A Better Tomorrow II comes to Hong Kong Blu-ray via Kam & Ronson with a 1080p resolution, encoded using the
AVCcodec and framed within a theatrically correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The disc is locked to Region A.
Much like the Blu-ray for the original from the same distributors, A Better Tomorrow II displays little that would indicate a transfer from a higher definition source. It’s soft, with the early example of the credits themselves being a good indication of the level viewers are to expect. What was sharp has been further faded by
DNRthat has reduced the grain structure from strong to smoothed but not decimated. Generally things are delineated in a hazy fashion that one would not associate with a 1080p resolution; the few pretty sharp shots that break up this mediocrity shine only in a relative manner. Close-up, with a steady camera, well focussed and in good light it may seem of Blu quality, but they flatter to deceive thanks to the comparative quality they display, your eyes will likely have become accustomed to the soft nature of proceedings by the time one of them pops up and when weighed against such ill-defined scenarios they are a respite, not a true sign of proficiency.
Shirts and collars meld into amorphous lumps defined less by edges as they are by the difference in colour of the two. The fine detail in suits is also lacking, be it a plain weave or a gaudy pinstripe, it comes out the other side of this transfer weakly. A few shots hint at texture and depth that does appear greater than previous DVDs, but they are infrequent, low in number and the improvement is marginally incremental in terms of buying a favourite film on an entirely new format.
Colours are a bit better handled than the first, the reds don’t blind in their artificiality and things are kept on a fairly even keel. Beyond a few flush faces, which have always popped up on releases, there isn’t much to grumble about in that regard.
Fans will see it’s better than the original’s visuals on HK Blu-ray, but even so it doesn’t represent a proper step up in quality.
Audio is handled by two tracks: Cantonese DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital EX 5.1. I focussed on the lossless option.
As with the original, the deficiencies of this track hit you quickly. The level imbalance which places far too much emphasis on the surrounds is one of the most striking, and frankly annoying. Joseph Koo’s score for the second is exceptional work and should, by rights, have been allowed to simply flow from the fronts. Having it flick the back of your ears as it emanates from behind in volume that is unnecessary is just poor form.
The fronts are pretty robust in terms of volume as well, but a tweak of the dial to the left will leave the speech piping out of the centre channel all too soft. Dialogue is probably superior to that found on the first film’s Blu, being that there are fewer instances of muffled voices, but they are still too subdued and lack integration on the front soundstage.
The film bounces between front-heavy to the surrounds impinging on the listening experience; neither is welcome but the former at least offers a more natural experience. Sadly the fronts struggle with Koo’s score, the high frequencies all too often border on the shrill – piercing eardrums – and clipping is apparent. Any hope the mix would bring out the subtlety of the score is swept away when the action kicks in as directional effects are haphazard. Guns that positively “crack” like cheap bangers bought surreptitiously on a school day-trip to France can morph into virtual semi-auto mortar fire in decibels.
Some simple effects work fine – a ship’s horn, the occasional ominous drum beat – but the attempts to move from front to back soundstages is never cohesive in its execution. This isn’t helped by an LFE channel that is employed seemingly on the roll of a die rather than when it is needed. When a 9mm round can shake a room more than an entire building being blown up then something is seriously wrong.
Some moments of the score are vaguely perfunctory, and dialogue can be reasonable, but that is about as good as it gets.
Trailer 1 – 1080p – 5:59
More a mini catch-up as well as a trailer, this appears (no English subtitles) to outline the relationships of the characters to one another, Mark and Ken (that one needed a bit of explaining) as well as Kit and Ho. There are a few shots/scenes not in the completed film which should be of interest. One seems to explain the injuries Kit has on his face prior to the night-time showdown with Ho and Ko (essentially a mirroring of the beating Mark received in the first film), and the other depicts Ken and Lung playing with a budgie during the latter’s rehabilitation from insanity, alongside a few different stuntmen deaths.
Trailer 2 – SD – 1:33
Lots of clips of shooting set to some new (inferior) music.
Code of Bullets – SD – 8:47
The lack of English subs will likely render this meaningless, as beyond the titles and fancy diagrams there’s not much information that can be gleaned. Still, more featurettes should have segments entitled “Hide! Explosion!” and the like.
A Better Tomorrow II is a raucous ride of bullets and brotherhood. It can’t hold a candle to the original’s outsider ethos of gangsters and power, mainly distilled through the character of Mark, but even without his presence the switches made by Woo and Hark shift attention enough to allow a more straightforward story to breathe without the burden of the inevitable comparison weighing it down. Bringing Chow Yun Fat back as a long-lost twin is hackneyed and vaguely condescending, but who cares if it allows the fans to get their leading man back firing twin Berettas at an army of identikit bad guys?
The Region A locked disc is poor, with visuals that offer a step-up from
DVDthat could be debated, and if it falls into that grey area then it can’t be truly recommended. The audio is a mish-mash of level imbalances, forced directionality and mismatched effects, all of which do Joseph Koo’s score a great disservice. Extras are brief and, barring a couple of deleted shots glimpsed in Trailer 1, are not for non-Chinese speakers.
As a film, it’s not a patch on the first, but as a spectacle it trumps it. If only this disc was similarly capable……
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