In the early 90’s, before we had instant access to every movie ever made like we do now, I was a voracious fanzine and magazine collector constantly seeking information about any new film experience I could get my hands on. Sending cash in the mail and eagerly awaiting catalogs from other collectors so I could get my hands on some fourth generation VHS copy of some obscure flick I read about— now a lost sensation. I’d travel all over the city to some niche video store, like the now defunct Kim’s Video, in the hopes I would discover some new classic. It was truly a great time; I honestly miss that jolt of discovery and the time and effort you had to put in to seek out these films. It was an incredible accomplishment to be able to put your hands on a letterboxed version of Deep Red from the Japanese laserdisc. Now these Holy Grails are all easily accessible through the internet and I guess that was everyone’s dream. But with this we lose the satisfaction of accomplishment, and that’s a shame.
The reason I discuss this is because for me John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow was one of the ultimate discoveries of those years. I had always had an interest in Asian cinema through my love for Kurosawa’s films and anything Toshiro Mifune. When I heard about this whole “Heroic Bloodshed” genre that was coming out of Hong Kong, I had to see what the hype was about. So I immediately ordered my VCR copy from the late Chas Balun, the genius behind the greatest horror fanzine ever made, Deep Red, and settled in. After the credits rolled, I was immediately hooked. Who the fuck were these amazing actors? Who was this incredible director? I thought, “I must immediately consume everything they have ever done. I had never seen gunfights like this before.” Nowadays, the double fisted gun action of the impossibly cool Chow Yun Fat are par for the course, but back then it was definitely not the norm. His restaurant shootout, which the beginnings pays homage to Robert DeNiro’s entrance in Mean Streets, had my jaw dropped. How could I see more of this? It just got better from there.
The sequel, A Better Tomorrow 2, The Killer, Hardboiled and Bullet in the Head (John Woo’s best film), were all amazing experiences. I was hooked. After seeing a couple of great non-John Woo films, like Full Contact and the insane Run and Kill, I came up with a plan. At that time I worked at Tarzian Hardware on 7th Avenue in Brooklyn, so I had access to their manufacturer wholesale catalog. Even though it had nothing to do with hardware, the catalog sold VCR’s and blank cassette tapes. I was able to buy a second VCR and cases of blank tapes. I then went to Little Chinatown on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn and joined every Asian video rental store I could find to make dupes. Oddly enough, the best one was a video store owned by an Italian family who understood their demographic, as half their inventory was Asian. Every Friday after work, I went and rented as many films as I could and ran my tape-copy machine full time. My library grew extensively, and I watched some shit movies, but discovered some true classics. Hopping vampires, Category 3 gore fests, Simon Yam films, Anthony Wong psycho films, Ringo Lam films— it was fucking amazing.
I sat down last night and re-watched A Better Tomorrow, which I have not seen in about ten years now. I can say that it has 100 percent held up. I did watch with a little sorrow because I realized that unfortunately when John Woo and Chow Yun Fat took their talents over here to America, their careers more or less stalled. They never gained that superstar status they had in Hong Kong. Leslie Cheung, who plays Kit, and was an acting and music superstar in Hong Kong, committed suicide at the age of 46 by jumping off the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong after a battle with depression. I have no clue what happened to Ti Lung, who was originally known for his work in the Shaw Brothers karate epics. He did go on and continue acting but he never rose to super stardom from this film. That privilege went to Chow Yun Fat, who was catapulted to iconic status after his performance as Mark. After the film became a success in Hong Kong, it became common to see teenagers walking around in dusters and sunglasses like Mark’s character wears in the beginning of the film. As a matter of fact, the sunglasses he wears are called Alain Dellon sunglasses, named after the French actor, and after they sold out as a result of the film. Mr. Dellon sent Chow Yun Fat a note thanking him for bringing so much attention to the product.
The film follows the story of Ho (Ti Lung) and Mark (Chow Yun Fat), two local gangsters, and Kit, (Leslie Cheung), brother of Ho and a police cadet in the academy. It tells the story of their lives on both sides of the law and how their lives clash because of each individual’s choices. In the end these choices cause familial and loyalty conflicts, as their characters’ deal with betrayal, tragedy and ultimately, understanding and compromising about their choices and the way these choices have shaped their lives in positive and negative ways. The film is filled with a lot of gunplay but also filled with quiet reflections about the choices men make. The regret and sorrow these choices cause are a result of struggling with the past and sometimes not being able to come to terms with the reality of your present. And make no mistake, this is a film solely about men, their loyalty and guilt over the trajectory of their lives. The sole female character is a background role used to try to reconnect the two brothers and the decision to divide them. But her role is a perfunctory one and not really necessary to the film. Most of the films from the “Heroic Bloodshed” era deal with the choices men of a morally questionable nature make and the consequences of these choices. These films are about more than watching two dudes shoot the shit out of each other. They are about the evil that men do and how these men sleep at night as a result. So if this type of moral handwringing interests you, run out and find your new film addiction.
It is a true shame that most of these films are more or less forgotten now and that their pique ended in 1997 when the political climate in Hong Kong changed. I urge everyone to rediscover these classics of Asian cinema and see what an action film can be. What an action film should strive to be! Stay away from these over edited Michael Bay inspired hunks of shit and feast your eyes on the real thing. Cast away your prejudice against subtitles and watch a true classic. PLEEEASSSE!!!!!!! The true joy of being involved in a project like Death by Podcast is being able to discuss and write about all types of genre films and bringing attention to the forgotten gems or the need to be seen flicks that people may have missed. We mostly discuss and write about horror, but we are open to all types of films on the show and on the site. I would hope to classify us a more of a psychotronic film site, to use the term coined by Michael Weldon. I urge everyone to rediscover or discover these unfortunately lost classics that should not be forgotten. You will not be sorry.
5 out of 5 Zombie Heads