Return To A Better Tomorrow


"It had the 'Better Tomorrow' title slapped on it to sell more tickets."

- Ben Poppel

Return To A Better Tomorrow (1994)

Director: Wong Jing

Producer: Wong Jing

Writer: Wong Jing

Cast: Lau Ching-Wan, Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin, Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching, Ben Lam Kwok Bun, Ngai, James Wong Jim, Michael Wong Man Tak, Paul Chun Pui, Lee Siu-Kei

Running Time: 104 min.

Plot: Cool and brave, Tong is the most famous big brother. Ha, a loyal follower of Tong, is charged murdering his unfaithful wife's lover. Fortunately, he is saved by Tong's lawyer. Tong and Ha then become very good friend. Tong is set up and has to flee to China. Moreover, his girl is tortured. Actually, the controler behind is Tong's former big brother, Ha swear to take revenge for tong.


JOSEPH KUBY'S REVIEW: Underrated Heroic Bloodshed Gem!

Return To A Better Tomorrow is usually looked down upon just because it's directed by Wong Jing (who receives some fairly biased reviews and is an extremely underrated director - he's actually one of the best of all time) but it's actually one of the best films to come from the Heroic Bloodshed genre (a genre kick-started by John Woo but the term, however, was coined by Rick Baker* meaning films which contain violence and heroic pathos).

I'm not sure what the critical reaction was in Hong Kong but the failure of the film cemented the fact that the heroic bloodshed had seen its last day (kind of like what Ratt's 1990 album, Detonator, did to pop metal**) and it proved to be the final nail in the coffin for this unique genre of film (or really a sub-genre/amalgamation of the action and gangster genres).

Return To A Better Tomorrow was made for two reasons; of course Wong Jing wanted to see how much mileage the heroic bloodshed still had left to cover (both artistically and commercially). Whilst the film flopped at the local box office, it still showed that Wong can direct drama if he wants to....and direct it well may I add. But the film proved to be influential in terms of how seriously the critics took Ekin Cheng as an actor. Also, the film proved to be influential in not only establishing and succeeding at launching Ekin Cheng as a full-fledged action icon (ala Heath Ledger or, better yet, Ryan Reynolds) but it showed audiences that he could play a convincing Triad (Chinese mafia) gang leader (which was vital for the success of Andrew Lau's Young & Dangerous*** films whose first installment was made two years after RTABT).

I'm assuming Jing's gangster thriller must have had some cult following afterwards because, really, Ekin was notably seen as pop singer first and actor second so the idea of seeing Ekin play a tough heavy was akin to seeing Justin Timberlake play Tony Montana in a remake of Scarface. Speaking of remakes, this film is sort of like a remake to A Better Tomorrow but because it's directed by Wong Jing, it's automatically referred to by hauteur critics as a rip-off (for those, who haven't caught on - it's not a sequel).

While the film does bear some similarities to Woo's seminal masterpiece, Jing's film is in a league of its own which deserves to be looked at in its own arena (rather than looked down upon) and on its own terms in the same way John Woo's Bullet In The Head shouldn't be quickly written off as a Deer Hunter rip-off. Coincidentally, RTABT shares a similar plot-point to BITH in regards to one of the main characters taking heroin after going throw a harrowing experience only to be rescued by two past friends.

Which brings us to the second reason why Wong Jing decided to helm this film: John had referenced God Of Gamblers in a brief tongue-in-cheek homage for his breezy yet bright (as in smart, not just in the perky sense) action caper Once A Thief so Wong wanted to throw a friendly yet feature-length nod to Woo's legacy. This was done between John Woo and Quentin Tarantino as Quentin had his gangsters in Reservoir Dogs look like the ones in A Better Tomorrow 2 so John had payed back the favour with the ear-cutting scene in Hard Target as a referential florid gesture towards the similar scene in Quentin's debut film.

This game of exchanging in-jokes can be played even further, as Wong Jing referenced Reservoir Dogs in High Risk (starring Jet Li from Lethal Weapon 4 and Unleashed fame) and referenced Pulp Fiction in his comedy classic Sixty Million Dollar Man (starring Stephen Chow of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle fame) so now it seems that it's Quentin's turn to reference Wong Jing.

Return To A Better Tomorrow plays on the familiar themes of the heroic bloodshed genre: loyalty, male bonding, friendship, honour, betrayal, high calibre shootouts, revenge, redemption and sacrifice. Rather than just simply retreading well-worn themes, Wong looks at each facet carefully and tries to decipher new elements of which can be added and ones which can be given a fresh spin. For instance, usually the female character in one of these films is a very passive and sexually repressed person, whereas Chingmy Yau's character is a very feisty individual with a strong sense of sexuality.

The acting is solid all round with performances that may not be oscar-worthy but certainly not bottom-of-the-barrel either. The villains in particular are rather seedy, scathing, sleazy, scornful yet memorable, you really want them to get some form of comeuppance.

The action sequences here are very well done, the scope and scale of the story doesn't (and isn't meant to) allow for the epic action sequences seen in Hard Boiled, as this is a crime thriller than an all-out action film which merely alludes to the ins-and-outs of the crime world and the usual day-to-day business of that sordid kind of employment; therefore it's best not to expect an all-out action affair though the action set-pieces are smartly handled with skillful precision and care.

If there's anything which should be immediately apparent about Wong Jing is that he's certainly one of the world's best action directors as his ideas, vision and the way he puts it on the screen is simply a marvel to behold. He sure knows how to stage an action sequence. He sets the stage and plays up the mood nicely, especially during the hotel action sequence. Wong even tries to one-up John by having Ekin using dual shotguns instead of dual pistols and there's one particular sequence involving powerful revolvers and a lorry which really is the cherry on the cake.

Even on the basis of action sequences alone, Wong Jing could never be seen as a bad or terrible director. There's far more worse directors out there (action or otherwise), not just ones who are plain outright bad but ones who maybe be okay or good but just not as good as Wong Jing (yep, there IS worse).

This film is tragic, heart-felt, horrific and harrowing without being too sappy, schmaltzy or saccharine-saturated. The melodrama isn't as heavy-handed as John Woo's original (which is the one thing which gives Jing more of an advantage) and the action has just as much bite. But most importantly, with this being a crime thriller, no feelings are spared, no punches are pulled and there are no compromises - something which reflects the true nature of the world of crime.

Not everyone in life has a happy ending and Wong Jing certainly makes sure of that here. It may not please people who want and expect things to be sanitized, politically correct with a 'Happy Hollywood' ending and an overall glamourized feel (thematically, not just stylistically) but then it would be a cop-out to the realistic nature of the subject matter. The truth is it pays to be a criminal, simply put there is no way out no matter which side you are on thus it's pretty much like war.

Very few filmmakers would have the courage to show the death of a child on screen, whilst it's not done as graphically as John Carpenter in the original Assault On Precinct 13, the subtlety of the way Wong Jing handles it shows an interestingly artistic and poignant side to him, but at the same time revealing that he's someone with quite a lot of nerve, verve and audacity (a very derring-do/daredevil mentality which is very common throughout Jing's repertoire albeit with much detriment to the critics).

The violence in this film is very off-putting, maybe not as gut-wrenchingly realistic as something you may see elsewhere (like Full Contact) but certainly unsettling and uncomfortable (Hard Boiled it isn't).

The film, astonishingly, was cut in Hong Kong because of the X rated material (probably either due to language, nudity and violence) so the fact that the film still manages to shock is saying something about the original version's extremely explosive content. In this version, people are pulverized and though it's not exactly as grotesque as something seen in Raging Bull or Rocky, the results are disturbingly close. So who knows what the original was like. Though Wong Jing has shown far more sinister acts of violences such as the torture scene in The Big Score and the fetus removal scene (though we don't see it actually happening) in God Of Gamblers 4: The Return.

It's alluded to that Chingmy's character goes through abuse by men in this film and with this being a Wong Jing film, it wouldn't be a surprise if it was sexual violence of a highly explicit nature. In some ways, it's easy to see where the cuts were made. Also, if you look at the trailer, some dialogue scenes were trimmed as well - taking away some of the film's depth and emotional punch.

Just for the sake of delivering some trivia, these are some (of the many others?) dialogue scenes removed from the film...

1 A conversation between Michael Wong and Ekin Cheng.

2 An argument between Parkman Wong and his superior.

3 Scenes from Cheng's childhood (i.e. his first
killing as a child).

In one of the film's death scenes, Wong Jing utilizes a technique that was used by Chang Cheh (John Woo's mentor and main source of influence) but not by John Woo himself, which proves that Wong Jing is as driven with initiative as he is with influence. This technique, of Chang Cheh's, is one that was used to good effect in The Men From The Monastery - basically when one of the heroes dies, the colour of the screen changes into a single colour or monochrome.

Wong Jing even borrows a technique much used by Ringo Lam and Wong Kar Wai in their movies in which the camera is very shaky (think blur-o-vision) during an action sequence (admittedly something which even some of Tsui Hark's directorial status had done this as well {when he made The Blade}, not that it's a bad thing it just depends on the way it's done and if credit is given, something Wong was never adamant to mention).

In fact, the reason why I've given this a 9 than a 10 is a bad acting turn by Michael Wong and slightly misguided directing on Wong Jing's behalf when Mike's character goes berserk over the death of one of the main characters before dissolving into a cheesy fight sequence with a typical action movie score which derails the film in a way which the car chase sequence in Bullet In The Head had almost derailed that particular film.

Wong Jing may be considered a hack by most, but people who carefully analyze his filmography with anal-retentive precision and go through an extreme multitude of others will come to realize he is anything but. Wong Jing is someone who's capable at the very best at making classic films, even
masterpieces, which can mix genres and obtain both artistic & commercial success. The fact that his most highest-grossing film (God Of Gamblers 4: The Return a.k.a. The Return Of The God Of Gamblers) was one that was said to be critically acclaimed (according to the authors of The Essential Jackie Chan Sourcebook) is a testament to this. Besides, all filmmakers go through bad patches (in terms of quality and quantity) it's just it's obvious with some directors than it is with most.

If I had to find a non-Chinese directorial comparison with Wong Jing, it wouldn't be Roger Corman and certainly not John Waters. I feel Wong is the Chinese equivalent to John Carpenter - both have proven to be very daring, even ground-breaking, directors who have done practically almost every sub-genre in their genres of choice (horror for Carpenter and action for Wong). Just like John, Jing has gone through a bit of a rough patch recently - churning out films that are average and no real indicator of his true talent.

But take my word for it, Wong Jing is one of the most creative filmmakers around and surely, without a doubt, one of the best filmmakers of all time! He may not be as brilliant as Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese and Tsui Hark; but Wong, at his best (when given the right push, money and time), is a great director!

* U.K. based film fan/Hong Kong movie club owner.

** This is an applicable comparison because the one thing Ratt's album and Wong Jing's film have in common is that both are classics of the genre but timing meant that commercial success fell short of expectations. Had both been released earlier on, they would have received their dues commercially and critically.

*** Coincidentally produced by Wong Jing.


BEN POPPEL'S REVIEW: This movie was a very interesting to say the least. It had the 'Better Tomorrow' title slapped on it to sell more tickets. While there were some surprisingly good shootouts in the film, I still don't think it quite lived up to the name. And what is up with all the slow mo' in the film. I just don't understand why directors think they have to slow the movie down during dramatic fight scenes. It rarely ever works to any advantage. While the cover art for the film was good, it was kind of false advertising because it showed Michael Wong on the front, and he didn't show up till almost an hour into the film. That is alright, he didn't need to be in the film anymore than that anyways...

Ok enough about bashing the film - despite some minor flaws, this was actually a pretty good movie for the most part. The two main characters: Ekin Cheng and the almost always flawless, Lau Ching Wan, were superb in their kind of "reversal of power" roles they established throughout the film. I was really surprised by Ekin's acting - it was pretty good, almost better than his Young and Dangerous roles. Chingmay Yau's part in the film was also fairly good, but kind of left us wanting her to go away towards the latter half of the movie, as she turned into a drug addict. The cute little girl ,who was the daughter, had some very memorable and shocking scenes in the movie.

What got me was how everything molded together : story, characters, setting, action and "triad themes", to make for an above average HK production. This movie won't be on many top ten lists or become a movie to watch over and over but it is a pretty fun ride the first time through. If you want to watch this movie, ignore the title and don't' expect much then you may find it entertaining - otherwise, you may just think of it as a bunch of Wong Jing crap! Good but not great.