I recently had the chance to check out the restored Capitol Theatre in the heart of Singapore’s civic district. It’s a beautiful space, with statues of winged horses adorning the walls, and a tapestry of the twelve symbols of the Zodiac on the domed ceiling. It does suffer from a few curious failures of design, though – you can’t actually see the bottom third of the screen if you’re sitting in the first row of the balcony – which is doubly egregious when watching a show like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (or 英雄本色 in Mandarin), where subtitles are de rigeur for anyone not well-acquainted with Hong Kong’s strangely verbose style of Cantonese.
A Better Tomorrow was the feature I was here at the Capitol to see, an Asian cinematic classic carefully restored by the Asian Film Archive. It’s a 1980s film by John Woo and was the progenitor of what is known as the “heroic bloodshed” sub-genre of Hong Kong action films, featuring copious exsanguination and superhuman feats of agility set in a morally bifurcated world of honor and ruthlessness. Don’t come looking for subtlety here – the entire film is an almost shonen-ish admixture of overacted dramatics and off-the-rails gunplay, its plot a thin hash of fraternal conflicts and triad threats in the milieu of 1980s Hong Kong.
It’s probably a little unfair to judge A Better Tomorrow with with the lens of our modern-day filmic sensibilities. True, the action might be over-the-top, floaty, and unrealistic, lacking the grounded physicality of the modern day blockbuster. The good guys may have unrealistically good aim and an inexhaustible supply of guns and bullets, and the bad guys might fall backwards before the blood squibs actually explode. The plot might be a litany of tropes and cliches. The acting might be hammy and unintentionally narmy (case in point: Leslie Cheung’s portrayal of Kit, whose teenage brooding and impotent and childish fits of pique were the source of much unintended snickering from yours truly). The English subtitles (hard-coded into the filmstock, I suspect) might be so error-prone as to be nonsensical half the time. And the English title of the movie might not have anything to do whatsoever with the contents or themes of the film.
But despite all that, it’s hard to fault the film for what it is – just an ambitious attempt to create something with pastiche and style, cheerfully free of the shackles of cinematic convention, to construct a new and relatable filmic language that probably gave the HK film industry a jolt of added vitality. A Better Tomorrow was a smash hit that started a genre, inspired countless imitators, and caused Chow Yun Fatt to become something of a superstar, with his portrayal of the smarmy, trenchcoat-strutting gangster Mark (that inspired an entire generation of boys to poor sartorial choices). A Better Tomorrow is just such a seminal film that despite the fact that I didn’t understand a quarter of it due to poor subtitling, I could understand and relate to what it was just by apprehending its visual language – it is the ur-film for a bevy of Hong Kong movies from Infernal Affairs to Shinjuku Incident.
Looking at it with modern eyes, I might find it awfully cringey and unintentionally funny at parts that were meant to be dramatic. But that is hardly its fault – without it, the trope-socialisation that leads me to have these reactions would likely not have had the chance to take root in the first place.
I give this film: 3 out of 5 Uzis