All Because of Love (痴情男子漢, Lien Yi-Chi, 2017)

All Because of Love PosterGrowing up is hard is to do – that is, unless you’re the hero of a teen movie, in which case growing up is merely “difficult” and everything is sure to be alright once the bullies have been vanquished and the last dance danced. Designed to appeal to its target audience, the world of the teen movie is usually black and white, free from the chaos and confusion which most experience during adolescence. All Because of Love (痴情男子漢, Cqíng Nánhàn) is, however, refreshingly honest in its fierce love of a messy situation, forcing its hero into a series of “difficult” circumstances while he plays the noble fool holding fast to an obviously unrequited love in the hope that his niceness will somehow capture his true love’s heart.

When we first meet Erkan (Kent Tsai), he’s a nerd and the member of an oppressed minority at his school, constantly targeted by the tough guys. He is hopelessly in love with popular girl Mandy (Gingle Wang), who is actually dating one of the bullies and doesn’t even really know who Erkan is. Despite his declaration to love her for a thousand years, Erkan’s attempts to woo Mandy end in spectacular and humiliating failure but still he does not give up. Shortly after graduating high school, Mandy abruptly rings him for “a date”. Erkan, still smitten, is excited but Mandy has an ulterior motive – she is pregnant with her jock boyfriend’s child and, abandoned by her own one true love, reckons Erkan might like to try out life as a baby daddy. She is correct in her assumption and Erkan would be buying a ring if he had any money but as it is they’ll have to make do with the gentle guidance of Erkan’s elopement expert grandad (Hsu Hsiao-shun) who takes them back to his seaside home town where they can hide out from Mandy’s overbearing (and very wealthy) family.

As the title implies, the rest of the film becomes a treatise on love – requited or not, familial and romantic, permitted or illicit. Erkan is thrilled, on one level, to have got it together with Mandy but on the other hand Mandy won’t let him near her and it’s clear she is only using him and taking advantage of his noble character to get her out of a fix. Meanwhile, staying at inn, Erkan gets to know another girl, Sing (Dara Hanfman), who is in a permanently gloomy mood thanks to her devastating ability to read minds, and hasn’t left her room in years. Sing, thanks to her ability, has fallen half in love with Erkan’s goofy goodheartedness but also knows he’s still hung up on Mandy, and that Mandy is still hung up on her ex-boyfriend. She is then in a difficult position but manages to strike up enough of a friendship with the lovelorn young man to spur her on to exploring the outside world once again.

Meanwhile, Erkan is also confronted by the eerie similarities between his present predicament and the circumstances of his birth. Having always lived with his granddad, Erkan assumed his parents had passed on but discovers there may be more to the story only he’ll have to go to Japan to find out. Erkan’s granddad kicked off the cycle by eloping with Erkan’s grandmother, leaving their hometown far behind to live a life of love far away, though his son and grandson do not seem to have had so much luck when it comes to romance and Erkan’s romantic answers perhaps lie in exploring his family history rather than re-examining his high school days and refusing to let go of his idealised teenage crush.

A heart to heart with Sing provokes a more grown up meditation of unrequited love even if Erkan is entirely oblivious to Sing’s delicately concealed feelings. Purehearted, Erkan insists that love does not need to be requited, merely loving without being loved is good enough for him (so he says, or perhaps he just doesn’t expect anything more). Sing tells him he’s wrong, that it takes two to love and that a one sided affection is nothing more than intense loneliness. Erkan agrees, missing Sing’s hidden meaning, but maturely admitting that it would be wrong to hold someone’s hand just because you’re lonely when your heart is elsewhere.

Erkan’s idealised love for Mandy is gradually revealed as an adolescent affectation while she is left battling various kinds of familial expectation and manipulation before discovering her former boyfriend is not perhaps the heel that everyone had assumed him to be. Meanwhile, Sing is doing something similar in trying to lay to rest the ghost of a friend who left long ago and Erkan is left trying to reclaim his identity though figuring out who he really is before learning to look at what’s right in front of him rather than indulging in a romantic fantasy. Lien Yi-chi sends Erkan on some very bizarre adventures, swapping genres at a moment’s notice from westerns to classic melodrama and musicals and then settling on something in the middle which feels oddly authentic and lived in despite its strangeness. Often absurd if not quite surreal, Lien’s warmhearted silliness is almost impossible to resist as is the cheerful innocence of the effortlessly romantic conclusion.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Chase (반드시 잡는다, Kim Hong-sun, 2017)

The Chase posterKorea may not quite be facing such an ageing population crisis as neighbouring nations, but old age has become a persistent cinematic preoccupation. We’ve seen old women still engaging in acts of prostitution to support themselves in the absence of family (and indeed the state), serial killers becoming dangerously confused, and ageing grandmother’s attempt to see the beauty in a world that seems to be descending into chaos. What The Chase (반드시 잡는다 Bandeusi Jabneunda) shows us is that the elderly do at least have time on their hands that could well be used for fighting crime and protecting the vulnerable.

If you were appointing elderly street guardians, you probably wouldn’t pick Deok-soo (Baek Yoon-sik). A curmudgeonly landlord with a conviction that everyone is out to diddle him on their rent, Deok-soo complains loudly when a body is found in a nearby area because it’s going to damage property prices. People who are supposed to die should just die, he exclaims, that’s patriotism! You can bet your bottom dollar Deok-soo voted for Park Geun-hye, but despite his grumpy exterior he has a soft heart as one of his young charges reveals when she reminds him that he’s never thrown anyone out just because they didn’t pay up. Deok-soo has taken quite a (paternal) liking to Ji-eun (Kim Hye-in), a young woman living alone away from family in one of his horrible little apartments. Aside from her rent arrears and tendency to let her mixed up friend stay over so often that she virtually lives there, Ji-eun is one of Deok-soo’s favourite tenants.

Which is perhaps why he gets himself so involved when she suddenly goes missing after a shock discovery is made in her flat. Other than the first body which got Deok-soo so worked up, a few other elderly people have been passing away in lonely deaths which, sadly, isn’t particularly suspicious save that the pattern matches that from an unsolved serial murder case from 30 years ago which began with the killing of old people and then progressed to sexually aggravated murder of young women with long dark hair – just like Ji-eun.

Aside from the ongoing serial killer plot, director Kim Hong-sun makes space for depicting the various problems faced by the elderly in contemporary Korea. The first problems are loneliness and dislocation caused by separation from family members – many of the older people Deok-soo is familiar with have children overseas whom they have all but lost touch with. The second problem is economic – Deok-soo’s flats are dirt cheap for a reason and mostly inhabited by the very young and the very old, i.e. people without a lot of “disposable” income. Being elderly, they often can’t find jobs and don’t have access to a proper pension leading many to take to the streets protesting for rights for the aged including that to work or to be given state support. Deok-soo is lucky with income from renting the apartments, but he also works as a locksmith which brings in a few extra pennies. Being Deok-soo he isn’t particularly worried about other people less lucky than himself, so he rolls his eyes at the protests but is worried enough by the lonely deaths to ask one of his tenants to look in on him every now and then to avoid becoming one.

Meanwhile, Deok-soo has become “friends” with a retired police detective who’s convinced the serial killer he failed to catch 30 years ago is back. Worried that Ji-eun may end up among his victims, Deok-soo begins investigating, unwittingly getting himself mixed up in a dark and confusing world of old school hardboiled only Pyeong-dal (Sung Dong-il) is not quite as worthy a guide as he seemed. Walking around like a maverick cop from a violent ‘70s action movie, Pyeong-dal is convinced he knows who the killer is but he is old and unsteady and his mind is not perhaps reliable.

Then again a persistent subplot seems to argue that the young have no respect for age, are selfish and corrupt, thinking only of short term pleasures and forgetting that they too will one day be old with no one around to look after them. No one takes Deok-soo and Pyeong-dal seriously, they are after all just grumpy old men that everyone wants to get rid of as quickly as possible. They do, however, (paradoxically) have time to indulge in “silly” ideas that the young do not have and are, therefore, perfectly positioned to take down a serial killer who preys on the weak and vulnerable including old men like them and pretty young girls like Ji-eun. Old guys have still got it, at least according to The Chase, though they might have got there faster if only they’d cut the young whippersnappers some slack.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Also available to stream on Netflix.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Take Me to the Moon (帶我去月球, Hsieh Chun-Yi, 2017)

take me to the moon posterShould you continue pursuing your dreams even after you know they won’t come true or just give in and live a dull but comfortable life of conformity? These are questions most young people face at one time or another, but for the hero of Hsieh Chun-Yi’s Take me to the Moon (帶我去月球, Dài Wǒ Qù Yuèqiú), they take on an extra dimension when he is suddenly thrown back into the past with an opportunity to “save” the life of a friend if only he can convince her to abandon her dreams of stardom and stay home instead. A melancholy nostalgia fest for late ‘90s Taiwan (and the late ‘90s in general), Take me to the Moon is an ode to lost opportunities, words unsaid, and the immutability of the past which nevertheless makes room for the odd miracle or two as its hero realises perhaps he’s not grown up as much as he thought.

Three years prior to the main action, 30-something Wang (Jasper Liu) takes a business trip to Tokyo where he reconnects with high school friend Emma (Vivian Sung) who won a prestigious competition to go to Japan and train with a big idol producer. Sadly, Emma’s dreams have not panned out and she’s embarrassed to let her old friend see just how badly things have been going for her. Fast-forward three years to the present and Emma has unfortunately passed away at only 38 after years of hard drinking in hostess bars, poor nutrition, and overwork finally caught up with her. The once tight group of high school bandmates, two of whom have become a married couple, argue over their collective failure to save their friend at which point Wang walks out, meets a weird old woman who gives him some strange flowers, and is knocked over by a car only to wake up back in 1997. Desperate to save Emma, Wang thinks his best bet lies in ruining her chance to go to Japan so that she will never experience the failure of her hopes and dreams and will stay home to live a simpler, safer life.

Filled with a youthful nostalgia and feeling of authenticity, Take me to the Moon makes the most of its ‘90s setting, recreating the late 20th century city through impressive CGI. Wang reacquaints himself with his teenage self, retrieving his well hidden box of tame pornography and enjoying another few bowls of his mother’s delicious fish soup, but his main goal is essentially to ruin the dreams of his friend – an act of betrayal which might be in her interest, but then again it isn’t Wang’s choice to make and perhaps Emma would rather follow her heart even if it means it’s going to get broken.

What Wang eventually realises, as one of the Tom Chang tracks which pepper the narrative points out, is that what he should have been treasuring was the extra time spent with friends rather than worrying about the future. Back in his teenage years Wang was too shy to confess his lifelong crush on Emma and then went on to be plagued by classic bad timing in adulthood until finally it was too late. His attempts to “save” Emma by ruining her life are in part selfish but also cowardly in taking the place of simply saying the things he needed to say at the right time. Finally figuring this out, Wang realises that he can’t “save” Emma like the hero of a time travel movie by manipulating the past, but he has been given a second chance to let her know how he felt. This, in the end, is what may finally, really “save” his friend – simply letting her know that he is there supporting her, that she’s fine as she is and doesn’t need to be “perfect” to be loved as her overbearing parents have led her to believe.

Though Wang awakens to a more positive change than he might have expected, the general idea is that you can’t rehash the past and should make sure that you’re happy with your present to avoid the desire to try. Having given up on his youthful dreams for a lonely corporate existence, middle-aged Wang regains a little of his essential self and decides to fight for a more authentic way of life even if it doesn’t really go anywhere. Warm and fuzzy yet also strangely melancholy, Take me to the Moon is another in a long line of Taiwanese high school nostalgia movies but proves a fitting tribute both to its era and the singer songwriter featured throughout who himself died young in a tragic car accident in 1997 aged just 31.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Original 1997 music video for Tom Chang’s Take Me to the Moon

City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Da Peng, 2017)

201708162324218235They built this city on rock and roll! Right in the middle of Ji’An, there’s a giant statue of an electric guitar with a plaque underneath it reading “The Heart of Rock” that was erected in memory of a legendary concert given by a super famous band, Broken Guitar, who happen to hail from the region. This being a particularly musical town, Broken Guitar continues to inspire young and old alike to pursue their musical dreams, but there is trouble on the horizon. Shady mobbed up developers want to tear down the Great Guitar and put flats there instead, which is not very rock and roll when all is said and done.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, shady musical agent Chen Gong (Da Peng), who was actually the agent for Broken Guitar at the time they broke up, is working on his latest venture – trying to turn three middle-aged, pudgy rockers into a Chinese K-pop act. Needless to say it’s not going well and Gong is perpetually cash strapped. When he receives an unsolicited call from Hu Liang (Qiao Shan), a Ji’An resident who wants him to help promote a local concert as a kind of benefit to help save the Great Guitar, Gong isn’t interested and quotes him a ridiculous sum of money only to see it instantly pop-up in his account. Jumping straight on a train, Gong is met at the station by a rapturous welcome parade which includes a marching band and kids throwing garlands but quickly figures out that Hu Liang is every bit as much of a schemer as he is. Hu Liang doesn’t even have a band and needs Gong to help him find one.

Once again, the conflict is between cynicism and artistic integrity as a group of misfits comes together to help stop a monument to true rock being torn down by soulless suits. Gong, as we later find out, had musical dreams himself but, after having gone against his father’s wishes to pursue a musical career, was forced out of the conservatoire after an accident robbed him of the feeling in two of his fingers and he became too depressed to sing. Having lost his faith in music, Gong has sold out and become a cynical money man, cutting deals anywhere and everywhere he can. Rather than work on the “unique” sound of the guys he was mentoring, he’s obsessed with the idea of sending them to Korea to get plastic surgery, and turning them into some kind of K-pop inspired Chinese song and dance group.

Hu Liang, meanwhile, is just as much of a con man but his heart is in a better place. Only two people show up for his auditions to join the band – jaded alcoholic with a broken leg, Ding Jianguo (Gulnazar), and a drummer from Taiwan who calls himself “Explosive” (Li Hongqi) and sits with his back to the audience. The other bandmates include a former member of Broken Guitar now a gynaecologist (Han Tongsheng) whose daughter has forbidden him from playing rock and roll, and a little girl (Qu Junxi) who’s a whizz on the keyboards despite the disapproval of her Taekwondo loving mother who thinks things like music are a frivolous waste of time. Together they face various obstacles in their quest to save the great guitar and the spirit of rock and roll itself but finally discover that the true spirit of rock lies in getting the band back together for one last hurrah and channeling all into music.

Gong, tempted by the shady developer, is reminded that money can save lives but dreams cannot. Faced with a dilemma, Gong falls back into cynicism and rejects the new sense of fun and togetherness he’d found as a peripheral member of the band. Yet reuniting with his hopeless wannabes and easing back into his soulless Beijing life, he begins to realise what he’s been missing and rediscovers the the true nature of rock and roll which isn’t trapped inside a giant concrete guitar but inside the hearts of musicians who need their instruments to help bring it out. Dreams, it seems, save lives after all. An often hilarious, sometimes silly comedy, City of Rock (缝纫机乐队, Féngrènjī Yduìis as full of heart as it encourages its protagonists to be, arguing for the importance of the right to express oneself in a society which often actively suppresses it.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (simplified Chinese subtitles only)

Love Education (相愛相親, Sylvia Chang, 2017)

Love Education posterWhat is love? Who gets to define it, and should it be a force of liberation or constraint? Sylvia Chang attempts to find out in looking at the complicated, unexpectedly interconnected romantic lives of three generations of women who discover that nothing and everything has changed in the decades that divide them. While a bereaved daughter channels her own anxieties of impending mortality into a petty and hopeless quest to validate the true love history of her parents, a daughter battles an oddly familiar problem with her musician boyfriend, and an elderly village woman is forced to realise she wasted her life waiting for the return of a man who had so carelessly abandoned her. Mediated by a culturally specific argument over burial rites, Love Education (相愛相親, Xiāng ài xiāng qīn) is a meditation on the demands and obligations of love, both familial and romantic, as they inevitably change and mature across the arc of lifetimes.

As Huiying’s (Sylvia Chang) elderly mother lies dying, she sinks into a vision of a bright summer’s day spent with her one true love who is already waiting for her in a better place. Huiying, a middle-aged school teacher facing semi-enforced retirement, is thrown into a tail spin of grief and anxiety in losing her mother, realising that it won’t belong before her daughter will in turn lose her. Weiwei (Lang Yueting), an aspiring TV journalist, remains unmarried and still lives at home though, unbeknownst to Huiying, is planning to move out and live with her aspiring rockstar boyfriend, Da (Song Ning). The plan is, however, thrown into confusion by the resurfacing of his ex, in the city with her son to complete in a cheesy TV singing contest. Meanwhile, Huiying has become obsessed with the idea of burying her mother alongside her father, only his body was sent back to his rural hometown, as is the custom, and so will need to exhumed and brought to the city. Unfortunately, Huiying’s father was technically a bigamist – he left an arranged marriage in the country to look for work in the city, “married” Huiying’s mother and never looked back. Huiying, determined to prove the “legitimacy” of her parents love seeks to reunite them in death, but Nana (Wu Yanshu) – the abandoned country wife, is hellbent on retaining the body, at least, of the man she married and thereby legitimising herself as a “true” wife.

Huiying’s grief-stricken descent into desperate obsession is a thinly veiled attempt to work through her own feelings of middle-aged dissatisfaction and anxiety on being violently confronted by her transition from a position of authority into a potentially powerless old-age. Her decades long marriage to Xiaoping (Tian Zhuangzhuang), a mild-mannered former teacher turned driving instructor, is comfortable enough but perhaps floundering as the couple contemplate their retirement and impending dotage. Huiying, mildly jealous of a elegant pupil who seems to have taken a liking to her husband, is also entertaining a mild crush on the father of one her own pupils while quietly feeling the distance that has inevitably grown between herself and her husband throughout the years. And so, she sets about “proving” that her parents’ romance was good and true, not only morally recognised but blessed by the state and legally approved.

This, however, proves more difficult than expected due to China’s rapid modernisation, series of political changes, high levels of bureaucracy and idiosyncratic way of issuing documentation. As her parents were “married” in the ‘50s, their union was approved by the local Communist authorities whose approach to record keeping was not perhaps as serious as might be assumed. The receipt for their license should be at the local block office, but they knocked that down. The papers were supposed to be moved to the town hall, but lacking resources they simply threw away all the documents from 1978 and before. Huiying’s parents belong to a past which has literally been thrown away, erased from history and regarded as an irrelevance by the current generation who think only of the future.

Meanwhile, Nana has been patiently waiting in her home town – a “good wife” by the standards of her rural society. Marrying Huiying’s father in an arranged marriage she has done all expected of her – looked after his family and then lovingly tended his grave despite the fact that he abandoned her after only a few months of marriage, not even bothering to tell her that he met someone else and wasn’t coming back. Nana, like Huiying, is desperate to legitimise her position to avoid the inevitable realisation that she has sacrificed her life for a set of outdated ideals.

Weiwei feels this most of all. Unlike her mother, she can’t forgive her grandfather’s moral cowardice in treating his first wife so cruelly. Building up an unexpected bond with the ironically named “Nana”, Weiwei is also forced to think about her own stalling relationship with Da who put his rockstar dreams on hold to stay with her rather than proceeding on to Beijing to try his luck there. Da, like her grandfather, has a past – in this case a childhood sweetheart with a young son and possibly territorial ambitions over a kind young man she has wounded through abandoning. Should Weiwei wait for Da, and risk ending up all alone like Nana, or should she end things now and give up on youthful romanticism for grown up practicality?

So bound up with the “legitimisation” of love, there’s an inevitable degree of possessiveness which creeps into each of the relationships – even that of Huiying and her daughter as she attempts to clip her wings to keep her close, but there’s also a kind of generosity in Chang’s direction which eventually allows them all to break away (to an extent) from an insecure need for validation to something bigger, warmer, and with more capacity for empathy and understanding. Quite literally a Love Education, Chang’s exploration of the romantic lives of three generations of women finds that though the times may have become more permissive nothing has become any easier. Nevertheless, there is comfort to be found in learning to appreciate the feelings of others, offering support where needed, and making the most of what you have while you have it in the acceptance that nothing is forever.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Special Lady (미옥, Lee An-gyu, 2017)

A Special Lady posterAll you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun – so goes the age old wisdom. Korean cinema, it has to be said, has been in a fairly progressive mood of late with several high profile female-led action movies to complement the macho melodrama that has become synonymous with the nation’s cinematic output. There has, however, been a slight imbalance in the way these films have been presented – yes, women carry guns and issue roundhouse kicks to the face but they do so out of maternal fire. This obsession with corrupted motherhood finds a natural home in Lee An-gyu’s A Special Lady (미옥, Miok) which puts puts Kim Hye-soo in a blonde wig and then asks her to do pretty much what she did in Coin Locker Girl only more sympathetically.

Na Hyun-jung (Kim Hye-soo) has risen from lowly bar girl and exploited sex worker to be the right-hand woman of mob boss Kim (Choi Moo-sung). Marshalling a collection of (well cared for) high class call girls, her main stock in trade is blackmail – she sends her girls out as honey traps to capture “important” people, bring them back to the “hotel” for illicit “fun”, and film them in the act to compel them to work in the best interests of the gang. The plan usually works, but snotty prosecutor Choi (Lee Hee-joon), who has just returned from his honeymoon after marrying the boss’ daughter, liked to think of himself as having integrity and is hell bent on revenge against the villainous Na. Exploiting weaknesses already exposed within the gang including the stormy romance between Na and ambitious foot soldier Lim (Lee Sun-Kyun), and the return of Na’s illegitimate son with boss Kim whose wife and (legitimate) child were murdered by a rival organisation, Choi sets about taking it down in an unorthodox way as a means of getting his sex tape back but also fulfilling his commitment to “justice”.

The English title, A Special Lady, has an awkward spin to it with its mobster-esque patter hinting at a classy bar girl or much loved peripheral figure. The Korean title which is simply a woman’s name gives a better indication of the tale at hand in its emphasis on loss of innocence, fall, and rebirth as something or someone else. Na is certainly well versed in the gangster world, perfectly equipped to operate within it both in her physical prowess and also in her emotional control, politicking, and ability to strategise, yet she also operates outside of gang structures with many, including Lim who has long been in love with her, resenting that a mere woman holds such a high position with such proximity to Kim.

This marginal status extends to Na’s feminised perspective which reduces her to a figure of ruined motherhood. Na takes care of her girls, as a mother would, entrusting them to another woman who acts as their madam but is fiercely loyal to her, more nanny than henchman. Her major preoccupation is with the son she was forced to give up as an infant after spending time on the inside on behalf of the gang. Joo-hwan (Kim Min-suk) is Kim’s son and heir and the mob boss has been careful to keep him overseas to keep him safe, but either because of persistent parental absence or his gangster genes, the boy keeps getting himself expelled for violent conduct and Kim thinks it’s probably time to bring him home and verse him in his heritage. Na has long wanted to be reunited with her almost grown up son, but he has no idea she is his mother and believes he is the son of Kim’s deceased wife. When Joo-hwan is threatened and then turned against her by vicious rumours, Na will stop at nothing to ensure his safety even if he never knows who she really is.

Na’s descent into ferocious fighting machine, attacking a field full of mobsters with a bone saw, is the rage of a mother whose child is threatened. She doesn’t fight them off because she wants to survive, or for revenge, or simply because they are from a rival gang but because they threaten her children both in the case of one of her girls who happens to be with Na, and of course their targeting of Joo-hwan solely to get to his mother. The world of the film is a persistently misogynistic one – not just in the way women are routinely used as a means to an end by the gangsters, and by Na herself, but in the way that Na struggles to be accepted as a valid member of the gangster hierarchy rather than an adjunct to it as an honorary manager of the female contingent. Lim, who feels displaced by her in his status within the gang, is also desperately in love with Na who seems to return his feelings on some level but ultimately turns him down – something he can not accept, stooping so low as to threaten Na’s child to blackmail her into accepting him despite his intense resentment on finding out about her previous relationship with Kim.

Unexpected action hero status aside, Na becomes nothing more than a figure of corrupted motherhood who must be “repaired” through saving her son and then by retiring to become a more “normal” maternal figure. The debut from Lee An-gyu, A Special Lady features a number of well choreographed action scenes, strikingly composed images, and impressive production design but all too often falls back on tired ideas as its heroine battles valiantly to save her son with the intention of “rescuing” herself in the process.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Better Tomorrow 2018 (英雄本色2018, Ding Sheng, 2018)

better tomorrow 2018 posterIn the history of Hong Kong cinema, there are few films which could realistically claim the same worldwide influence as John Woo’s 1986 landmark A Better Tomorrow. Commissioned by Tsui Hark, the then jobbing director Woo was tasked with creating a vehicle for a veteran Shaw Brothers star. Casting Cantopop idol Leslie Cheung and TV sensation Chow Yun-fat, Woo mixed traditional melodrama with hyper masculine emotionality to give birth to what would become the “heroic bloodshed” genre which was to dominate the island’s cinematic output well into the ‘90s. A Better Tomorrow, as its title implies, is the perfect evocation of its era and among the first to express an oncoming anxiety for Hong Kong’s “return” to China then only a decade away. Slick and oozing with ‘80s, macho cool, Woo’s film captured the imaginations of young men everywhere who suddenly took to wearing sunglasses and trench coats while chewing on match sticks, dreaming dreams of heroism in a sometimes gloomy world.

Which is all to say, attempting to “remake” Woo’s masterpiece may well be a fool’s errand. It is however one which has been frequently attempted, not least by Wong Jing in 1994 and Song Hae-sung in Korea in 2010. Korean cinema has perhaps become the heir of heroic bloodshed with its inherent love of melodrama which often finds its way into the nation’s bloody gangster epics whose generally high level of homosocial bonding is perfectly primed for male honour drama. Ding Sheng, apparently a huge fan of the original Hong Kong hit, brings the tale north to the Mainland, relocating to Qingdao which serves as a trading post for the drug running route from Japan.

As in the original we have two biological brothers – Kai (Wang Kai), a “sailor” who has fallen into smuggling to support his family who are unaware of his criminal occupation, and Chao (Ma Tianyu) – a rookie policeman. Meanwhile, Kai also has a criminal “brother” in his younger partner Mark (Wang Talu), an orphaned hothead from Taiwan. Kai is a “noble” smuggler who refuses to traffic drugs but a Hong Kong triad boss is hellbent on fishing out his Japanese contacts and after a job goes wrong, Kai ends up getting shot and arrested by his own brother who is heartbroken to discover the truth. Spending three years in prison during which time Kai’s father is killed in a raid on their home by gangsters looking for info on the Japanese, Kai tries to go straight but finds himself pulled back into the underworld after coming into conflict with villainous gangster Cang (Yu Ailei) who has taken over the Japan route (and forced Kai’s old girlfriend into prostitution after getting her hooked on drugs).

Ding’s film, while replicating the plot of Woo’s original, attempts to bring it into the “modern” era in which the stylised, manly melodrama of the ‘80s action movie has long since been replaced by a finer desire for “uncool” realism. Ding does not seem to be making a particular point about modern China, other than in persistent economic inequality which has forced an “honest” man like Kai into a life of crime for the otherwise honourable reason of taking care of his family. Though this itself maybe a subtle reference to the post-90s world, the major anxiety seems to be more with cross cultural interactions and possible pollution of “good” Chinese men like Kai who have been led astray by the false promises of, for example, gangsters from Hong Kong, and the old enemies in Japan. Interestingly enough, the relationships themselves are formalised and superficial. In Japan Kai and Mark are entertained in a “super Japanese” bar of the kind which only tourists frequent, decked to the ceilings with cherry blossoms and staffed with “geisha” girls, while in China they take their guests to a bar which has Peking Opera going on in the background as entertainment.

Kai is fond of telling his sworn brother that everything in the world may change, but brotherhood remains the same. This turns turn out to be an ironic comment in that his natural brother, Chao, disowns him in shame and loathing after his release from prison. Nevertheless, Kai never gives up striving for Chao’s approval even whilst reuniting with Mark who has been crippled and reduced to cleaning boats at the harbour after trying to exact revenge for Kai’s betrayal. The trio’s manly honour code is thrown into stark relief by the amoral Cang who, claiming that “the world has changed” and loyalty no longer means anything, thinks nothing of shooting anyone and everyone who stands between himself and financial gain. If Ding has a comment to make, it’s that the traditional ideas of brotherhood, loyalty, justice and goodness are being eroded by the lure of foreign gold promised by corruption, exploitation, and an absence of morality.

Ding isn’t trying to match Woo’s grand sweep of tragic inevitability so much as aiming for straightforward crime drama but his occasional concessions to melodrama never quite gel with his otherwise gritty approach, nor do his unsubtle his homages to the original film which find Leslie Cheung’s iconic theme song becoming a frequent musical motif as well as prominently featuring at an ultra cool hipster bar located in a disused boat which plays his record on a turntable with a large picture of a grinning Chow Yun-fat behind it. A Better Tomorrow 2018 succeeds as a passible action drama, but one without the heart and soul that made Woo’s original so special. 


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)