|A Better Tomorrow (1986) / John Woo|
Both Le Samourai (Melville, 1967) and A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986) begin with the image of a man (Delon and Lung Ti respectively) lying on his bed, his head firmly entrenched in the recess of his pillow, clearly bothered by a premonition of something terrible and overall, I presume, sweaty. Ofcourse, both movies are at some level, about a man’s ability (or an inability) to stick to the unspoken word, the Gentleman’s promise, or the Jewish businessman’s handshake – once a deal is done, it is done. But while Le Samourai’s idea of morality is transgressed in a single moment of implosive betrayal (gunshot, approaching train, grunt in an abrupt close-up); all of A Better Tomorrow’s transformation happens during a three-year long prison term. That is very interesting, because Woo uses this reasonably long ridge of time to appropriate the strength of purely human qualities: brotherly love, male honor, casual bromance and generally hokey lack of scruples - the film dictates that what remains unchanged over the duration is worth cheering for, and whatever changes, is an indication of absolute villainy or at the least, deserves our pity.
Therefore, the two protagonists (Mark : Chow Yun-Fat, Tse-Ho : Lung Ti), counterfeiters, loan shark agents and casual in-tandem dressers, meet after Ho’s prison-term (of which we see very little) and are still the best of friends, Yun-fat still wants to shoot people up and return to the good ol’ life and Ho’s brother Kit’s still with the same girl – so while the film clearly proposes reform (or even revolution), the qualities it wants to endear us to are mostly the ones that remain unaltered in the before and after of the prison term. On the other hand, their crime-protégé from before the sentence becomes an evil crime boss, Ho’s policeman brother (Leslie Cheung) becomes a stone-cold, paranoid, loveless man (he also grows a thin moustache and a frown) whose relationship with his brother sours and in an incredible move of self-pity, Yun-Fat grows a limp – anything that changes over the three-year period must therefore be condemned or despised. Needless to say, the film’s final scene will have all order restored and the entire universe reset to point zero – that is almost ironical for a film titled A Better Tomorrow, because mostly, it looks at the ‘yesterday’ as its ideal – but atleast, unlike Le Samourai, the agent of bleak morality is still alive at the end of the film and thus, morality may still be salvaged eventually.