It’s not often you’ll find me looking forward to a remake, especially when I’m such a big fan of the film it’s based on. There I was though, greeting the arrival of Song Hae Sung’s A Better Tomorrow with genuine excitement. There are two reasons for my enthusiasm, even if the first one might seem trivial. A Better Tomorrow 2012 isn’t an American production, so even if we sidestep the usual arguments about Hollywood remakes, at least the film keeps its eastern flavour. More importantly, this newfangled version comes from Korea, and I firmly believe that South Korea is producing some of the best films in the world right now. So if there is a film ripe for the remake treatment, surely John Woo’s classic tale of bullets, brotherhood and heroic bloodshed finds itself in the firing line.
John Woo wasn’t about to give up his baby without a fight, so he acts as executive producer on this one. Directed by Song Hae Sung (Maundy Thursday), A Better Tomorrow 2012 changes the setting to Busan but stays true to the original’s themes of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. One of Chow Yun Fat’s most memorable performances is given a new lease of life by Song Seung Heon (Fate), while Ju Jin Mo (A Frozen Flower) takes on the role of a troubled mobster struggling with the demands of being both a brother and a friend. Kim Kang Woo (Le Grand Chef) plays the whiny, conflicted policeman/younger brother, and Jo Han Sun (Attack the Gas Station! 2) brings our backstabbing big bad to life with extra relish.
Kim Hyuk (Ju Jin Mo) is doing all right for himself in the Busan underworld, but memories of the family he left behind continue to weigh him down. Events turn sour when Hyuk is set-up by Tae Min (Jo Han Sun), and he ends up doing time in prison. Fans of the original will know where we’re headed now. Hyuk’s friend, Young Choon (Song Seung Heon), attempts to wipe out the entire Thai gang in an exhilarating face off. Three years later, Hyuk is released from prison and returns to Busan, only to find that everything has changed. Tae Min is running the show, and Young Choon is scraping a living washing cars. Hyuk's younger brother Chul (Kim Kang Woo) is working for the force, intent on taking down Tae Min's gang, even if his brother chooses to stand between them.
The rest as they say is history. Or at least it was, before Song Hae Sung jumped onboard and reinvented the film for a new generation. A Better Tomorrow might read like an action picture on paper, but much like the original, there are only a handful of action sequences to be found, with the main thrust of the plot focusing on drama, relationships and simmering angst. It helps that two of the action sequences are spectacular of course (you know which ones), with the final act culminating in a bloody battle so invigorating, it almost makes up for the films shortcomings. The final battle is certainly worth the wait, and it’s probably the only part of the movie that lives up to the quality of the first film - a John Woo film in case you forgot. Song Hae Sung deserves praise for ending the film on an explosive high note, but much of what precedes it feels superfluous at best.
It’s very hard to judge this film on its own terms – with it being so similar in design to Woo’s celebrated classic – but few would argue that the quality of acting is better in this remake. Performances are fine for a routine action thriller, but the characters in A Better Tomorrow are almost iconic, so it goes without saying that viewer anticipation is higher than usual. Ju Jin Mo was the only standout for me, with Jo Han Sun giving him a run for his money as the films seriously sleazy big bad. Song Seung Heon doesn’t make an impact in the way that Chow Yun Fat did back in 1986 (very few actors do), and Kim Kang Woo disappoints more than most, coming on like a sulky teenager in need of a good slap.
Sentimental, overwrought and a little bit cheesy – all qualities we like to associate with classic John Woo fare. A Better Tomorrow 2012 applies the same line of thinking but doesn’t quite pull it off. Perhaps it’s the quality of performances that weigh this update down, maybe it’s the overbearing score, but whatever the reason, parts of Song Hae Sung’s picture don’t quite sit right. It could just be a sign of the times of course, or perhaps familiarity prevents it from digging deeper, either way, A Better Tomorrow 2012 wont be remembered as a Korean classic in the way that John Woo’s original is regarded in and out of Hong Kong. It’s an overlong drama with gritty production values, workmanlike performances and two outstanding action sequences - nothing more than an effective Korean thriller in an overcrowded market place.
On its own terms, Song Hae Sung’s latest just about hits the spot. If you’re a fan of the original, the fresh coat of paint will probably intrigue you, but there’s little doubt that A Better Tomorrow 2012 stands in the shadow of its older, cooler brother. AW