Kim Hyuk is very similar to Chow Yun-Fats restaurant assault). But part of its downfall, besides the ubermale presence, is that it follows the original so closely, there’s no surprise. Yes, there is a twist on the ending, but it is literally the end of the film. The gunfights happen almost identically, but unfortunately are missing one key component that made the original so amazing, and that’s the level of cool that emanated from the screen. Try as he might, Song Seung-Heon is a poor man’s Chow Yun-Fat, and doesn’t exude even a tenth of the cool that he should. Jo Jin-Mo also has trouble exuding the level of stoicism and nobility that Ti Lung is capable of, and Kim Kang-woo is a shadow compared to Leslie Chung (this is where my objectivity falls to the wayside I think). The men come off as adolescents trapped in men’s bodies when compared to such an iconic trio. Its not the layers of melodrama heaped on, but the lack of macho exuberance and swagger that grinds the wheels to a halt.
Without the use of slow-motion and freeze frames to create and enhance those iconic poses with toothpicks and guns that helped make the original so breathtaking, the film comes off as a mediocre attempt. Sure its well made and well put together, but that’s all it’s got. Director Song Hae-sung, the man who made Failan (2001), a film I like quite a bit, is able to put together a competent film, but this is child’s play compared to the original. If they’d taken some risks with it, perhaps actually made it a gangster romance, it would have been a whole lot more engaging.
Matthew Hardstaff is a writer, filmmaker and dungeon master who calls Toronto, Ontario, Canada home. He’s also regular contributor to the Toronto J-Film Pow-wow. Also, he’s been working on his first feature for what seems an eternity.