Prequels - the stickiest of ground for any director to tackle. Film fans never learn, and the lemmings continue to throw themselves off the precipitous cliff edge of high expectations, yearning to get a glimpse of how their favourite fictional characters came to be as they are. However, retrospective storytelling rarely, if ever, works. Think of a good prequel – go on. You probably can’t, not because your knowledge of cinema is lacking, but because they are such a hard nut to crack; rely too heavily on presenting a developmental backstory and the narrative usually falls flat because of the need to use dramatic progression of character as a fulcrum to prop up younger actors unable to replicate the chemistry of the original vision (are you listening Mr Lucas?). The only other option is to present a story that follows the same blueprint but merely contains a different date/setting (Temple of Doom), which, let’s be honest, isn’t really a prequel in anything other than basic chronology.
A Better Tomorrow
Thankfully the chosen road to prequeldom was that of returning actors depicting their younger selves rather than the hit-and-miss affair of finding youthful actors with similar traits or features. It may require a leap of faith in most cases, but this method of keeping a continuous thread, as shown in movies with long timelines, often aids the viewer’s attachment to the protagonist – nobody thought Ray Liotta ever looked like a 21 year old in Goodfellas, but you let it go and move on, and the transition through the years proves easier to handle. As such, Chow Yun Fat returns to reprise the role of Mark, last seen being used as target practice for a dastardly crime lord’s army of henchmen, and in the process committing to celluloid arguably the greatest screen death in Hong Kong crime cinema history.
Set in Saigon (as well as Hong Kong later in the film) in 1974, the war in Vietnam is about to hit the capital and many are fleeing the country. Mark however is heading into the eye of the storm, as he aims to meet up with his cousin who wants to leave along with his father. It’s a nice narrative set-up, it sidesteps the thorny issue of Mark’s close relatives (such as his twin Ken from the second film), but gives him something tangible to lose, an instant bond and a partner in crime that hopefully can emulate the chemistry Chow has with many co-stars that punctuates his greatest hits. Opposite him, as his cousin Mun is Tony Leung Ka Fai (aka “Big Tony”, not to be confused with the Lust, Caution star), a bespectacled, slightly gangly individual who, at first glance, doesn’t appear to be filling the shoes Ti Lung vacates as co-lead, however this is a calculated move as the story requires a pair who are at once naïve but also capable of some transformation when the chips are down, and Big Tony has just the right profile for such a job, capable of looking a touch on the gawky side as well as being a bit brooding.
This is a prequel that sticks to the “how did they become….” formula, and thus Mark is far from a suave killing machine, when he touches down in Saigon a small sequence highlighting his childish playfulness, in keeping with the opening sequence of A Better Tomorrow, where he swallows a cigarette works as a nice introduction. In the wake of Chow’s ability to shoot all and sundry and look effortlessly cool whilst doing it, in walks Kit (Chow Ying Kit that is, not to be confused with Ho’s brother from the first two films) played by Anita Mui. Her introduction is mingled with that of Mark’s, as she wanders through the airport; shades on, bright red lipstick, nonchalant attitude, every inch the femme fatale in demeanour and style. She drops her lipstick, which Mark duly picks up, and with that the thread of fate has begun to be sewn into Hark’s own version of the iconic character’s tale.
This being as A Better Tomorrow story, there has to be some criminality, and as usual there’s not much detail. Previously it was forgery, and now it’s similarly simplistic black market activity, the hows and wherefores of crime aren’t, and never were, the draw of these films, they act as little more than a backdrop to allow the themes of brotherhood, betrayal and tragedy to take hold. Mun’s father needs a passport, an alliance is made with Kit, herself a dab hand in the rackets, and the trio dive headfirst into the murky waters of nefarious business activities in a country about to be torn asunder by fighting. Hark likes to set the scene, and the scale of
The tragedy infused is thus twofold, the backdrop of Vietnam gives us our primary catalyst for the pathos-infused jazz-lite score to play, but that bobs back and forth into and out of the picture at key points in the story arc. Hark makes doubly sure there’s a melancholic narrative of fate and lost innocence as he establishes a love triangle between the three leads; Mark falls for Kit, she reciprocates, but Mark cedes ground to his cousin who is also infatuated with the stylish black marketeer. Once you get past the hackneyed set-up of the evolution of feelings they have for one another, which is hardly organic but rather relies on painfully simplistic montages (all laughing with arms interlocked and heads thrown back with gay abandon in the sunshine) the web of emotions and split loyalties stand up quite well. This is primarily down to the performances of Chow and Mui, the latter being the perfect foil for the macho culture endemic in the first two films. Once a figure from her past comes on the scene the circle is almost complete, you know not everyone will live, there’ll be confusion, assumed betrayal, genuine betrayal and hopefully lots of shooting.
Which brings us to the action, and a rather big stick with which to beat A Better Tomorrow
When all the elements are combined, A Better Tomorrow
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.