A Better Tomorrow / Ying Hung Boon Sik (dir. John Woo, 1986) – An ex-triad member breaks away from his former life, while attempting to reconcile with his brother in the police force.
Modern action cinema thrives on bone-crushing carnage and limitless bullets. Gareth Evans can tell you that much. But back in 1986, the violence in A Better Tomorrow had once been responsible for riling up a conservative audience so much, a tiered movie rating system was born because of it.
This notoriety almost overshadows its compelling story, which proves much more than an excuse for brutality. Ex-triad member Tse Ho (Ti Lung) is attempting to step back on the right path after three years in prison, despite a cop brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) who doesn’t believe in his will to change and the relentless shadow of his past.
Ho’s troubles are compounded when his partner-in-crime Mark Gor (Chow Yun-fat) reveals his vengeful heart, pushed to the sidelines despite his loyalty. Because of their complex motivations, the resulting casualties are never gratuitous. Rather, every altercation reveals something more about the instigators.
Even when out to get what is rightfully is, Mark is not blind to the moral struggles of his best friend. In every broken body Ho reluctantly leaves in his wake, there is an aching melancholy in his dilemma to stay loyal to both his brothers, by blood and choice.
Controversy might have risen over the resultant bloodshed and savage beatdowns back then, during a more conservative time. But A Better Tomorrow deserved to be remembered for more than its body count.
With this film, John Woo not only managed to launch the careers of Chow Yun-fat as an action star. He also changed the face of Hong Kong cinema in ways beyond mere age restrictions. Under his spell, a scene that once flourished in stunt-driven martial arts and swordplay became hungry for gun-toting action between triads and cops on screen.
His stylistic flair, which defined “cool” for an entire generation, continues to be seen today, favoured by beloved contemporary filmmakers like the Wachowskis and Quentin Tarantino. This comes as little of a surprise, considering the high standards Woo had set in storytelling, crime fashion and stylistic gun fights early in the game.
A Better Tomorrow is the quintessential action film that not only set the stage for the heroic bloodshed genre, but inspired a string of successors across the globe and generations.