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)

The Brink (狂獸, Jonathan Li, 2017)

the brink posterDesire makes beasts of us all. Longtime assistant director Jonathan Li makes his feature debut with a waterborne pulp noir which takes on more than a hint of gloomy sea shanty in its musings on sailors, their eternal brotherhoods, and ocean owned souls. The Brink (狂獸) mixes metaphysical drama with the more usual procedural tropes as a wounded, maverick cop chases his prey through hell and high water, refusing to acknowledge that his own “recklessness” is the single cause of the chaos he currently finds himself embroiled in.

The exhilarating opening sequence tracks around a ruined building before finding ruthless cop Sai Gau (Zhang Jin) engaged in a brutal fight with a suspect who later lands right on his police car after careering out of a top floor window. In addition to the death of the suspect, Sai Gau’s recklessness also causes the death of a fellow officer and sees him suspended from the police force after being charged with possible manslaughter. Six months later he’s absolved of guilt, released, and reinstated but clearly not forgiven by his colleagues and superiors who continue to regard him as a liability.

Hair dyed blond, Sai Gau sets about investigating a notorious gold smuggling operation operating under the cover of the local fishing trade. Meanwhile, smuggling underling Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue) has learned he’s about to be sidelined by his adopted father figure in favour of a feckless biological son and suspects his boss is about to have him offed. Gui Cheng preempts the situation by taking out the son’s guys and replacing them with his own before turning his would-be-assassin’s knife (or more accurately harpoon gun) back on him only for Sai Gau to arrive and ruin everything, unwittingly kicking off a series of unfortunate events for all concerned.

Li sets up Sai Gau and Gui Cheng as inverted mirrors of each other – hence Sai Gau’s ridiculous blond hair which sets him apart from the darkness of the long haired Gui Cheng. Where Sai Gau is all impulsive, instinctual action, Gui Cheng is calm and distance personified. Gui Cheng rarely speaks and when he does he’s concise and to the point, whereas Sai Gau, while not especially loquacious, is a classic wisecracker who speaks without thinking and is unafraid of the consequences of his words. Yet both men are also playing against themselves – Sai Gau has adopted the teenage daughter of the man he killed but refuses to allow himself to care for her, whereas the otherwise heartless Gui Cheng seems to have an intense yet platonic relationship with his female sidekick.

Twin betrayals set Sai Gau and Gui Cheng on an inevitable collision course leading towards a tussle over the gold which becomes more symbol than pure financial gain. Gui Cheng, once so calm and calculating, becomes fixated on harvesting what’s his, turning the buried treasure into his personal white whale while for Sai Gau it becomes the symbol of a long buried evil, a cursed charm designed to lure men to their doom by sending them into the centre of a storm it knows they cannot survive. Gui Cheng believes himself blessed by the goddess of the sea and that the gold is his for the taking, but it is ultimately the sea which claims him as he attempts to defy the elements to stake his claim on the cursed treasure which it has already swallowed. Sai Gau claims no particular spiritual affiliation but the gold, and its corrupting influence, reawakens his sense of morality as he becomes as convinced that the gold is evil as Gui Cheng is that it is his salvation.

The gold turns men into the “wild beasts” of the Chinese title though the English one seems to place them on the “brink” of losing themselves at any given time. Highly stylised, Li’s Hong Kong is one of neon lit darkness in which it is always raining and the air hangs heavy with despair and impossibility. The action scenes are impressively choreographed sequences of balletic beauty captured with Li’s gift for unusual composition and an urgent energy which acts as a harbinger for the coming storm. Pure pulp noir, The Brink has an almost Lynchian sense of lurking darkness creeping in from another, more mythical world the kind of which sailors sing about in their shanties and only talk about by candlelight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼, Wilson Yip, 2017)

paradox posterLouis Koo, possibly the hardest working actor in Hong Kong, has played his fair share of heroic (and not so heroic) cops but you’d be hard pushed to describe him as an action star. Proving nothing if not his dedication, Koo gives it his all as the lead in Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼), the latest in the SPL franchise directed by Ip Man’s Wilson Yip. Yip also directed the first in the series but stepped away for the second, though there is no narrative continuity with any of the films and, confusingly enough, the SPL tag seems to have been dropped from the international title altogether. In any case, what Paradox shares with instalments one and two is a series of intensely kinetic action scenes built around a storm of three incompatible personality types coupled with a quest narrative as Koo searches for clues in the disappearance of his 16 year old daughter.

Yip begins the film inside the memories of Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) as he remembers the golden time when his daughter was young and worshipped her dad, crawling into his bed in the morning with a video camera ready for a whole day of birthday fun. Lee buys a cute a silver bracelet with a teddy bear charm but it’s the 16 year old Wing-Chi (Hanna Chan) he gives it to. Lee and his daughter are in a restaurant, not at home, and the air between them is tense. A boy turns up and Wing-Chi introduces him as her boyfriend but if Lee is annoyed things are about to get worse. The pair want to get married because Wing-Chi wants “to keep the baby”. Lee barely reacts save for abruptly stepping away from the table. When he returns he seems as if he’s composed himself, but in reality he has already made a catastrophic error of judgement which will force his daughter away from him.

Wing-Chi goes to Thailand to visit a friend and disappears. Lee goes to look for her, breaking out his best investigator skills and teaming up with local cop Chui Kit (Wu Yue) who is soon to be a father himself, but what he finds there leads him onto a dark path of paternal guilt, regret, and suffering whilst wading through the corruption and cruelty of the Thai underworld.

Though the narrative is, in a sense, unimportant, Yip homes in on the nature of fatherhood and the sometimes difficult or conflicted position a father finds himself in when trying to protect his child. Lee may think he’s “doing the right thing” when he clamps down on his teenage daughter’s plans to start a family of her own way ahead of schedule, but then again perhaps this was not his decision to make and ruining three lives to suit himself is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love. It is his own actions which send his daughter into the path of danger, and then later decide her fate on a split second decision.

Later, Kit’s father-in-law (Vithaya Pansringarm) faces a similar dilemma when he’s threatened by government big wigs and fears his own daughter (and unborn grandchild) may be in danger if he does not play along. Lee’s quest to find Wing-Chi runs in parallel with that of the local mayor to win re-election, only the mayor has a bad heart which causes him to collapse before an important rally. Shady fixer Cheng (Gordon Lam) decides the mayor needs a heart transplant (seemingly unaware of the complexity of the operation and the time needed for recovery) which all links back to a dodgy American ex-pat (Chris Collins) who operates a large scale meat factory as a front for illegal organ trafficking.

The stories of Kit and Lee are linked by the curious use of the classic Chinese pop song The Moon Represents My Heart made famous by Teresa Teng. The song with its constant references to the “heart” which is also visually represented by the cheerful cards around the mayor’s bed perhaps over does things in the metaphor stakes but does its best to tug at the heartstrings in its insistence on a fathomless love in this case of fathers for their children. Koo’s rage only intensifies the more desperate he becomes as his quest hits continual dead ends punctuated by the discovery of various unpleasant characters lurking not just in the backstreets but in the police stations and political institutions of Pattaya.

The action scenes are visceral and kinetic though Koo makes the most impact when acting with stone cold efficiency, leaving the most memorable sequences to rising star Wu and Tony Jaa whose extremely brief appearance as a psychic / extremely buddhist cop may disappoint those deceived by his top billing into expecting his role to be more than a cameo. Nevertheless, Paradox delivers what it promised in Koo’s unexpected metamorphosis into an ultra cool action star whilst sending his moody cop on a dark journey of the soul as he confronts the depths of his own complicity in the corruption which is consuming him.


Screened as the opening film of Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Co-stars Louis Koo and Wu Yue recorded a new version of The Moon Represents My Heart especially for the film

Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart

Cold War 2 (寒戰II, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)

coldwar 2Cold War 2 (寒戰II) arrives a whole four years after the original Cold War rocked Hong Kong with police corruption scandals and fantastically convoluted internal plotting. Heroic policeman Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) may have won the day, even if he ultimately had to compromise himself to do it, but the police van is still missing and MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fei) is still lurking in the background. As is his son, Joe (Eddie Peng) – languishing in prison but apparently still with the resources to cause trouble whilst behind bars.

Joe Lee has Lau’s wife kidnapped, forcing Lau to compromise himself by giving in to his demands all of which culminates in an intense subway set piece in which Lau inadvertently ends up handcuffed to an exploding smoke bomb while Joe Lee escapes. Embarrassing is not the word. Lau now looks bad, and old rivals have their eyes on the police chief’s chair. An enquiry is currently underway into goings on at police HQ lead by top lawyer Oswald Kan (Chow Yun-fat) but his impartiality is severely damaged when one of his own is caught in the crossfire whilst investigating Joe Lee’s nefarious activities.

Like the first film, Cold War 2 is an intense interpersonal thriller though this time the enemies are even closer as the old boys network becomes the means by which commissioners are unseated and installed. Service records are everything – Lau is unpopular with his colleagues because he started out at ICAC and has never served as a rank and file policemen. From one point of view, this makes him an ideal candidate because he has no personal ties to the body of serving officers but his rivals despise him for this very reason. He isn’t one of them, does not have first hand understanding of front line policing, and most importantly is not a part of their interconnected layers of military style brother-in-arms loyalties.

Lau’s predictable miscalculation regarding Joe Lee creates an opportunity to get rid of him and take back the force. “Save the police” is a message which is repeated over and over as the plotters attempt to win others over to their cause, insisting that Lau has lost the media battle for the hearts and minds of a public now trained to be afraid of their police force. Lau is the continuity candidate – mistakes have been made, but his stately manner and apparently steady hands may yet win the day. Those same hands are getting dirtier by the second, but they’ve been brushing the morally grey, not (yet, at least) immersed in the red of innocent blood like those of the corrupt top brass at police HQ.

If the plotting is intricate and filled with double crosses and betrayals, directors Luk and Leung have ensured a steady stream of explosive action sequences to accompany the ongoing cerebral games. Cold War also had its share of action packed spectacular set pieces but Cold War 2 may surpass them with the surprise factor alone including one shocking multi-car pileup inside a tunnel in which cars, buses and bikes go flying before an all out fire fight ensues. Lau’s constant gazing at the “Asia’s Safest City” signs which adorn police headquarters (right next to the metal detectors you need to pass through to get in) has never looked so melancholic and drenched in irony.

It’s a battle for the soul of the police service, but it’s being fought as a dirty war. Lau is the decent and honest man forced to behave in a slightly less honest and decent way, even if for the best of reasons. His rivals are running on pure ambition and pettiness. Despite their claims they do not have the interests of the people of Hong Kong as their foremost concern. The corruption stems far further back than anyone might have previously guessed and is more or less coded into the system. The police van and equipment are still missing and the central plotters are still in place. This is a partial victory at best but then what kind of action fest wouldn’t leave a door open for a sequel. The cold war maybe about to turn hot, but you can rely on the steely eyed Police Commissioner Sean Lau to be there, ready and waiting, when the first shots are fired.


Original trailer (English Subtitles)