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Film / A Better Tomorrow

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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. In 2010 Woo was executive producer for a Korean-language remake directed by Song Hae-sung, and in 2018 the film was remade again in mainland China, this time by Ding Sheng.

Despite its name, the 1994 film Return to a Better Tomorrow is not a sequel, but a homage to the series.

These films provide examples of:

  • Action Girl: Kit from the third movie, a gunrunner and hitwoman who takes on entire armies using Guns Akimbo. Her relationship with a younger Mark notably inspires Mark to become the badass audiences knows in the original movie.
  • Almost Lethal Weapons: Codified by the second film. In the final scene, approximately 80 mooks are killed with every weapon imaginable. The heroes also suffer injuries, but appear to suffer no ill effects. At the end, they calmly sit in their blood-soaked clothes and wait for the cops to arrive, though the implication is that none of them are long for the world.
  • Atomic F-Bomb: In the second movie, right before the hotel shootout, Ken cocks his shotgun and lets out a huge FUUUUUCCCCCCK YOOOOOOUUUU!! at an assassin that is sneaking through a window behind him, before blasting said assassin to death.
  • Backup Twin: Mark Lee is killed near the end of the first film, but thanks to Mark being insanely popular, Chow Yun-Fat returned as Mark's twin brother Ken in A Better Tomorrow II.
  • 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").
  • Battle Butler: In A Better Tomorrow II, Chong is given a pile of cash by his terrified employer, but completely ignores it, indicating that his only concern is finding a Worthy Opponent, which he ultimately finds in Ken Gor.
  • Big Applesauce: The second film has part of its storyline play out in New York City, where Ken is beset by an army of Italian mobsters trying to extort him.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Near the end of the second film, Kit's daughter is born...concurrently with Kit succumbing from a fatal gunshot wound.
  • Breakout Character: Mark Lee. 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.
  • The Cameo: Pierre Tremblay, the Canadian-born Hong Kong actor of Godfrey Ho infamy, pops up in the first film as an Interpol agent.
  • Cigar-Fuse Lighting: In the second film, Ken uses a cigarette to light a stick of dynamite to blow up part of the mansion during the climactic battle.
  • Conscience Makes You Go Back: Ho implores Mark to escape by himself in the boat in the climax. When the shooting starts, Mark turns the boat around and goes in guns blazing.
  • 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, and throughout Asia.
  • Cop/Criminal Family: Ho is a Triad and Kit is an officer in the Hong Kong police. Kit tries to stay away from the mob business and his brother (who he blames for their father's death) at first, but he becomes increasingly obsessed with taking down the new boss who killed his father. Eventually, Ho and Kit team up from opposite sides of the law to take down Shing, showing brotherly loyalty is stronger than anything else.
  • Counterfeit Cash: This is Mark and Ho's line of business.
  • Cute Clumsy Girl: Jackie's introduction.
  • David vs. Goliath: The climax of the third movie, where Bond, in a tank, battles Mark, on a motorcycle, one-on-one. Mark wins.
  • 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.
  • Diegetic Soundtrack Usage: In the scene where Kit rushes Jackie to her music recital, the violinist playing before her plays the theme song of the movie
  • Doomed by Canon: In A Better Tomorrow III, Mark has to survive and have no love interest, which is bad news for Chow Ying Kit, Anita Mui's character in that film.
  • The Dragon: One of the villains in the second film is a silent gunslinger with dark glasses who kills Kit, refuses to flee with money when he's given chance during the climax, and instead dies in a fair duel against Ken.
  • Dual Wielding:
    • In the first film's climax, Mark and Ho wield a sub-machine gun and a pistol (Mark uses a Mini-Uzi, while Ho uses a Heckler & Koch MP 5 A 3.
    • In the second film's climactic battle, Ken wields a shotgun and a mini-Uzi, while Ho and Lung wield a pistol and an Uzi each.
  • Exploding Fish Tanks: At the start of the second film's final shootout a grenade flung by Ho kills several mooks...and blows up a tank full of goldfish.
  • Expy: Mark is based on a character (the "wandering knight") from a previous John Woo movie, Last Hurrah For Chivalry.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: When Ho gets out of prison, he's shocked to find Mark working as a janitor. Ho himself working as a cabbie also counts; the owner of the taxi depot pretty much says that cabbies is the only job that ex-cons can still work in.
  • Food Slap: In the second movie a mafia brute threatening Ken for protection money turns down Ken's gracious offer of allowing them to eat for free... by flinging a plate of fried rice in Ken's face. Ken then retaliates by scooping up the rice and suddenly pulling out a gun, demanding for the brute to eat his rice at gunpoint.
    Ken: "For you, rice (is) nothing. But for us, rice is my father and mother. Don't FUCK with my family. You make me feel so sorry for my rice... if you have any dignity, APOLOGIZE TO THE RICE, RIGHT NOW!"
  • Foreshadowing: The iconic image of Mark burning a fake $100 bill also foreshadows his death, as Buddhists burn fake money during funerals, so that the dead will have money in the afterlife.
  • Girls with Guns: The third movie features Anita Mui's character, a gunslinger and lethal killing machine who inspires Chow Mark to become a triad hitman.
  • Gratuitous English: Half of the second film is set in New York City, and features some startling English dialogue.
  • Guns Akimbo:
    • Mark uses a pair of Berettas to blow away a restaurant full of bad guys to avenge the betrayal that got Ho sent to prison.
    • In the second film, Ken does this during the motel shoot-out and during the siege on the mansion.
    • Kit in the third movie (chronologically the first) kicks all kinds of ass using dual pistols.
  • Hand Cannon: Kit uses a Colt Python during the climax. He later gives it to Ho, who uses it to kill Shing.
  • 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.
  • Homage:
    • Mark's entrance to the restaurant was inspired by Johnny Boy entering the club in Mean Streets.
    • The motel shoot-out in the second film was inspired by both The Getaway and Taxi Driver.
  • I Am What I Am: Initially, Mark is convinced that gangsters like him can't really change their ways and run an honest life, and at one point even scolds about it to Ho, who is trying to do just that. But later on, Mark acknowledges the fact that only by taking their destinies straight in their hands, people can really call themselves free, and even ends up being killed while lecturing Ho's brother (who is a cop and quite the Inspector Javert of the situation) on the goodness of Ho's efforts.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bug: Done to a truly awful degree in A Better Tomorrow II. In order to bug a mob boss, Kit gives him a ship in a bottle. But instead of building the bug into the ship he attached the huge obvious thing to the outside. The kicker? He doesn't attach in it advance, but instead stands right outside the guy's office sticking it on.
  • Ironic Echo: In Ho and Kit's first scene, Kit playfully frisks him. In a later scene, Kit aggressively does it for real, showing just broken their relationship is.
  • It Always Rains at Funerals: Not quite a funeral, but it starts to rain when Kit and Jackie visit his father's grave.
  • Katanas Are Just Better: Ho slices through a horde of mooks with a katana in the climax of the second film.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Mark get his brains blown out by Shing's Uzi while he's in the middle of convincing Kit and Ho to reconcile with each other.
  • Knee-capping: Happens more than once in the trilogy.
    • In the first movie Mark gets shot in the knees at the end of the restaurant shootout, reducing him to a cripple for the rest of the movie.
    • In the second movie, after the rice scene Ken shoots one of the mafia goons in the knees to prevent him from shooting Bobby.
  • Man Hug: Ho and Mark do this when they're reunited.
  • Mexican Standoff: In the second film, Ken pulls a gun on a gangster out to extort his restaurant, then another gangster pulls a gun on him.
  • Midfight Weapon Exchange: During the climactic battle of A Better Tomorrow II, Ken Lee and Chong do this at the very end of their duel.
  • Money to Burn: One of the classic shots of this movie comes in the beginning, where Mark does this with a counterfeit bill.
  • 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.
  • Oral Fixation: Mark and Ken are frequently shown chewing on toothpicks in their respective films. Given they're both played by Chow Yun-Fat...Ken, especially in the sequel, deliberately pops a toothpick in his mouth right before he duels the Battle Butler.
  • Papa Wolf: Kit and Ho's father, especially his attempt on convincing Ho to quit his criminal career and saving Kit during an assassination attempt.
  • Pin-Pulling Teeth: Happens all the damned time in the final mansion shootout in A Better Tomorrow II.
  • Pineapple Surprise: In the third movie, Mark struggles a bit with an enemy soldier before getting knocked aside, but also managed to remove a pin on the grenade clipped on said soldier's belt. BOOM.
  • Pretty Little Headshots: Quite a few, although the amount of blood varies according to the Rule of Drama.
  • Prisoner Exchange: An exchange between Shing (who Ho, has captured) and Kit (who Shing's mooks have at gunpoint) sets off the final battle of the movie.
  • Quick Draw: In A Better Tomorrow II, Chong and Ken's final duel involves a quickdraw, though it's really more like a 'quickly grab the gun off the floor simultaneously and shoot' kind of deal.
  • 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.
  • Reformed, but Rejected: When Ho gets out of prison, he makes good on his efforts to go straight, but Kit wants nothing to do with him. Not helping matters is Shing trying to pull him back in.
  • 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.
    • Another remake of this film was made in China, in 2018
  • Revenge: As the movie progresses, Kit becomes increasingly obsessed with revenge against Shing, who had his father killed.
  • Riches to Rags: Mark somehow loses his status during Ho's incareration and is reduced to working as a janitor.
  • 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. Kit gets killed in the second film.
  • Screaming Warrior: Ho when Shing's goons start trashing the taxi company.
  • Shotguns Are Just Better: Ken in the second film wields a Franchi SPAS-12 during the motel shoot-out and Remington Model 31 during the climactic battle.
  • 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.
  • Storming the Castle: A Better Tomorrow II ends with the three remaining heroes going on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge through a whole mess of mooks at the Big Bad's mansion.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Kit dies in the second film.
  • Tank Goodness: The climax of the third movie had Bond, the Big Bad, trying to run over Mark using a tank. Mark managed to take out said tank while on a motorcycle, dragging a cache of explosives behind him which he slides under the tank. The subsequent explosion defeats the tank and kills Bond.
  • There Is No Kill Like Overkill: In the climactic shootout of the second film, one mook gets shot more than 20 times.
  • Tragic Keepsake: For the climax of the second film, Ken wears his brother's bullethole-ridden coat.
  • The Triads and the Tongs: Mark Lee inspired a generation of Chinese kids to walk around in dusters and sunglasses while chewing on toothpicks. Mark is a romantic in a cynical world, who steadfastly holds onto notions of brotherhood and honor, and would gladly lay down his life to protect innocent women and children.
  • True Companions: Ho's taxi depot is made up of people who generally help him out due to everyone's shared background as ex-convicts with little job prospects.
  • Unflinching Walk: Accidentally subverted during the big mansion shootout from the finale of A Better Tomorrow II. Ken Gor, tosses a grenade into the mansion and turns to nonchalantly stand in front of the ensuing explosion. But Chow was standing a few inches too close to the pyrotechnics when they went off, and he flinched away as his hair was singed.
  • Villain in a White Suit: The white suit is used as a status symbol in the triad, and Shing wears a white longcoat in the final showdown.
  • You Killed My Father: Kit's reason for revenge. Ultimately, it's Ho who ends up pulling the trigger on Shing.