VHS Limited Edition boxset
Against a glossy background of slapstick humour and brutal mob violence, the tragicomic storyline focuses on a pair of Hong Kong criminals, Mark (the brilliant Chow) and Ho (Ti Lung), whose younger brother Kit (Leslie Cheung, later star of A Chinese Ghost Story) is a police officer. Ambitious rival mobster Shing (Lee Che-hung) organises an ambush for Ho during a trip to Taiwan and, although Ho escapes the trap, he is forced to surrender to local cops and is imprisoned. Mark attacks the gang that betrayed his best friend, slaughtering a roomful of hoods in this movie's legendary and still electrifying restaurant scene, but is badly injured himself during the battle.
When Ho is released from prison three years later, he finds that the embittered Kit has been passed over for promotion because of his older brother's underworld connections, while Mark is crippled and living in futureless poverty, having lost the gleaming Rolls Royce and caseloads of counterfeit dollars that were the everyday trappings of his earlier lifestyle.
Ho intends to go straight from now on, and finds a job as a taxi driver, but the quarrel with his brother Kit, and Mark's desire for retribution against powerful crime lord Shing, who attempts to lure his old rivals back into the gang, mean that disagreements turn to danger for all concerned as our heroes get squeezed between unforgiving cops and frequently ruthless gangsters.
Following blatant entrapment, sneering coercion, bouts of fierce intimidation, a blackmail plot, and one particularly vicious beating, it all ends with an explosive dockside shootout, during which the heroic Mark struggles to bring the feuding brothers together again.
Slow motion is too fast for some of the action set pieces and, even if A Better Tomorrow (aka: Yingxiong Bense, aka: Heroes Shed No Tears) is not as relentlessly violent as Woo's later thriller, acclaimed bullet fest, The Killer, so many people die in each and every bloody confrontation here, you may begin to wonder where in such a small colony as Hong Kong they would find space to bury all the dead. The sentimentality here is rather overdone, and the songs (as in many films from the East) are unbearably twee and irritating to Westerners. I mean, who can possibly be expected to listen to lyrics that are translated as "..singing jollity like the sunbeam" without suffering extensive neural damage? At least, in its original Cantonese version, A Better Tomorrow avoids the pitfalls of horrendous English dubbing, yet the subtitled translation of the script is hilarious ("If you hurt my son, I won't let you off!" warns Ho's father). Tsui Hark looks a bit distracted in his cameo as the judge at a music student's exam.
All quibbles aside, this remains an impressively staged and highly entertaining picture. The difficult balance between dramatic pathos and stylish vigour is well achieved, generally, and this DVD release is a great opportunity to reappraise one of the key films in this popular director's back catalogue. The sequel was A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), but it doesn't make a lot of sense if you have not seen this, while A Better Tomorrow III (1989) is actually a prequel, directed by Tsui Hark, set at the end of the Vietnam War.
This DVD release is a two-disc package with both the original Cantonese print with re-mastered English subtitles, and the English dubbed version, presented in anamorphic transfer with a Dolby digital 2.0 soundtrack. The extras disc includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, exclusive interviews with the director and leading actors, extensive filmographies and biographies of cast and filmmaker, excellent gallery of rare artwork and production stills, plus trailers.