Remake – there’s no phrase more likely to stir the cauldron of holier-than-thou condescension of cinephiles the world over, mention anything vaguely positive about Van Sant’s Psycho or even the Coen brothers’ The Ladykillers (not a truly terrible update) and to some you may as well be listing Battlefield Earth as your favourite sci-fi. No greater scorn is reserved than that which is poured upon the remake of foreign fare, even reasonable offerings, like Scorsese’s take on Infernal Affairs, The Departed, are scoffed at by those who championed the originals from the get-go. So when news started filtering through that a new version of John Woo’s seminal bullet ballet A Better Tomorrow was mooted, it would be reasonable to jump to the conclusion that America was once again plundering the back catalogues of world hits for a quick buck. The twist was that this remake was to be in a new language, but that tongue would be Korean. An Asian film being remade by another Asian market – interesting.
Song Hae-sung’s A Better Tomorrow (Mugeogja) is a suitably slick update that takes the core of the original and amalgamates the story to cater for a more Korean-inspired tale of brotherhood. Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-mo) is the new version of the Ho character as played in Woo’s iteration by Ti Lung. He is a successful gangster whose partnership with Lee Young-chun (the Mark-gor role that made Chow Yun Fat an icon for a generation and propelled sales of trench coats in Hong Kong higher than the International Commerce Centre) has made the pair a force to be reckoned with. Early shots are reminiscent of the original, Hong Konghas been switched to Busan but the general tone of a couple of street smart stylish gangsters on top of their game and with the world at their feet, is replicated well.
Characterisation is similar, with Young-chun being the younger, flashier of the duo, eager to milk the game for all he can get, living the highlife with expensive clothes and gaining respect for rash acts of bravado. Song Seung-heon doesn’t bring the same level of gravitas to the role as Chow Yun Fat but that was hardly a grand surprise as few could fill the boots, or coat, of the man who immortalised the role that helped kick start an entire genre. Young-chun is as nonchalantly cocky as his predecessor but the general style of his dress sense has led to some fans of the original taking a bit of a dislike to him. Mark-gor clearly loved himself and was a bit of a dandy with his smartly tailored suits and shades, but his modern Korean counterpart is now more try-hard than triad. His floppy hair is fine as an update but the coat is pure Essex-boyband member tackiness.
Luckily Hyuk, as played by Joo Jin-mo, fits into the Ho role well, he may be a few years younger (not many though, Ti Lung always looked a bit on the older side) but he carries a world-weariness that keeps the pairing on solid ground. The final part of the gangster scene to be replicated in terms of characters is Chung Tae-min (Shin in the original), an underling of the duo whose ambition will play a pivotal role in their downfall. In some ways he’s now a more key part of the proceedings being that he has ample screen time and more notice is taken of his want to succeed as a criminal bigwig. The truth though is that Tae-min is more filler, his early signs of a Machiavellian side rob the viewer slightly of the surprise at his rise to power as was seen in the original. You could argue that in many ways the part was always a necessary but somewhat extraneous device needed to highlight the central themes of brotherly bonds – the adversity that must be triumphed against and through the process of which a moral is learned. The problem is that the character of Kit from the original shows the largest departure, and it is one that skews the need for such a figure to a fair degree.
In Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Kit, the younger brother of Ho was an aspiring cop, their two paths being at either end of the legal spectrum, along with the death of their father, lead to their divide. In the Korean update Kit has become Chul, the younger brother Hyuk left behind as their family was fleeing across the border to South Korea. Song Hae-sung ekes out this drama with some early scenes of Hyuk searching for his long lost sibling in dingy hideouts along various borders, it is now centralised as the drive of the character, and once his brother is found he intends to quit the life he is in. The end result is the same as the original though a younger brother despising his kin, an elder sibling attempting to make amends and a friend who cannot be abandoned – like Woo, Song keeps a man torn between loyalties and in an emotional limbo as the meat of the story. The reasons have changed slightly, and the melodrama of a family ripped apart by the Korean conflict may not resonate as soundly with international audiences, but the results are the same.
Let’s not pretend that the original became a stand-out hit for its heartfelt maturity though, most who proclaim themselves fans of the film have long forgotten the plot, but not the action. Woo’s lethal squib-fest was frenetic and bloody in all the right places; the ethos being why shoot a man once when you can shoot him a dozen times. The slow motion eked out even the smallest elements of the fire-fights into a flurry of gurning bodies popping with spurts of claret and crumpling to the floor. The update, to its credit, has done an excellent job of evoking the sentiments raised by the original without resorting to a shot-for-shot copy or directly superimposing the techniques used so well by Woo. Young-chun’s walk down the corridor prior to tackling those who double crossed Hyuk is similarly relaxed in a jarring manner to the violence that will soon unfold but there are no guns deposited in plant pots. The action is raucous, loud and bloody but the style is more straightforward and favours slow shots a lot less. The theft sequence involving Young-chun also feels a bit truncated, it lacks an edge which isn’t helped by the fact that Hae-sung fails to linger on the beating given out to the now hobbled gangster. The epitome of all the minor, and not so minor, changes is the ending itself; Woo paced the film to hit the crescendo at the times of violence whilst the Korean remake seems to cater its pacing towards the issues of abandonment and the aftermath of the North/South divide.
It may not have a standout iconic character or Woo’s magic touch waved upon the action sequences, but A Better Tomorrow has enough familiar material, such as the reminiscent piano strains of the score, to keep fans of the original entertained, only slightly marred by a less than satisfying ending. If you’ve never seen the 1986 heroic bloodshed epic, then this will no doubt be viewed as a very competent and slick Korean crime thriller.