By Lee Hyo-won
When Song Hae-seong
was first approached to direct the remake of John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow
, 1986", he flatly refused. Why try measuring up to a classic that has come to define Hong Kong noir?
But the South Korean version "A Better Tomorrow
" certainly has "its own character and own soul, and many new elements" ― just as Woo himself introduced it at its world premiere last week at the Venice Film Festival. He stepped onboard as the film's executive producer alongside Terence Chang, who produced the 1986 original.
The new movie is propelled by an entirely different strain of macho action and intense emotional conflict. It's a quintessentially Korean "han"-driven melodrama rooted in the tragedy of a divided country, and the characters' otherwise disquieting "bromance" is validated by their North Korean refugee status. What sets it apart, however, also ends up setting its own trap ― the film runs rather long but devotes little time to explain circumstances that audiences outside of Korea may find baffling, thus muddling the central drama.
Hyeok (Joo Jin-mo
in the original Ti Lung
role) is a North Korean defector who has become a key figure in a Busan crime ring. Though he seems to be leading an exciting life in the fast lane with inseparable buddy Yeong-chun (Song Seung-heon
replacing Chow Yun-fat), Hyeok is haunted by the guilt of having abandoned his family up North. He finally reunites with his younger brother Cheol (Kim Kang-woo
in the Leslie Cheung part) when the latter also crosses down the demarcation line, but his kinsman wants nothing else than to kill him.
Meanwhile, Tae-min (Jo Han-sun
playing Waise Lee's character), who is hungry to climb the gang hierarchy, accompanies Hyeok for a new project to Thailand. But Hyeok ends up in prison due to Tae-min's betrayal, and Yeong-chun is heavily wounded while taking revenge for his friend.
Three years later, Hyeok returns to find Yeong-chun washing cars with a lame leg, while Cheol has become a policeman keeping tabs on Tae-min and his notorious deals. Tragedy ensues as Yeong-chun eyes an opportunity to make a big comeback in the underworld while Hyeok tries all he can to stay away from it, and Cheol is determined to crack down the crime scene while Tae-min schemes to make everyone's life miserable.
Though the no-cut skirmishes provide for an action-packed spectacle, the dramatic arc is pushed forth by tensions among the characters. Joo ("A Frozen Flower
") gives his most compelling performance to date as a tortured Hamlet of sorts while Song manages to redeem his pitiful tough guy facade from the punch bag flick "Fate"
― despite being the one delegated to pay homage (sometimes rather comically) to the Hong Kong noir with a pair of aviator shades, artsy cigarette puffs and a long raincoat (enter wind, for dramatic effect). Kang is also convincing as an ambivalent cop and Jo gives fine touches to his dorky villain persona.
The fraternal bond and conflicting interests among the men are intensified by the fact that, save for the bad guy Tae-min, they are North Korean refugees and thus marginalized in the South. The film unfortunately does not make full use of this rich background information to push forth character development. For example, it could have been used to explain Yeong-chun's obsessive ambitions and undying devotion to Hyeok, and thus render less comical the bromance triangle in which he is less than happy with Cheol, "the lucky bastard" who is fully entitled to Hyeok's love by the sole fact he shares blood ties.
The updated version may strike an interest among those who swear by Hong Kong noir ― and are ready to claw at the faults of remakes ― or the diehard followers of its hallyu cast who are ready to drool. It does however make a rather apt opening for Chuseok at home, to attract those curious to see what all the hype is about, and even the most jaded cynics might be surprisingly convinced that its star actors can be more than just pretty faces.