I wonder if filmmakers and their chosen cast suffer the jitters when they attempt to remake a cult classic, trying their best to recreate the formula that worked in another setting and timeline. A Better Tomorrow needs no introduction as it has elements that are deeply entrenched in the minds of any Asian cinephile, where John Woo revived the gangster genre in Hong Kong and created a phenomenon, inspiring copycats both in film and male fashion.
After all, who has the ability to recreate the Chow Yun Fat charisma as Mark Gor, with his long trenchcoat and aviator sunglasses inspiring a legion of followers to the character, so much so that he has to be brought back as twin brother Ken in A Better Tomorrow II? And 70s icon Ti Lung as co-chief protagonist around that brought about bona fide gravitas of a man betrayed, and finding true brotherhood with his best friend? Then there's the late Leslie Cheung, who goes to show that he's not out of place in an actioner, and brings out the role of the cocky young adult unwilling to forgive his brother in most excellent terms. And Waise Lee rounding up the quartet as the villain you'd love to hate especially when gloating with one of his last lines.
The Korean remake was wrong on a number of counts, especially if one were to be a purist and find objectionable character motivations, and scenes rearranged with elements tweaked that's as proportionally controversial as A New Hope's Did Han Shoot First?. The basic structure got retained where it introduced the quartet of characters, with Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-Mo) and Kim Chul (Kim Kang-Woo) being brothers from North Korea separated when Hyuk abandoned his younger brother to escape to the South, hence setting up resentment which serves the crux of the film. Compensating for this brotherly kinship is his good friend Young-Choon (Son Seung-Heon), who finds himself going from riches to rags, a pale self to his former glory when his revenge didn't go as smooth as he planned it would be.
I don't mind that things got changed slightly, from counterfeiting to arms smuggling. I don't mind that since this is a Korean remake the plot naturally revolved around North and South tensions amongst the characters. I don't mind too that the characters' overseas romp shifted from Taiwan to Thailand. All these, coupled with the updates introduced by director Song Hae-Sung, are pretty minor. The major changes were what irked me, since they don't resemble the cult characters they are based on, especially that of Kim Chul and his estranged relationship with his brother Kim Hyuk, which bordered on thick melodrama that gave an about turn to the latter character when the finale rolled along. There's this obsession with not forgiving his brother yes, but things take an inexplicable turn which transformed him from rugged tough guy, to wimpy, weepy crybaby. What gives?
Song Seung-Heon perhaps drew the shortest end of the stick, because trying to emulate Mark Gor with his Young-Choon was nothing short of a futile attempt unfortunately. Clearly lacking the charisma to pull the role off, he tried his best and came up short, and in an unceremonious exit, I think director Song Hae-Sung has to bear the blame for some shoddy work here, even though we know the original had loopholes in the shoot out department that sort of became terms of endearment with weapons blessed with unlimited supply of bullets that always find their way to embed into bodies of faceless goons, these were opportunities that weren't seized to go one leg up before John Woo went balletic with his gun fights and shoot outs.
What worked though was how sinister Jo Han-Seon played chief villain Jung Tae-Min, whose meek demeanour hides his sinister nature and becomes the villain you'd love to hate. I thought he did well because he wasn't really trying to live up to what had already been done, though perhaps maybe it wasn't as intimidating as trying to fit into the shoes worn by Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung or Chow Yun Fat. There's also a distinct lack of female roles here to trip up this gang of four, eliminating frivolous romantic subplots where females are nothing but flower vases, allowing themes of betrayal, friendship, brotherhood and camaraderie to ring through much louder.
Still, this remake is slow to start, and it took some 30 minutes before the first major action sequence. To fans of A Better Tomorrow there's nothing here that will surprise you anyway, except to raise an eyebrow or two when motivations and subplots deviate. And if there's one more element that this film sorely lacked, it's the very, very iconic theme tune that accompanied the Hong Kong original. This one pales in comparison and somehow turned out dull for the most parts. You have been warned to stick to the definitive John Woo version.