Song Hae-sung’s A Better Tomorrow is a flashy remake of John Woo’s seminal 1986 classic which tries hard to refigure the tale of brotherly love in a gangster-riddled modern Busan. John Woo served as an executive producer for this film, which is a co-production between South Korea, China, and Japan, something that would not have happened 15 years ago. Budgeted at $8.7 million, this is a pricey affair with excellent production values and some stunning set pieces, the problem is that the plot is so familiar and drawn out that it is difficult to care about.
Ju Jin-mo, last seen in Ha Yu’s gay period epic A Frozen Flower (2008, review here), plays the role of a gangster who tries to go straight and win the affection of his cop brother. Like the original the plot is thin and the outcome can be spotted a mile away. However Woo’s version was a seismic blockbuster that revolutionized the Asian film industry by creating a new type of stylized action film that would be emulated for years to come. This Korean update does feature some great gunfight sequences, but they are short and infrequent throughout the 124 minute running time.
The plot is a major problem in this new version as it cuts out some significant elements, such as the younger brother’s love interest, yet is still half an hour longer than the original. The characters do not have much depth and are often lacking in charisma, especially Song Seung-heun who cannot possibly match Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic cool from the original. It is a difficult task to recreate a beloved character and it is often wise to change the protagonist so as not to invite comparison, but Song’s incarnation lacks three-dimensional characteristics.
There are a few minor changes from the original: the gangsters deal in arms as opposed to counterfeit money; and the overseas set piece is set in Thailand instead of Taiwan. The most promising change is that the brothers are North Korean defectors, which also sets up the seeds of the younger brother’s resentment as the elder brother abandoned him when he initially defected to the south. While this could be an interesting premise, appropriate attention is not given to North-South tensions and this becomes little more than an afterthought.
One of my favorite things about Korean cinema is its propensity to hop across genres. This style of filmmaking can irk a lot of viewers but is also the reason many western audiences are so transfixed by these films. The Host (2006), Save the Green Planet (2003), My Sassy Girl (2001), and many others exhibit a deft handling of generic conventions as their narratives fly across horror, comedy, sci-fi, melodrama, action, and social commentary. This is also true of films that have not crossed over to western audiences; in fact it is pretty much the style of filmmaking that many have come to associate with South Korea. A Better Tomorrow does not cross genres and the reason I mention this is because it’s a damn shame that it doesn’t. It severely limits itself by working within the confines of an already limited original. It takes away without adding, it tones down instead of taking it to the next level. This wouldn’t bother me so much but there is so much skill and potential from a technical standpoint that I wish they had given themselves more leeway to experiment and add a real Korean touch.
The film looks great and has a couple of great, albeit brief, action sequences but is let down by an obvious and simplified plot, two-dimensional characters, and a horribly misjudged finale. Although the film was a hit in its domestic market (with over 1.5 million admissions), I think that director Song Hae-seong is capable of a lot better. Having previously helmed Calla (1999), Failan (2001), Rikidozan (2004), and Maundy Thursday (2006), by comparison his latest effort seems decidedly by-the-numbers.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.