From some of the boldest music choices to drastic switches in tone of cinematography to one of the most interesting shootout scenes in a while, A Better Tomorrow 2018英雄本色 2018 felt like a firework so bursting with life that it left me too busy savoring every minute details of brilliance to think about its flaws. You can just feel how much love and thought director Ding Sheng and the cast put into every scene. Even all the jokes avoid lazy one-liners but instead are all carefully set-up earlier to land perfectly.
Spoiler level: little more than what you would know from the trailers
The film itself is loosely based on the 1986 film by John Woo. While the overall story is the same, the tone is completely different. This one is louder, more fun, yet somehow has more grounded characters that loses some of the dramatic feel but still tells the story.
The boldest and most perfectly cast character in the film is the nepotism casting of Qingdao, the director’s hometown and a port city that’s also the beer capital of China (it was colonized by the Germans). Far from the rough, gritty urban streets of Hong Kong, the sprawling seaside port of Qingdao brings to the film more vibrant and boisterous street tales and a sense of lostness on the sea. The city is used as a story-telling device so much that it’s hard to imagine the story being told anywhere else. Every aspect of the city is used, from a cool boat chase scene earlier on, to the contrast between Zhou Kai’s floating boat home and Zhou Chao’s grounded home, to Zhou Kai’s post and Ma Ke’s post-heist jobs both involving the sea, to its apparently very cool underground water system that sets as a location for several key scenes. All of those combine to form the theme of the story is brotherhood as a harbor, a haven for you no matter how far you’ve sailed.
Wang Kai gives one of his strongest performance yet as Zhou Kai, a reformed smuggler trying to make mends with his cop brother (Ma Tianyu) and his buddy Ma Ke (Darren Wang). I didn’t even recognize Zhou Kai voice at the beginning because it sounded nothing like Wang Kai, and Wang Kai has a very recognizable voice. There are certainly notable details that he added to his character, like wiping his feet and leaving his bags on the placemat when entering his home (now his brother and girlfriend’s) after returning from prison. But for the most part, it just felt so natural. After the rather mediocre The Devotion of Suspect X, I had almost forgotten how good Wang Kai could be at acting. Not for a moment did I feel like he was giving the performance of his life, because it never feels like a performance. No lengthy monologues, no psychotic personalities, just Zhou Kai being Zhou Kai, an ordinary person in extraordinary situations.
The film feels completely different from the 1986 version. The synopsis is the same, and that’s about it. The film knows its limits. Instead of trying to replicate the classic Chow Yun-fat role, Darren Wang’s Ma Ke is a completely different but still lovable character. Darren Wang plays his forte as a street punk with a heart of a gold, and completely sold it. He did all his punchlines in character, and mostly sold emotional scenes. There was also shootout scene that he got to do that’s nothing short of iconic, and he did not disappoint. A few of his mini-monologues could’ve used better delivery, but this is easily his best performances yet (although to be fair, that bar is not that high).
Compared to his co-stars, Ma Tianyu’s performance was not so smooth-sailing. It’s unfortunate because his role actually has a lot of room for character development, but Ma Tianyu was able to do the perfunctory acting as an officer and a little brother and that’s it. There were three key scenes that jumped out as stagey, and two of them were due to Ma Tianyu’s facial expressions (or lack there of). In one scene, an incapacitated Zhou Kai conveyed more emotion with his eyes alone than a fully conscious Zhou Chao with his whole body and face. Luckily, Ma Tianyu looks the part and did fine enough in most of the other scenes (and pulled off his other two key emotional scenes) to not be too much of a distraction.
The last scene that felt off was mostly due to poor martial arts choreography. The film is produced by Jackie Chan’s company, so of course it is choreographed by Jackie Chan’s team. Unfortunately, the hand-to-hand combat scenes had way too many edits for me to tell how good the choreography is, and at least one shootout had people falling weirdly. Two highly-stylized shootout scenes were amazingly edited, though, combining the beats and performances Peking opera and geisha dance with gunshots and punches.
It’s a delight to see any director to use music as a character, a punchline, and to define mood, and Ding Sheng does all of those. The bold music uses mostly paid off, especially in all the fight/chase/shootout scenes. On the other hand, the use of hymns in two scenes felt out-of-place for a modern Chinese film, and the main theme was overused. Wang Leehom’s theme song (penned by the director) was perfect for the scene it was used for. Either way, I was just excited to see a Chinese director unafraid to use music.
A Better Tomorrow 2018 may be far from perfect, but it gave me so much to love that I don’t care. The film opened in China on January 18th, in the U.S. and Canada on the 19th , and will open in Australia and New Zealand on the 25th.
note: This review has been edited twice to add more of my rambling thoughts.