1986’s “A Better Tomorrow” was a Hong Kong classic that made it big in the international film circuit. It made John Woo into a star director and helped launch Chow Yun Fat into superstardom. It would come as no surprise that the film would inspire a remake; Korean director Song Hae-Sung attempts to “Koreanized” its premise with one. This remake was called “A Better Tomorrow” in the international market while the film was titled “Mujeogja” (translates into “Invincible”). John Woo co-produced this Korean remake and gives it his stamp of approval. Song does take a different approach to the film and rather than resorting to the ‘balls-to-walls” action that made the original fun, he approaches the premise with a more dramatic approach with a little too much emphasis on emotions.
Keeping the original’s premise and plot dynamics intact, Song Hae-Sung changes the setting from Hong Kong to Busan, Korea, and then makes the criminal business into gun running rather than counterfeiting. Then, the emotional turmoil between the two brothers are changed from being a cop and a thief, but rather one brother had abandoned the other when they defected from North Korea to the South. Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-Mo) is the brother of Chul (Kim Kang-Woo, Silmido), who later on becomes a cop to look for someone. Lee Young-Chun (Song Seung-Hoon) is Hyuk’s closest confidant and they are Busan’s top enforcers of a gun running operation. Most people would know the original film’s basic premise, but the trio then comes into issues on their own, and a man called Chung Tae-Min soon becomes the top guy in Busan.
The film looks very familiar, and some shots are mirror images of the original. There are some shots that were an obvious homage to the original, and honestly there were times that this different approach made this remake appear rather ‘watered down’ when compared to the original. I am not sure, I am all for drama and character development, but I feel that the script in this film tried too hard to add Korean sensibilities to a “made for action” premise. I can understand a need to expand on an original, but I felt that the direction struggled in certain points to find its footing in the narrative.
I am not exactly a fan of John Woo, but one thing I have to give him credit for is his ability to inject artistic flair to his action sequences. It wasn’t so much as his stories were complex or deep, but he always knew how to set up an action scene. In the original, several scenes just stood out, and none as much as when Sung Chi Ho (Ti Lung) bade farewell to Jackie (Emily Chu Bo-Yee) while handing her evidence, before he goes to the climactic showdown. The accompaniment of the choir was just so riveting that you felt Woo’s touches; the darkened hallway symbolized the return to the dark life of bullets and blood, after abandoning the desired life of light and peace. This Korean version loses a lot of the artistic touches in the original, and its focus on drama may have indeed made this remake inferior by comparison.
I am not saying that this film wasn’t entertaining in its own way, but I thought the direction paid too much attention to the pains of two brothers that it seemed to reduce these supposed ‘tough guys and bad asses’ into cry babies. It wasn’t that I did not appreciate what Hae-Sung was trying to do, but his pacing and editing was a little too heavy-handed at times. It dragged a lot in certain scenes that the direction was simply trying to expand on something when there really wasn’t much to expand into; what results is a lot of tonal shifts and several underdeveloped areas. The music in this remake also kept to its own mood and tone, and loses the grittiness and style of the original.
I apologize if I seem to be making this review into a face-to-face comparison but it just cannot be helped. It does do one thing correct as it seemed to make the villain, Tai-Min a much more developed villain as the viewer is taken for a look of his rise from the ranks of the criminal organization. Song Seung-Hoon is tasked with the job of portraying Chow Yun Fat’s character, and he just cannot match Fat’s charismatic appeal. He does channel the look and the style; he did a good effort but he just could not pull it off. The performances were decent, but I have to say they were timed poorly and the dialogue lingered too much on the emotional pain between brothers here and there.
Now, the film does have some good levels of action in the film. The scenes were definitely inspired by the original and there were areas that it looked like it was truly going to pull it off. Young-Chun’s foray into Thailand was very cool, and the gunfight mirrored the style that made Woo a household name. The final gunfight in the pier started out really well (and it was quite bloody), but the script dropped the ball by stooping into more dramatic touches that slowed them down to a crawl, and whatever intensity it could’ve achieved was abandoned in the place of more drama. Surprisingly, despite my qualms, the film is beautifully shot. Korean filmmaking has indeed become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to pure style and camera angles to express the emotions of a film. The lights, the shadows and the camerawork were superb and almost flawless.
I suppose Song Hae-Sung is more of a director that specializes in drama (his most well-known project was “Failan”) and he just struggled to create an action drama that could really make an impact on his audience. It may be unfair to compare this remake to the original, but I just couldn’t help it. This film may be fun to those who like cross-cultural changes and re-application to another country, but this film is simply unnecessary. Not to get me wrong, it isn’t a bad film, but it is just uninspired. It can be real entertaining if you haven’t seen the original, however, I can only recommend it as a rental.
The Korean remake of John Woo's classic actioner that launched Chow Yun Fat into superstardom. Directed by Hae-Sung Song, this Korean version takes a different approach than the balls-to-wall action that is John Woo's signature. Update: Full Review Here.