In 1986 John Woo made the landmark 'heroic bloodshed' picture A Better Tomorrow and helped not only to put Chow Yun Fat on the road to international stardom but to solidify the director's own reputation as, quite literally, as master of the modern action film. Twenty five years later, Woo produces a Korean language remake of that seminal film, directed by Song Hae-Sung - leaving a lot of people asking... why?
In this version of the film, we follow the exploits of Hyuk (Joo Jin-Mo), a man who has defected to South Korea from its northern sister country leaving his mother and younger brother, Chul (Kim Kang-Woo), behind in the land of Kim Jong-Il where they were captured during the family's escape attempt. While Chul survived the torture they received at the hands of their captors, their mother did not. When Chul eventually makes it to the south and is reunited with his older brother thanks to Hyuk's determined efforts to find him (not to mention his ever increasing status in the Korean underworld as a big time gun runner), there are some serious resentment issues - they really don't get along. It's not so surprising then that Hyuk becomes incredibly close with his friend, Young-Choon (Song Seung-Heon), to the point where the two of them have a relationship that's considerably stronger than the one that exists between the two siblings.
When Hyuk is betrayed by his right hand man, Tae Min (Jo Han Sun), he lands himself a stint in a nasty Thai prison with little hope of escape, Young-Choon heads into Thailand to rescue him, laying waste to a bunch of bad guys along the way but getting seriously injured in the process. When Hyuk finally makes it back a few years later, he finds that Tae Min is now running the show and that Chul is completely determined not only to bring the gang down completely but to get back at his older brother for the betrayal he still feels he handed out to them way back when in North Korea.
As amazing and iconic as Woo's original picture is, it's also a bit dated in some ways. It's very definitely a product of the eighties and while that's not a slam, it's at least easy to understand why a studio might want to remake it and update it - after all, a whole new generation of moviegoers have been born and grown into adults since that original film was made. On a visual level, this new version is a complete success. Shot seemingly entirely on location it looks fantastic and you can't fault the excellent noirish cinematography or the amazing use of color in the picture. Shots are put together very carefully and the action scenes are tight and well edited and the film makes great use of sound as well, not only in the shoot out scenes but in the quieter moments as well.
Sadly, the movie needs more than technical prowess to succeed, and while this is a decent enough movie in its own right, it can't top the original in terms of action, suspense and character development. Part of the problem with the picture is the pacing, it just takes a bit too long to get going and it doesn't grab us from the get go. More problematic than that, however, are a few too many somewhat drawn out scenes of Song Seung-Heon hanging around trying to cheer Hyuk up and get Chul to calm down. While maybe it's not particularly fair to compare Song Seung-Heon to Chow Yun Fat, those who have seen Woo's version will no doubt find it impossible not to, which is where another problem stems from: Song Seung-Heon is not Chow Yun Fat. He's definitely got decent screen presence and has a sense of cool all his own but he just can't quite reach the same demigod status that Chow was able to with his take on the role.
The script tries very hard to make us care about the characters and to a certain extent it does succeed. The story does a pretty decent job of establishing the central conflict that is going to exist between the two brothers and establishing Young-Choon's place in that conflict, but it lags once that's been set up, taking too much time to get to the final resolution that we all know is going to be coming. The action scenes that are here (and they're not as plentiful as they are in the original - know that going in!) are done well, and the filmmakers obviously intended to make a darker, more emotionally involved film than the one Woo made, one that's grounded more in reality (as evidenced by his take on how the action scenes play out) and to a certain extent he succeeds, but it never quite manages to deliver the same level of blood, sweat and tears that the original film did.
A Better Tomorrow looks great in this AVC encoded 2.35.1 widescreen 1080p high definition transfer from Well-Go USA. This is a beautifully shot movie and it showcases some very impressive camera work and location shooting - the transfer here does a great job of bringing all of the detail and color reproduction home with style. With that style comes some pretty heavy filtering, so expect those scenes to be a little less natural looking, obviously, but the image is nice and sharp without looking to have been artificially boosted. There are no problems with edge enhancement and only some minor ringing is evident here. Black levels are almost always top notch though there are a few spots where the shadowy cinematography suffers from a bit of crush and shadow detail suffers ever so slightly for it. All in all, the movie looks excellent here.
The Korean language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this disc is great. There's loads of great channel separation present throughout the movie, with the mix really taking advantage of the entire soundstage. Bullets zip past you during the shoot outs and the gunfire offers some rock solid low end and boom, while dialogue remains clear throughout. The score is spread around all five channels perfectly and the levels are properly balanced from start to finish. Directionality is just really, really impressive here, especially during the firefights and it's really pretty tough to imagine the audio sounding any better than it does here. Optional subtitles are included in English only and an alternate Korean language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also included.
Extras on this release are surprisingly skimpy - there are three minutes of interviews in which the four lead actors provide some sound bites about their characters and their work on the film, there are four minutes worth of random behind the scenes clips presented without any context, and there's a two minute segment called Challenges And Transformations in which the filmmakers talk about remaking John Woo's classic film and what they tried to do differently with their remake. Aside from that, look for two trailers for the feature and trailers for a few other Well-Go USA releases, menus and chapter stops. The featurettes are in SD, the trailers in HD. This is a Blu-ray/DVD Combo pack, so obviously a DVD version is included inside the case as well, the extras are identical.
Beautifully made and sadly rather irrelevant, this Korean remake of A Better Tomorrow is a perfectly good movie when judged on its own terms, but by default has to be compared to the original, which is a more dramatic and exciting film than this one. Well-Go's Blu-ray does justice to the gorgeous visuals and offers up a completely ass kicking lossless mix but is noticeably weak on extras. Is it worth seeing? Ultimately, yes, but it's hard to imagine fans of Woo's classic going back to it more than once. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.