Film / A Better Tomorrow

A Better Tomorrow (also known as Ying Hung Boon Sik, or "True Colors of a Hero" in Cantonese) is a 1986 action film by John Woo and produced by Tsui Hark. The story follows two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Ti Lung plays Sung Tse Ho, a respected member of a triad whose principal operation is printing and distributing counterfeit US banknotes. Mark Gor, played by Chow Yun-fat in his breakout role, is Ho's partner in crime. Leslie Cheung plays Sung Tse Kit, Ho's brother who has joined the HKPD. Ho cares deeply for Kit and encourages his career choice, but keeps his criminal life secret from him. When a job in Taiwan goes to hell, Ho is arrested while his accomplice, a new guy by the name of Shing (played by Waise Lee) gets away. Mark, as Ho's sworn brother, is mad as hell about this, and in one of John Woo's most iconic action sequences, he takes revenge on Ho's betrayers with both guns blazing, but near the end of the shootout, one of his kneecaps is blown out.

While Ho is in prison, Shing rises in the triad ranks and takes command of the organization. Ho's father is killed by an assassin sent by Shing, and as he dies, he begs Kit to forgive his brother. Anguished and pissed off, Kit holds his brother responsible for their father's death. When Ho comes out of prison, he wants to leave the criminal life behind and finds work as a cabbie, where he comes across Mark again. Mark has been reduced to being a crippled errand boy for Shing, and wants Ho to help him get revenge, but Ho refuses. Shing then makes his offer for Ho to come back to the triad, this time without Mark. Ho refuses again, and when Mark tries to fight Shing on his own, he gets the living shit beaten out of him and is almost killed.

Meanwhile, Kit is becoming increasingly obsessed with Shing, who ordered the hit on their father. He learns of Shing's major deal, but it's a death trap that Shing has laid in retaliation for Ho's refusal. Ho finds out about this and tries to warn him, but Kit won't believe him — he's still mad at his brother and he wants to kill Shing more than anything. In the movie's final act, Ho and Mark steal the evidence tapes from the counterfeiting business and capture Shing, planning to ransom him in exchange for money and an escape boat at a pier, and Ho gives the tapes to Kit's girlfriend, who gives it to the police. Kit is captured by Shing's men at the pier, and when the converging forces meet, an explosive final shootout ensues, setting the stage for final revenge and reconciliation.

This film put John Woo on the map, provided a springboard for Chow Yun-Fat's career as a badass action star, and kick-started the Heroic Bloodshed genre, along with codifying most of the tropes associated with it. It led to the establishment of Hong Kong's film rating system because of the film's violence, which earned it the industry's first "Category IIb" rating (equivalent to the R rating in the US).

It would also spawn two sequels: A Better Tomorrow II (1987), which would see Chow Yun-Fat's return as Ken, the twin brother of Mark Gor, and A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989), a prequel directed by Tsui Hark and set in Vietnam War-era Saigon in which Chow Yun-Fat reprises his role as Mark Gor.

These films provide examples of:

  • Badass Longcoat: Mark. So much that it led to a period where a lot of young people wore longcoats much like Mark (in fact, the Badass Longcoat is still known in Hong Kong as "Brother Mark's Coat").
  • Badass in a Nice Suit
  • Breakout Character: Mark Gor. Modern viewers can be puzzled that he's not actually the main protagonist of the first film, but Chow Yun-Fat's charismatic performance led to him becoming the most popular character and the later two films would have him in a leading role.
  • Big Bad: Shing
  • Blood Brothers: Mark and Ho.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: When Mark turns the boat around.
  • Cool Shades: Mark's Alain Delon aviator shades. Alain Delon himself sent Chow Yun-Fat a personal thank you note after the film's release, as the film helped drive sales of the sunglasses in Hong Kong.
  • Cute Clumsy Girl: Jackie's introduction.
  • Denser and Wackier: The second film has considerably more humor and self-referential elements than the first. John Woo and producer Tsui Hark clashed over this, with Woo wanting the film to be closer in tone to the first. The resulting fallout between them led to Woo disowning the second film (aside from the final gunbattle) while Tsui Hark would direct the third film himself.
  • Expy: Mark Gor is based on a character (the "wandering knight") from a previous John Woo movie, Last Hurrah For Chivalry.
  • Good Smoking, Evil Smoking
  • Guns Akimbo: The Trope Codifier for its usage in action and crime films.
  • Handicapped Badass: Mark continues to kick ass even with a blown out knee cap.
  • Headphones Equal Isolation: Jackie during the attempted kidnapping of Kit's father.
  • Heroic Bloodshed: Trope Maker and Codifier in Hong Kong.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Mark.
  • Man in White: The white suit is used as a status symbol in the triad, and Shing wears a white longcoat in the final showdown.
  • Money to Burn: One of the classic shots of this movie comes in the beginning, where Mark Gor does this with a counterfeit bill.
  • Neighborhood Friendly Gangsters: Ho's counterfeiters certainly qualify.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Delivered to Mark at the hands of Shing and his men. Kit also gives one to Ho at their first reunion.
  • Oh, Crap!: Shing when he sees Ho has another gun.
  • One Last Job: Ho decides to get out of the game once he finds out that Kit's joining the police. He promptly gets arrested.
  • Papa Wolf: Kit and Ho's father.
  • Pin-Pulling Teeth: Happens all the damned time in the final mansion shootout in A Better Tomorrow II.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Quite a few, although the amount of blood varies according to the Rule of Drama.
  • Prisoner Exchange: One of these sets off the final shootout of the first movie.
  • Re-Cut: A Better Tomorrow II was severely cut from 160 minutes to 104. The Taiwanese version of A Better Tomorrow III runs 145 minutes long, which is the complete uncut version. The Hong Kong version runs only 114 minutes long despite saying 130 minutes on the cover.
  • Refrain from Assuming: The theme song's title is Love in Those Years by the film's co-star, Leslie Cheung.
  • The Remake:
    • Believe it or not, this movie is actually a remake of an old 1967 Cantonese film called Ying Xiong Ben Se (Story of a Discharged Prisoner). Tsui Hark had been toying with the idea since his days in the TV business, but because of an overwhelming workload, he had to pass the directorial reins to John Woo.
    • A 2010 remake of A Better Tomorrow was made in South Korea.
  • Revenge: As the movie progresses, Kit becomes increasingly obsessed with revenge against Shing, who had his father killed.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Mark embarks on a particularly badass one to avenge the betrayal that got Ho arrested and sent to prison.
  • Sacrificial Lion: Mark is blown away by Shing near the end of the movie.
  • Screaming Warrior: Ho when Shing's goons start trashing the taxi company.
  • Stab the Scorpion: At the beginning of the final shootout, Ho tosses a gun to Kit, who immediately points it at him—and then shoots a man sneaking up behind.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Kit dies in the second film.
  • The Triads and the Tongs: The Trope Codifier for many gangster movies to come in Hong Kong.
  • You Killed My Father: Kit's reason for revenge. Ultimately, it's Ho who ends up pulling the trigger on Shing.