Thursday, 1 February 2018

Movie Review: A Better Tomorrow (2018)

The plot: Brothers Kai (Kai Wang) and Chao (Tianyu Ma) are on opposite sides of the law: Kai is a smuggler working for crime lord Ha Ge (Suet Lam) alongside his partner Mark (Darren Wang), while Chao is an up-and-coming officer in the Hong Kong narcotics division. However, as they discover how distant they have become from each other, Kai decides to reform his criminal ways and maybe regain the trust of his brother. In order to do the right thing by his family, he may have to cut ties with his former employers… permanently.

Kai Wang does quite well as our lead, possibly even better than the ’86 original as far as the character actually coming across the true main character. He wields the character’s moral compass with a lot of smoothness, making his confrontations with his brothers feel like he has some idea of what makes a “hero”, but still understanding that it takes a lot of work to convince others that he qualifies. Tianyu Ma is surprisingly good at being able to get across the hard-nosed detective aspect of the character, since he doesn’t exactly have the most grizzled physical presence. However, as convincing as he is, he ends up being a little too petulant in his interactions with Kai for him to be anything more than someone who needs to learn something in the larger scheme of things.

Darren Wang had one hell of a task given to him, that being even attempting to hold up to Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic performance from the original (a performance that this film is more than happy to remind us of, bear in mind.). I won’t say that he manages to leave as big an impression as his predecessor, but he still does nicely with the rather mischievous and later damaged demeanour he sports throughout. Suet Lam gets quite a bit of mileage out of just saying how much he appreciates “loyalty”, Ailei Yu as his grandson is convincing both as the initially timid rookie and the conniving gangster with very few gaps in-between, and Yue Wu plays the resident douchebag with just enough cockiness to make for an engaging presence on-screen.

Let’s get into the direct comparisons first, as this is honestly kind of a weird idea for a remake. The 1986 original is an iconic piece of Hong Kong cinema, one whose influence can immediately be felt just by sitting down to watch the thing and one which ended up launching director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-Fat further along their path into becoming cinematic icons. There are a few ultimately cosmetic differences between that and this latest iteration, particularly the switch from dealing with Chinese-Taiwanese relations to Chinese-Japanese relations, and some of the few bits of dialogue have been shuffled around as far as who is saying what and about whom. Other than that, though, this holds onto a lot of the more recognisable facets: The emphasis on brotherhood and loyalty to one’s ‘family’, the conflict between the blood brothers on opposite sides of the law, and even John Woo’s legendary approach to gun fights. Admittedly, that last one doesn’t show through as strongly here, since it doesn’t carry the same grandiosity as Woo’s main aesthetic, but then again, this is a rather glossy remake of a low-budget sleeper hit; it’s comparatively weaker, but at least to an understandable degree.

As far as portraying the story that connects the two films together, this manages to highlight enough of the main themes to make it stand on its own. It may lack some of the more philosophical touches, like Mark talking about how he is a god (and honestly, after seeing Chow Yun-Fat’s performance, I can’t argue with that assertion), but when showing the relationship between the characters, it still lands on solid ground. Along with the actors doing quite well on their own terms, their chemistry with each other makes the notions in their dialogue about forgiveness, destiny and whether or not people are worth forgiving ring true. Kai and Mark work very well as a double-act, nailing the film’s approach to grey morality in a way that actually makes up for the shift in thematic focus. It may still be less lofty than what came before it, but at the same time, that grounding means that the relationships between characters gets emphasised. As a result, this manages to highlight enough of the original story, only making certain pieces more prominent, to make this remake’s very existence feel justified. That’s kind of a big ask for any remake, especially one that takes this much of a stylistic detour.

Of course, this film is quite aware of the task it’s been given. From the minimally-updated title to the relative faithfulness to its source material, even down to a scene that directly references Chow Yun-Fat as Mark, this has a certain amount of insecurity about its place as a remake. Given what I’ve already written above, I’ll admit that I can understand why there would be a certain amount of apprehension about this whole thing. However, more so than the fidelity to the story of how brothers-by-blood and brothers-by-oath treat each other, this film manages to justify itself in another way: By highlighting how these stories of Heroic Bloodshed still have a place in the larger picture. As the film carries on and character allegiances start to truly harden, we are given a few instances of characters actively questioning whether this level of devotion to another person is advisable. Why would we have to inspire loyalty in our fellows, when you can just simply purchase it? Add to that parts of Cang’s dialogue about how silly it is to “play hero”, and we have another instance of a film preferring honest connection over cynicism. As I got into in my last review, I have a lot of respect for ideas like this, and I’m willing to bet that this story about the importance of allies involving the cultural strains between Japan and China isn’t an accident. I won’t pretend to know nearly enough about those strains to comment on accuracy or even efficacy, but… let’s just say that I am growing increasingly tired of how isolated we as human beings have become, and anything that emphasises the antithesis of that is an easy way to get my approval. That, and the film itself worked pretty hard to earn that in the first place.

All in all, while I can’t see this even getting close to the original as far as cultural impact or even collective recollection, it does well enough to be able to stand on its own merits. The acting is solid, the direction takes advantage of both the similarities and the differences between this and its core inspiration, and the writing sells both the old-school brotherly conflict of the original and highlighting certain attitudes to show why we still have some use for that kind of story. If nothing else, I’m thankful that this recent release got me to watch the original for the first time, and the fact that this doesn’t feel like a direct insult to said original makes that sit a lot easier than it would’ve otherwise (e.g. what happened when Beauty And The Beast came out last year).

It ranks higher than The Commuter, as this direct remake managed to feel less tired than that latest piece of Neesonsploitation. This carved out its own place within its established surroundings, whereas Commuter only got as far as being passable overall; I want more of this and less of that over the next little while. However, as much as this film’s ideas about family and loyalty do work nicely for me, it still doesn’t pack the punch of the better moments from All The Money In The World. I could definitely argue that various aspects of the production here outshine All The Money, but that would undersell how that film had far greater aspirations than this, and might actually prove to be the sign of a new paradigm as far as Hollywood productions go.

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