John Woo’s 1987 landmark action classic A Better Tomorrow pioneered the heroic bloodshed genre and turned its stars into household names. In fact, it was so popular that many didn’t realise it was actually also a remake. Woo took a socially conscious story about prisoner reform from Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 Story of a Discharged Prisoner and created an emotional story about redemption and brotherhood, both universal themes that are staples in the gangster genre.
Ding Sheng’s A Better Tomorrow 2018 is the second official remake of Woo’s film after the 2010 South Korean version (which had Woo as executive producer). While it is made with intense reverence for the original, Ding brings his own vision to the affair by infusing the same hard-edged gritty style that he brought to actioners like Saving Mr. Wu, Police Story 2013 and The Underdog Knight.
Ding keeps the basic character dynamics and story structure of the 1987 film, but changes everything else. This time, the story is set in a fictional seaside city (the film was actually shot in Qingdao) and revolves around a band of smugglers instead of counterfeiters. Zhou Kai (Wang Kai) is the alpha member of the gang, with Ma Ke (Wang Talu, Our Times) standing by him as his trusty right-hand man. Like in Woo’s original, Kai is keeping his criminal life secret from his brother, Chao (Ray Ma), who happens to be an idealistic young cop. When a disagreement in the gang causes a rift between Kai and a fellow gang member, Kai is set up and ultimately arrested by his own brother.
Anyone who’s seen Woo’s A Better Tomorrow knows where the story goes from there. What Ding does that sets it apart from the original is the gritty realistic style he brings to the proceedings. Woo’s stylish montages are replaced by rough handheld cinematography by frequent collaborator Ding Yu, providing a more realistic tone that gives the story a more modern look.
However, the director doesn’t slouch in the action department, either. The action doesn’t come frequently, but the several shootouts in the film – especially one set in a Japanese restaurant – are well conceived and thrilling. Ding’s excessively rapid cuts (he serves as his own editor once again) sometimes distract, but the director’s talent for action still shines through here.
On the other hand, Ding draws too many comparisons with his constant references to the original film and Leslie Cheung. Fortunately, Wang Kai holds enough gravitas to make him a worthy replacement for the role made famous by Ti Lung. Ray Ma also exudes enough youthful idealism (and anger) for the Leslie Cheung role. Wang Talu deserves credit for trying to take up the impossible task of living up to Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic role, even if his brash, go-for-broke performance comes up short in the end.
Many people may ask, Why would anyone want to remake A Better Tomorrow? Ding has always held an admiration for Hong Kong cinema – just look at his collaborations with Jackie Chan and 2015’s Saving Mr. Wu – and he continues to show that here with his humble love letter to Woo’s film. Ding clearly never set out to outdo the original film, but rather modernise it with a few enhancements and a lot of respect. If A Better Tomorrow 2018 can inspire a new generation of viewers to watch both Woo’s and Lung’s versions of the story, then it’s more than effective.
Ding Sheng made his directorial debut with A Storm in a Teacup in 2000. In 2008, Ding wrote and directed The Underdog Knight, followed by the Lunar New Year Jackie Chan action comedy Little Big Soldier in 2010 and The Underdog Knight sequel He-Man in 2011. In 2013, Ding reunited with Chan as the writer-director of Police Story 2013, becoming the first mainland Chinese director in the iconic action franchise. After Saving Mr. Wu in 2015, Ding worked with Chan for a third time in the wartime action comedy Railroad Tigers.
2008 – The Underdog Knight
2010 – Little Big Soldier
2011 – He-Man
2013 – Police Story 2013
2015 – Saving Mr. Wu
2016 – Railroad Tigers
2018 – A Better Tomorrow 2018